Thursday, 23 April 2009

Ceisteanna (10, 11)

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Ceist:

8 Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will make funding available to a group (details supplied). [15861/09]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Damien English

Ceist:

39 Deputy Damien English asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the assistance he has given to Gaza since the ceasefire; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14693/09]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (16 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Foreign)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 39 together.

The conflict in Gaza has had devastating humanitarian consequences for the civilian population. It should also be recalled that, even prior to the recent conflict, Gaza was experiencing a serious humanitarian crisis due to the economic blockade by Israel and the effective isolation of the territory from the outside world.

At the international conference in support of the Palestinian economy for the reconstruction of Gaza, which was held in Egypt on 2 March, I pledged €2.5 million in funding to meet immediate humanitarian and recovery needs of the people of Gaza. Some €500,000 of this pledge was disbursed at an early stage of the conflict to a humanitarian response fund administered by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Since the beginning of the year, this fund has supported 19 emergency response projects in Gaza, operated by both non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, in sectors such as health, food and psychosocial support. Following the ceasefire and in response to a flash appeal co-ordinated by the UN, Irish Aid provided a further €1 million in support of the humanitarian activities of the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. UNRWA is the UN agency charged with responsibility for the welfare of all Palestinian refugees and it has been at the centre of the response to the Gaza crisis, where over 70% of the population are refugees.

I have earmarked a further €1 million in support of Gaza's recovery and reconstruction. The timing of disbursement will depend on the extent to which recovery programmes can be adequately implemented. Unfortunately, the closure of Gaza's border crossings continues to impede recovery and reconstruction programmes — a concern I have consistently highlighted, including to the Israeli authorities and in discussions with EU colleagues.

The support I have outlined is in addition to Irish Aid's broader programme of assistance for the Palestinian people. This includes support for a number of partners working specifically to promote and protect the human rights of the people of Gaza, including the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and Gisha, an Israeli NGO which seeks to protect freedom of movement for Palestinians. Total Irish Aid funding to the Palestinian people in 2008 amounted to over €8.6 million. During the first four months of 2009, more than €6.2 million in assistance for the Palestinian people has already been disbursed or allocated.

Irish Aid has taken a deliberate strategic decision to support the people of Gaza in the current challenging circumstances through well-established and experienced partners. Working through organisations with existing field capacity, a comprehensive understanding of the local context, and a proven track record in delivering assistance to the most vulnerable is the most effective way of ensuring that aid can reach those most in need.

Officials from my Department have already met with representatives of the group under reference by the Deputy and have explained to them the strategic rationale for providing assistance to the people of Gaza through our pre-existing network of partnerships.

I welcome the aid given by the Government and acknowledge the Minister's statement. I congratulate others who have tried to ensure aid gets to Gaza, which is still under a siege imposed against international law. There was a humanitarian crisis in the area prior to the recent onslaught by Israel, which the attack has worsened.

Does the Minister agree that it would be appropriate for some government to make a gesture towards a group such as the Free Gaza Movement, which has organised siege-breaking trips from Cyprus on boats, one of which was rammed in December to a great cost for the charitable organisation? Would it not be appropriate for the Government to fund the fuel for one of those trips or even encourage the Irish Naval Service to escort the vessels when they go in a flotilla in May? When I and a colleague of the Minister's, Deputy Chris Andrews, travelled on one such boat, the Israeli navy shadowed us most of the way in.

I have already indicated that it is not the core programme of Irish Aid to support such a movement. In essence, it seems the Free Gaza Movement is an advocacy group that engages in very high-profile events such as the flotillas identified by the Deputy.

The preponderance of our aid goes through the Palestinian Authority, with aid supporting its governance functions in the West Bank and Gaza. Much of our aid goes to UNRWA, which targets education and health centres in Gaza itself. There are also a number of NGOs, which I outlined.

We must be careful that we allocate aid in a strategic and focused way and do not spread our wings too far, giving out minute grants to everybody. We must get greater value for money and better outputs and outcomes by working with strategic partners.

Will the Minister indicate before we finish how the Government is advancing what I feel is a consensus on the investigation of war crimes in the recent conflict on both sides? In a recent visit by Mr. John Ging, the leading UNRWA specialist, to the foreign affairs committee, he mentioned that in the pledging conference that took place, the issue was not money but rather that less than 10% of what had been pledged could get through.

With regard to the Minister's reply on aid which has been facilitated by Ireland, it is right to use the word "siege". UNRWA has stated the need and secured commitments and pledges. UNRWA has cement and so forth but it is being denied a border crossing. What is that if it is not a siege?

I did not pick up the Deputy's first question.

It concerned investigation of war crimes.

My first point concerned where we are on what I believe is a common demand for an investigation — as made by the Secretary General of the United Nations — as to whether war crimes had been committed on both sides in the recent conflict.

He set up a panel of inquiry, as the Deputy knows.

Where are we in that regard?

I do not have an outcome to the best of my knowledge. I will check on it and come back to the Deputy. The conference referred to by the Deputy pledged a significant amount and I met with Mr. John Ging on his recent visit. The issue for UNRWA is access.

Mr. Ging is one of my most distinguished students.

Is that right? The Deputy deserves considerable credit.

I spoke with Javier Solana yesterday, the European Union official responsible for European security and defence policy. He spoke very highly of Mr. Ging and the role he played during the Gaza conflict.

I am very proud of him.

He was very courageous and principled and he is a man of great integrity. He was a very important touchstone for us during the conflict as he was on the ground. The investigations are ongoing with regard to the shelling near or approximate to the UNRWA schools.

What he and Karen Koning AbuZayd of UNRWA have raised is the fact that in some instances, even stationary has not been allowed into schools, which defies any comprehension in my view. I do not understand any of this logic which prevents badly needed materials for schools. It is not in anybody's long-term or strategic interest. There is no excuse for that. The Deputy is correct in that the issue is not so much the volume of aid but getting the aid in.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.