Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 16 October 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Syrian Conflict: Discussion with Minister of State at Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe Costello, and his officials to the meeting. We are all aware of the horror story in Syria and the ongoing issues in the region, which we see daily on our televisions. The Minister of State has only recently returned from a visit to the Middle East and his attendance today is particularly timely. We have had several meetings on this issue in recent times. I call on the Minister of State to give his presentation and we will then have a question and answer session.
I thank the Chairman. I am very pleased to be here today to address the committee. I was in the Middle East and in Lebanon last week. I am delighted to have the opportunity to give the committee the up-to-date account of my experiences there.
My main purpose in travelling to the region was to visit the occupied Palestinian territory and to see for myself the Irish Aid programme there. I also, however, took the opportunity to visit Lebanon and to maintain the strong focus and attention that the Government has placed on responding to the humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing conflict in Syria. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade had been in Turkey earlier and last year I was in Jordan. We have had a fairly strong presence in the surrounding countries. During my visit I announced an additional contribution of €3 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria. This announcement has brought Ireland's support to almost €40 million, making us one of the world's most generous donors to the Syrian problem on a per capita basis.
As we look towards the donor pledging conference for Syria, which will come up in January 2014, my visit offered an opportunity to demonstrate Ireland's continued leadership and commitment to responding to one of the most complex humanitarian situations in the world today. As the Chairman is aware, my visit coincided with a period of heightened international focus on the region and I was keen to see for myself the impact of the ongoing Syrian crisis in particular on Palestinian refugees. The scale of the Syrian conflict and its devastating humanitarian consequences continues to outstrip forecasts and planning scenarios. This crisis continues to have a serious impact, not just on Syria where more than 100,000 people have been killed and almost 7 million displaced, but on the wider region where neighbouring countries such as Lebanon continue to bear an almost impossible burden.
My visit took place as Syria marks almost three years of devastating conflict. Since the violence began, more than 2.1 million have fled the country into neighbouring Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and across north Africa. More than one third of the people of Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and the most pressing needs are protection, health care, shelter, food, water and sanitation. An estimated 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria. Among these are 235,000 Palestinian refugees, approximately half the total number of Palestinians within the country.
The purpose of my visit to Lebanon was to get a better sense of the efforts being made to address the unprecedented and appalling humanitarian needs on the ground. I was deeply conscious that political tensions are never far from the surface across this region. Lebanon, with a population of only 4.3 million, has been fractured by almost two decades of civil war and the country remains fragile. It has found itself increasingly affected by the Syrian conflict through the large-scale influx of Syrian refugees and its border region has frequently been subject to shelling. Lebanon receives the highest number of refugees in the region. A country of 4.3 million persons now hosts 768,175 refugees. At the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, registration office in Beirut I saw that thousands of people continue to arrive every day, seeking life-saving assistance from the United Nations. In fact the UNHCR now estimates that with current trends the country will host 1 million refugees by the end of the year. That is equivalent to almost one quarter of Lebanon's current population.
This visit gave me an opportunity to demonstrate Ireland's support to key partner agencies such as United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, and while in Beirut, I announced €500,000 of financial assistance for its Lebanon programme and a further €500,000 for the work of UNHCR. As winter approaches I was assured that the Irish contribution will be of great assistance in meeting essential needs for protective items such as blankets, tents and other essentials.
A major challenge in Lebanon is the fact that the majority of refugees are hosted in communities that even before this crisis were among the poorest in the country. Local capacities are increasingly stretched. Reaching out to populations not residing in formal camp settings is a major challenge. Both host and refugee populations in the country have been affected by increasing pressure on health and education systems, housing, employment opportunities and food prices. The Lebanese Government fears that resentment is building among host communities and that the needs of those communities should be better addressed by the international community as we work to provide assistance and service to refugees. In addition to the continuous arrival of Syrian refugees, Lebanon has experienced several influxes of Palestinian refugees from Syria, totalling some 48,000 on top of the pre-existing caseload of 440,000 Palestinians in Lebanon since before the Syrian crisis. The vast majority of these newly arrived Palestinians have been displaced more than once within Syria before even crossing the border. Most are housed in informal shanty towns and enjoy few legal rights.
A highlight of my visit to Lebanon was a tour of the UNRWA managed Burj Barajneh refugee camp located on the outskirts of Beirut, which is home to more than 16,000 people. I was shocked at the poor and crowded conditions of the camp, which is prone to flooding with its narrow streets and dysfunctional sewerage system. I visited the home of a Palestinian refugee who had escaped the war in Syria with his family. I was impressed that, despite the ongoing shortage of humanitarian resources, this family has been able to benefit from basic food, health care and education services through Irish and other donor assistance. I also visited Tulkarm school in the refugee camp where I had the opportunity to learn more about UNRWA's education system and to meet Palestinian refugee pupils from Syria. I met a little girl called Palestine, aged six, whose family had finally decided to flee Daraa when their home was burnt to the ground.
These are the human faces behind the appalling statistics we read every day.
At a political level, the visit provided me with an opportunity to meet with Wael Abou Faour, Minister of Social Affairs for Lebanon. Minister Faour repeatedly emphasised the danger of losing the support of host communities in Lebanon and expressed concern at the limited options available to the Lebanese government if a critical level of refugees entering the country is reached in the coming months. The meeting provided me with an important opportunity to express Ireland's recognition and gratitude to the Lebanese Government for having maintained an open-border policy for those seeking refuge from the war.
On behalf of the Irish people, I commended the Lebanese people for their generosity in hosting such significant numbers of refugees, and I acknowledged the great strain that this is placing upon national social infrastructure and services. I agreed with Minister Faour that a strengthened comprehensive regional response - and increased support to host countries - is crucial to defusing any growing tensions that could further exacerbate an already entrenched and complicated conflict.
I will now deal with my visit to the occupied Palestinian territory. During the course of a busy four-day visit to the occupied Palestinian territory, I had an opportunity to see for myself the conditions on the ground and how Ireland is contributing to meeting urgent, as well as ongoing, chronic needs. I met with a cross-section of civil society organisations, both Israeli and Palestinian, humanitarian actors from the UN and NGO fraternity, as well as local community representatives who told me about the real-life effects of the occupation on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Palestinian men and women.
I held a series of high-level meetings with senior Palestinian Government representatives. I also visited Gaza where I discussed the continuing humanitarian crisis with both UNRWA and civil society, and paid a field visit to Hebron and the surrounding region.
In the occupied Palestinian territory, the humanitarian situation continues to be precarious as the key drivers of vulnerability remain in place. Limited access to essential services, entrenched levels of food insecurity and serious protection and human rights concerns continue to characterise the day-to-day lives of many Palestinians. Currently, over half of households in Gaza and one fifth of households in the West Bank are food-insecure because of restrictions on mobility which put sufficient and nutritious food out of reach for many.
I learned from my various meetings that the search for peace remains the overriding political priority within the region. I was glad of the opportunity to be briefed on the ongoing US-facilitated peace talks by the Palestinian government representatives I met, including Dr. Saeb Erekat who is the chief negotiator on the Palestinian side and intimately involved in current efforts. I assured the chief negotiator that Ireland and our EU partners are fully supportive of the current talks process as well as of the intense diplomatic engagement by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the US Administration, which succeeded in relaunching the talks at the end of July. The Tánaiste has emphasised Ireland's full support for the current process in his address to the UN General Assembly last month.
Dr. Erekat briefed me on progress in the current talks. The actual details of the negotiations are not being publicised at the request of both sides and of the US, in order to build confidence and create room for meaningful dialogue. Dr. Erekat did assure me, however, that all core issues are now being addressed and he confirmed that both sides are engaging intensively and in good faith. It is far too early to say whether the current process will succeed, given that we are less than three months into a negotiating process due to last nine months.
I can certainly affirm the seriousness of intent on the Palestinian side. Dr. Erekat also expressed to me his appreciation for the supportive role played by the EU, and his hope that the EU can have an important role in underwriting any agreement that may eventually be reached.
There is widespread belief within the region and more generally that the Kerry initiative may represent the last opportunity to bring about a just negotiated peace deal resulting in a viable two-state solution. The continuation of the occupation and Israel's failure to halt or reverse in any meaningful way its current settlement policies have cast increasing doubt over whether a two-state solution is attainable. Such doubts were certainly evident in the discussions I had with the various interlocutors during my visit.
I also discussed the Middle East peace process with Prime Minister Hamdallah. The Prime Minister briefed me on the current economic situation in the occupied Palestinian territory and the continuing efforts of the Palestinian Authority to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state and strengthen its economy. During the meeting, I was happy to announce further funding of €1.5 million to the Palestinian Authority in the current year, to be channelled through an EU-administered mechanism, which will go towards supporting public service salaries and pensions as well as social allowances for vulnerable families.
My discussions with Foreign Minister Malki also covered the current peace talks as well as regional issues, where I briefed him on my visit to Lebanon and our ongoing substantial humanitarian support to the Syrian crisis, including the many thousands of Palestinians who have been displaced as a result.
I used the opportunity of my meeting with the foreign minister to discuss how we can extend areas of practical co-operation between Ireland and the occupied Palestinian territory. The Palestinian side is keen to mobilise the diaspora, so I briefed the foreign minister on discussions which took place at the third Global Irish Forum earlier this month. I also mentioned that the Irish Government was looking forward to exploring the scope for closer co-operation with the new Palestinian ambassador/head of mission, Ahmad Abdelrazek, who is due to present credentials shortly.
Also in Ramallah, I participated in a round-table discussion on 8 October with a number of Palestinian and Israeli human rights NGOs which Irish Aid supports through our human rights and democratisation programme. This was a useful opportunity to hear about the actual situation on the ground and the continuing serious impact on ordinary Palestinians of the Israeli occupation, the continued expansion of settlements and such practices as demolitions, evictions and the ongoing blockade of Gaza.
Committee members will be aware that Ireland has been active at EU level in encouraging continuing close attention to such matters. We have consistently argued that a failure to address and persuade Israel to move away from policies and practices inimical to peace will only adversely affect the prospects for an overall peace deal and for the attainment of a viable two-state solution.
An issue of major concern to the Palestinian Authority and people is the situation of the approximately 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody. We know well here in Ireland the overall importance of such issues and of encouraging those who are detained to play a positive, constructive role in support of any peace process. I welcomed the opportunity to discuss such issues with the Minister for Prisoners and ex-Prisoners' Affairs, Mr. Issa Qaraqe, who himself served ten years in Israeli prisons during the 1980s.
My visit to Gaza confirmed my assessment that the ongoing political turmoil and insecurity in the wider region is resulting in a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in that narrow strip of land. I learnt how the ongoing instability and change of leadership in Egypt has let to restrictions in access for imports to Gaza and, in particular, a reduced flow of essential items such as fuel, which is leading to higher prices and further hardship in Gaza.
I met with Palestinian refugees in Gaza City to hear how the blockade is impacting on their lives and to learn about their needs and hopes for the future. High unemployment, particularly among young people, low wages and high food prices are all major concerns. Food security, however, is the principal cause for alarm. More than 800,000 of the over 1.2 million Palestine refugees in Gaza receive food assistance from UNRWA.
I was able to see this vital work at first hand during my visit to a distribution centre in the Nuseirat refugee camp. The support provides a lifeline for thousands of refugee families in Gaza and the demand for UNRWA's services has grown as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
In recognition of the current humanitarian needs in Gaza, I approved funding of €500,000 for UNRWA's Gaza Emergency Appeal for 2013, bringing Ireland's total contribution to UNRWA'S appeals for Gaza to €4.64 million since 2006.
In East Jerusalem, my Middle East visit concluded with a meeting with the Head of United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, in the occupied Palestinian territories who described the operational challenges faced by the UN and their impact on the delivery of assistance. OCHA is an important partner for Ireland in supporting humanitarian action, particularly with respect to co-ordination, needs assessment and response planning. I was pleased to announce funding of €300,000 to support OCHA's relief operations in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Long-term, sustainable development in the occupied Palestinian territories is, of course, dependent on a successful outcome to the ongoing political negotiations. Ireland will continue to actively support the search for a lasting and peaceful political solution in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as in the wider region, but in the meantime will continue to offer the humanitarian support which is essential in addressing the ongoing basic needs of the Palestinian people.
I thank the Minister of State for a comprehensive report on his recent visit. It reminds us of our own visit to the region in June. I note the Minister had a very busy itinerary which did not include a meeting with Israeli officials. Was there any particular reason there was no meeting with Israeli officials during his five-day stay in the Middle East?
We decided that this would be purely under my development hat and that we would keep to Lebanon, the occupied territories and Gaza. In the relatively short time that was available for me it could be perceived as tokenistic if I was to meet a small number of Israeli officials. That is something we would hope to do on a future occasion.
I welcome the Minister of State's detailed report on his visit to the Middle East. It was an important visit. I welcome the fact that he and the Tánaiste continue to highlight the terrible humanitarian disaster in Syria and adjoining regions. I welcome also the fact that Ireland continues its support in a very positive manner through overseas development assistance to ease some of the humanitarian disaster in that region. In the opening paragraphs of his contribution, the Minister of State mentioned a donor pledging conference for Syria in January in 2014. I hope that conference reviews the pledges that have been made and not honoured by some major countries. We know from previous discussions both here and in the House the position in regard to the Irish contribution and also the EU's role as a substantial donor. In his concluding remarks he referred to the political turmoil and the humanitarian disaster. It is important that the humanitarian disaster in Syria and adjoining regions continues to be highlighted. Some of our non-governmental organisations such as Trocaire work with sister organisations in those areas and their work is to be commended.
During the time the Minister of State was in the Middle East the World Bank issued a report claiming that Israeli restrictions are costing the Palestinian economy €3.4 billion on an annual basis. It is obvious that those restrictions undermine the generous support Ireland gives to the Palestinian Authority. Such restrictions curtail the effectiveness and sustainability of this development assistance.
It is not mine. If the Minister of State has not been apprised of the report perhaps he would report back to us through correspondence or whatever. Perhaps he would let us know if the EU or other donor states are raising these issues in regard to the hindrance of progress.
On the issue of the banning of settlement products, is Ireland taking any particular steps on banning such products from the EU? Is Ireland continuing to push for the labelling of settlement products at EU level or are we taking any initiatives within our own competence? I think Britain and Denmark did some work in this area but I do not know how effective it is or whether it has been implemented. The whole area of banning and labelling of settlement products is very important and needs to be addressed. Is unilateral action being considered or formal advice being given to Irish businesses to discourage investment or financial links with the settlements? I think a message should go out to Irish companies that have business links in those areas.
In regard to the Gaza blockade, is pressure being applied on the Israeli and Egyptian governments? I welcome the Minister of State's statement and the fact that he visited the region.
Go raibh maith agat. Recently a fatwa, religious edict, was released allowing people to eat dog and cat meat. This is a reflection of the reality that people were suffering on the ground. The situation in Lebanon is that up to one million people have fled from Syria into Lebanon, approximately 2,500 people per day.
It is not my telephone. Will the Minister of State explain its impact on Lebanese society. We know the Lebanese economy is in difficulty. I am informed that trading with Syria has almost stopped, the deficit is getting bigger and there are huge difficulties within the country. While the Minister of State was in the area, a report released by Oxfam, Shifting Sands, mentioned the changing gender roles among refugees in the Lebanon and the difficulty that is causing. One of the issues raised in the report in respect of aid was that traditionally the funding or cheque went through the male. The difficulty is that among many of the refugees there is not a male. Can the recommendations of the report be examined? It deals with issues such as promoting gender equality, limiting women's participation in social, economic and political life and the difficulties in that area. Perhaps we could look at the accountability of the programme to ensure it is open to everyone, that women will be included and that there will be an outreach to those women who are currently not getting aid.
Another issue that strikes me in regard to the aid programme in Lebanon is that no aid goes to poor Lebanese families, despite the fact that the economy is in crisis. There is instability in the country arising from a number of civil wars and there are difficulties arising. Given that it has one million refugees I do not know how the country is holding itself together. It has no camps and is not opening camps, although there are camps for Palestinians. People are having to live in garages and anywhere there is space, all of which is impacting on society. We know that if there is a huge influx of people, the price of food and accommodation increases. That in itself creates tension within society as well as religious difficulties. Is the Minister of State worried about the outbreak of even more violence by some of those groups who, clearly, are active within the Syrian conflict?
Was there a discussion on the potential of the situation in the Al Aqsa Mosque in Palestine flaring up to another Intifada? I welcome the statement on the discussion of the core issues. The big worry is that these talks are going through the motions whereas at the same time the settlement problem is going ahead . I would like to know what Ireland will do about that problem or has that question been asked.already?
I too thank the Minister of State for coming before us to update us on his visit to the Middle East. I wish to follow on from some of the previous questions. Is he satisfied that the international community is availing of Lebanon and adjoining countries to facilitate the refugees from Syria? It is difficult to support the refugees in Syria for all the stated reasons. Is the international community, however, sufficiently committed to supporting the refugees in the Lebanon and adjoining countries with a view to ensuring that hardship is minimised?
The Minister of State mentioned he visited one community during his visit to Gaza. In order to reassure all involved in the international process, is he satisfied that adequate regard is being had for the groups such as Christians or Israelis in the area who may feel aggrieved at the possibility of somebody from the international community, with the best of the intentions visiting one side only? In regard to the recently discovered tunnel from Gaza into Israel, has the purpose of that exercise been satisfactorily explained? Members have received e-mails from people who have expressed concerns in that area. I am sure the Minister of State has received them also. It would do no harm if he could indicate the degree to which the ongoing peace process in the area is being supported without restriction, by all involved, that is the Israelis, Hamas and Palestinians. A peaceful resolution cannot be achieved unless there is a commitment from everybody. To what extent is that commitment evident? To what extent can the international community support those who are committed to that concept?
To what extent are the fears of the various interested parties on all sides of that conflict assuages as to the direction and progress of the peace process? I know there is a question of secrecy at this stage due to sensitivity. Can signals be given to the participating groups as to the extent to which their particular interests are being observed and recognised and taken into account?
When we visited that area previously, questions on prisoners in Israeli prisons, prisoners in Palestinian camps, prisoners of the various combatant groups who were in most times held without trial, and the international regulations not being observed in the normal way were a significant issue. To what extent has the international community engaged and continued to engage in that area on an ongoing basis?
I thank Deputies for their questions. In response to Deputy Brenda Smith's question on the donor pledging conference, we held one already and another will take place in January 2014. Deputy Smith also tabled a parliamentary question in the Dáil on this matter. Ireland fully honours all its pledges. There is never a question about it. We are renowned for it. It is not necessarily the same with some other countries. Some countries make pledges but do not honour them in full or at all. That gives rise to concern. We know that some of the pledges that were made in the previous conference have not been honoured at this point.
The host country made an original pledge of €300 million, a significant figure that mobilised a large number of funds, but normally roughly 70% of pledges are honoured. If all of the pledges were honoured it would make things a lot easier. We emphasise at all times the need to honour pledges in full.
The United Nations states the situation in Syria is the worst international conflict since the fall of the Iron Curtain. A third of the population is displaced within the country or are refugees outside the country. Deputy Crowe put the figures at roughly 2. 5 million people but when we were in Lebanon, we were told that at least 3 million people are crossing the border every day into one country alone. It was a trickle the last time I was in Jordan in August 2012, and there were 16,000 people in Zaatari camp, whereas there are now over 160,000 people in that camp.
Lebanon takes a different approach and has an open border, instead of having camps as Turkey and Jordan. People flow through Lebanon to a different degree. The only real camp in Lebanon is the Burj el-Barajneh camp, which is for the Palestinians. There are about 0.5 million Palestinian people in the Damascus area, half of whom are now displaced . They are beginning to head across the border into Lebanon, where there is already a very large number of Palestinians from previous conflicts and is creating problems. This is also happening in Jordan, which has about 2 million Palestinians from the 1948 and 1967 wars.
It is a major humanitarian crisis. The pressure this crisis is putting on Lebanon is not just a humanitarian issue of having to feed the refugees and provide camps, food, shelter and blankets for them, but also a question of the impact on the existing infrastructure. The problems associated with the influx of large numbers of refugees seeking accommodation and jobs places an enormous burden on an infrastructure that is fragile at the best of times in Lebanon and Jordan.
The message from the Minister for Social Affairs we met was loud and clear that the international community must not only recognise that there is a humanitarian crisis in Syria but that there is an infrastructural crisis and a service crisis in the neighbouring countries - the host countries - which are accepting the refugees. That is a massive problem because it has given rise to resentment and could lead to the situation where the borders would have to be closed to ensure violence does not break out in the host countries. They were anxious that we would convey to the European Union, Ireland and the international community the importance of providing both humanitarian aid and supports and resources to the host countries in order that the burden would not be too onerous on them, because currently it is extraordinarily onerous on them.
With regard to Trócaire, Irish agencies have begun to get involved. It has been difficult to do so because of the limited access. We work through the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the United Nations. They are the main organisations we work through. Our NGOs, Trócaire, Oxfam and Concern, have permission from the Turkish authorities to cross the border and provide assistance as well. Those are new developments and we are in the process of funding them in respect of the work they are doing.
I have seen the World Bank report and its findings were strongly articulated to all the political figures we met, from the Prime Minister through to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The perception stated by the World Bank is the control of area C, not even the entire occupied territories but area C which is an area that is controlled by the Israelis, in itself, because it borders Jordan and takes in the Dead Sea, would be able to provide €3.4 billion per annum which would be of enormous benefit to the lives of the Palestinians. This is something the Palestinian Authority and the public representatives told us because we had not seen it at that time. It was coming out as we were arriving. They told of how important it would be that they would have control of their own destinies in that respect because they could engage in activities to utilise water and energy resources. Also, the Dead Sea is the source of a great number of products that are sold on the international market, and all of these activities could assist in building up the economy of the occupied territories. That is something on which the international community must focus now that all of this has been articulated.
Regarding the banning of settlement products, we are actively involved with the European Union on that issue to try to get agreement on it, to get the products labelled in order that the international community can know from where they come and that they are not simply described as Israeli products. These are the products that are made in the settlements, often on land that belongs to the Palestinians and often Palestinian workers have produced them. That is an issue we believe must be dealt with at EU level and we have been pushing that issue over a period. We got agreement on the guidelines in terms of the research and development which we were told by everybody we met was enormously beneficial in ensuring pressure was maintained on Israel to be serious about them in the negotiations. This was major leverage which was effective.
I understand Irish companies have been discouraged from investment in any of the settlements and that the European Union has done some work on giving advice to businesses on this issue. Ireland is actively contributing to these discussions and encouraging steps in this direction.
On the issue of the Gaza blockade, it is a fundamental issue that Gaza is cut off from the rest of the Palestinian territories. The blockage, if anything, has got tighter because the tunnels into Egypt have been 80% to 85% closed. Therefore, necessary materials such as fuel, in particular, building and other materials have ceased to come in. It has tightened up everything and reduced levels of employment in the area. Nutrition and food provision are major issues. Some 800,000 out of the 1.2 million people in the area are being fed by UNRWA, which is an incredible humanitarian issue in its own right. We saw all of that. The situation in Gaza is not improving. There has been a very slight easing of some of the border restrictions into Israel but the pressures are enormous there.
On the question of funding, by and large many of the people coming through from Syria would have women as heads of the household, as a lot of men have been killed. We met a family of six, five children and a woman. The father, a veterinary surgeon, went out, never came back and was presumed killed months after. A boy in the family was 13 years of age and the fear was that he would be press-ganged into armed forces, on one side or the other. Therefore the family headed for the border as quickly as they could because some of the forces were approaching their area. That is a typical situation. Many households have suffered to a great degree from the head of household becoming a casualty. There are safety net programmes in place and these are given through the female, as they are given through the male. Therefore, gender equality is exercised under the UNRWA approach in that respect.
On the question of aid for poor Lebanese families, that is more or less the same problem as the one I mentioned. The number of poor Lebanese families is a serious issue. There is a humanitarian crisis in terms of the refugees who go to Lebanon or the displaced persons there, and sufficient cognisance has not been given to the poor Lebanese families and the poor Jordanian families who, in many ways, bear a very heavy burden at times. They may lose their jobs because they have been undercut by people who have come into their country and because services have been greatly reduced. That issue must be built into the equation for the future.
The talks which have been ongoing for three months are a major issue, and I might finish on this point. We met Dr. Erekat, the chief negotiator on the Palestinian side, and discussed the talks with him. We also met the Prime Minister and the foreign Minister and discussed the talks with them. I am not sure if we discussed the talks with the Minister with responsibility for prisoners but we probably mentioned them in passing. We had very thorough discussions in so far as we could because the principle underlining the talks is that they should be done in confidence and, therefore, reports should not be going out to the media or the outside world as to where progress has been made, or otherwise, in order that there would be a real opportunity to engage and that progress could be made. General information was given in the sense that both sides had agreed on the two state solution. That was not a point on which they were engaged in discussion. That was dealt with, done and agreed - done and dusted, so to speak - and they had moved on to discussing the core issues.
They also made it very clear that the United States has a major role to play. They are convinced that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is fully committed to the peace talks and they are satisfied that this was also the case with President Obama. They are also looking to the European Union to either engage with or support them. Without going into detail, they are, therefore, looking to both the US and the European Union. The talks will transfer to Washington shortly and it is expected that the level of negotiation will intensify at that stage. A nine-month timeframe applies in respect of the deliberations.
I and those in the group which accompanied me got the impression that the Palestinians are committed to these discussions and that they are of the view that this is probably the last realistic opportunity to arrive at a two-state solution. As members are aware, settlements continue to be developed apace and there is an ongoing process of demolition. All of this is occurring on the Israeli side. The Palestinians are not fully convinced that there is the same level of commitment to engagement by those on the Israeli side. However, they are hopeful that the position will change. They also hope that external personnel from the EU and the United State will play a role in ensuring that the level of engagement on all sides will be intensified.
That is how matters stand at present. The process has reached an extremely important point and all sides hope that a solution might be forthcoming on this occasion. Everyone is certainly of the view that this is the time to go for it and to obtain a result.
Given that he spent only four days in the region, the Minister of State has done a masterful job in obtaining such a complete picture of the situation which obtains there. He has been dealing with two of the most complicated issues of the 21st century, namely, Syria and the displacement of its people and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, particularly as it relates to Israel and Palestine. Many of those present are former city or county councillors and it is impossible for us to imagine how the affected countries in the Middle East - particularly Lebanon, which is emerging from a period of crisis and civil war involving armed troops, Hezbollah, etc. - can continue to try to absorb the number of Syrian refugees crossing their borders. Of course many of the latter are Palestinians who were given refuge in Syria and who are now refugees in Lebanon. Those who served as councillors will be well aware of the difficulties of sophisticated First World cities in the context of water supplies, sewage, infrastructure, roads, health and waste. I recall visiting Gaza and witnessing the horrendous situation with regard to waste there.
We should applaud the work being done by the governments of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The latter, which is a very tolerant Arab state, has been obliged to deal with a huge influx of Palestinians over the years. I am not sure of the position in north Africa. It is unbelievable that 7 million people have been displaced and that 2 million to 3 million of them are living in temporary accommodation, garages and deserted buildings. In addition, the members of the indigenous populations are being obliged to try to compete with these people and to hold down their own jobs in the face of cheap labour. The situation must be horrendous.
I thank the Minister of State and the Government for allocating €14 million in humanitarian aid. I accept that his visit took place in the context of development aid and that he did not engage with the Israelis, which is understandable. We experienced something of a shock when some of our other development aid moneys were mislaid, transferred or stolen in Uganda. On each occasion the Tánaiste, the Minister of State or some other Minister travels abroad, we hear about another €1 million or €2 million being released. Some disturbing information has been emanating from Gaza in recent times. The EU has discovered that a great deal of money has gone astray. We are acting in a spontaneous and emotional manner in respect of what is an emergency situation. Is the Minister of State satisfied that our aid is being administered properly?
It is difficult to know where to begin when it comes to the Middle East. For example, in the context of Gaza we have the tunnels and misplaced European Union moneys. When it comes to peace process in Palestine, one is obliged to deal with issues relating to the West Bank, Gaza, Fatah, Hamas and Sharia law. In addition, there have been terrible human rights abuses taking place in Gaza. Are the Palestinians sufficiently united to ensure that the peace talks will achieve a successful outcome?
A number of representatives from the aid agencies came before the committee last week and we discussed the issue of Syria in depth. We understand that 50% of the Palestinians who were in Syria have been displaced and are now in camps in other countries. Is there any particular reason for this? The Palestinians were deemed not to be parties to the conflict and it was perceived that they had remained outside it. Why have the 50% of Palestinians in Syria to whom I refer now become refugees for the second or third time in their lives?
On development aid, in the past we dealt with people from war zones in Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Has the Department ever considered operating in a different way in the context of development aid and refugees? I refer in particular to women and children in this regard. Would problems arise because refugees from the Middle East would be Muslims and we live in a Christian society? Is providing this degree of aid open to consideration? We have done it very successfully in the past and I see no reason why we might not consider doing it again.
Ireland is a tiny country and can provide as much aid as it so desires. If, however, the Americans, those in Geneva and the Syrians do not come together in a serious fashion in order to bring peace to Syria, the displacement of people is going to continue.
I welcome the Minister of State and I thank him for visiting the region in question. His trip is a reflection not only of Ireland's commitment to the region but also to his personal and ongoing commitment to it over many years. As he was speaking, I recalled that we visited the region together ten years ago and there was hope that some kind of resolution would be reached. A recent World Bank report estimates that the economic cost to Palestine of the restrictions placed on it by Israel is $3.4 billion per year. Is there any way pressure can be exerted in order to try to minimise the impact in this regard? What is happening seems both wasteful and, from Israel's point of view, counter-productive. I accept that the Minister of State visited the area in the context of Irish Aid and that there is probably a reluctance to discuss exerting pressure on Israel while the talks continue. However, talks took place in the past and matters just appeared to become continually worse. This led to further restrictions being put in place. If, as the Minister of State noted, there is to be a two-state solution, then both states must be viable.
I have two other brief questions one of which is on aid. We are making a considerable financial contribution, relatively speaking, to the Syrian refugee problem. Food, water, security and shelter are the main requirements but from the point of view of women in refugee or displaced persons camps, they are extremely vulnerable not only to gender-based violence but in terms of the loss of access to ante-natal care, contraceptives, post-rape kits and so on. As the Minister of State is aware, there is a recognised set of priority interventions to deal with such situations in refugee camps and we are committed to it in our action plan on Resolution 1325 and in our development aid policy but being committed to it on paper and funding the necessary programmes are two different issues. Did the Minister of State hear reports of gender-based violence while he was there and is our spending going to help women in these extremely vulnerable circumstances because that kind of violence is almost inevitable when people are living in such conditions? I am not sure if we are providing funding directly or if we are working entirely through agencies such as our own agencies, Trócaire, Oxfam and Concern. To what extent are we sure that some money is being allocated to ensure women are protected in those circumstances?
On a related topic, a conference is being hosted in London by DFID on gender-based violence and through my contact with DFID I am aware it is anxious that there would be an Irish input. Is the Minister of State or the Tánaiste in a position to attend that conference? It would be important for us to have an input into that if it is possible.
My apologies for missing the start of the meeting but I have just come from the Chamber. The Minister's visit to this committee today has generated an amount of e-mail correspondence. I am sure that I like everybody else got these e-mails from groups. They are entitled to their opinion and to ask us to examine other aspects. One concern is about Irish Aid money, which Deputy Byrne has addressed.
My second question relates to the Minister's decision not to meet any people on the Israeli side or any Israeli groups. My apologies if he has already addressed that point. Did he meet the small Christian population in Gaza?
My other question is in regard to the camps. Some people do not know any other life except living in a camp. Is there any sign of people being moved from camps into villages, towns or other places where there would be more normal living? Did the Minister get any sense from the people he met of a commitment? He spoke about the peace talks and there appears to be some positive moves in that regard but did he get a sense of a strong commitment to the two-state solution or is that slipping further down the agenda? He mentioned one or two groups but are there not more Palestinian and Israeli groups that work together or did he come across any groups actively working together, whether in the areas of health or education?
Many UN resolutions have passed in this regard but it seems they are being completely ignored. What is the position with regard to them? The fact that they were being ignored led to the boycott. Is there any sense that they will be revisited and taken seriously?
I thank the members for their questions. Deputy Byrne asked about the enormous burden that is being placed on Lebanon. We are not only engaged in that area but have Irish troops serving with UNIFIL and we have sent new troops to participate with UNDOF in the Golan Heights. We have a very strong traditional involvement there. Irish troops have been in Lebanon since 1978 from the beginning of the conflict there. From what we can gather, and we met some of the army officers who were there, they are very well respected and their reputation is so good that the Lebanese people in the area have submitted petitions to keep them there and ensure that they will not be moved because they were being moved from area to area. We have a very strong reputation in that respect.
On the question of why half the Palestinians in Syria are being displaced, there are 500,000 to 600,000 Palestinians in Syria and approximately half of them have been displaced. They were located largely the Damascus, which has come in for some very heavy shelling. Both sides have engaged heavily in the Damascus area and that has resulted in the displacement many members of the community. Many of them are displaced within the Syrian borders but they are increasingly beginning to cross over into the neighbouring countries. That adds to the very sizeable Palestinian populations that are in Jordan and in Lebanon and that creates a new problem in its own right. The Burj Barajnah camp we visited in the Lebanon was a Palestinian camp that has been there since 1948 from the first major showdown in the conflict there. It is a camp to which a new wave of Palestinians have come from Damascus and the Syrian area. That is part and parcel of the problem; the Palestinians are now becoming more and more displaced because the area in which are located is becoming increasingly targeted.
On the question of whether we are satisfied with the funding being provided for Gaza, we have always supported the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, This committee would have been addressed by John Ging, a former director of UNWRA, in the past. We have worked through that agency in this respect. It has been given that responsibility since 1948 when it came into existence with the specific mandate of maintaining services to the displaced Palestinian population. It is doing that in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon and we met representatives of UNRWA in Lebanon. We are very satisfied that it is a very strong, well organised organisation. That is the agency our funding for Gaza largely goes through. We can never be fully satisfied that everything will go to the right place all of the time in those conflict, fragile situations but we are satisfied that in this case very little more could be done to ensure that the money is properly dispensed and disbursed.
With regard to what we can do to assist refugees, the Minister for Social Affairs in Lebanon made the point strongly to us that what is required is not only a question of providing funding and resources but one of the international community undertaking some of the burden in regard to displaced persons and refugees. They asked us to emphasise to the European Union, in particular, the need for members states of the Union, the international community, to take refugees from Syria as they should not all be taken by the surrounding neighbouring countries. Sweden is doing an outstanding job in that respect. It is taking in 12,000 to 17,000 refugees. There was a debate in the European Union on Monday or Tuesday of this week to that effect and a resolution was debated.
Some 12 countries in the European Union have agreed to take programme refugees and Ireland is one of them. We have not taken very many but in the region of 25 to 30 are in the pipeline. This relates to the Department of Justice and Equality but I understand the agreement is that all of the refugees Ireland will take next year will be from Syria. We take 92 to 100 refugees every year but the entire cohort will be from Syria next year. Perhaps that might be looked at again, depending on the pressures there. Ireland is one of the 12 countries beginning to do that. The neighbouring countries are very anxious that burden is accepted.
The question as to whether the Palestinians are sufficiently united is a big one. Members know very well the situation in regard to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Currently, the only people engaged in the talks are the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Hamas is not engaged. We were not in a position to talk to Hamas when we were there because the European Union does not give proper recognition to it. It is not engaged currently but undoubtedly as the talks go on, there must be a reconciliation of both sides of the Palestinian equation. One cannot have a solution for the Occupied Territories and the West Bank but not have a solution for Gaza. The two must come together, otherwise there will not be a two state solution. That is something which is envisaged. We asked how the reconciliation was going but it is difficult to say how successful it is. Certainly, the Ministers and the Prime Minister were very strong on the need for reconciliation and talks. Hopefully, it will yield some success.
Deputy Mitchell referred to the World Bank, Israel and the €3.4 billion which could be got in a single year. I got the chance to read most of the World Bank report on the aeroplane on the way back. It is just looking at area C, which has approximately 60% of the West Bank territory. It has a huge amount of the resources. The original decision under the Oslo Accord was that this area would be supervised and under Israeli mandate for five years but Israel has continued to retain it, which is the problem. One then has the settlements, the extraction of the natural resources there and so on. I am not sure there will be a solution to that until there is a solution to the talks and the Palestinian question. Certainly, it is an anomaly and is discrimination and that control should not be retained. There would be so much benefit to Palestinian welfare and well-being if it was not retained.
In every programme in which we are engaged, there is a requirement that gender issues are addressed. That is a basic principle underlying all our programme activity. I know there was some discussions on The Jasmine Tent and so on. We deal with the international rescue committee which is a partner with The Jasmine Tent, so we would have an input into that. We gave it €100,000 not so long ago for its work. Resolution 1325 is being pursued by the Government. We discussed honour killings and gender-based violence at our various meetings. We expect gender equality to be part and parcel of the spend of any of the money we give.
I will not be able to attend the London conference as, unfortunately, I will be away elsewhere. We are very anxious that we are strongly represented at the London conference and we will certainly have representation there as it is important. The United Kingdom is pressing very strongly for us to have ministerial representation at it will give it that extra emphasis.
We met Israeli NGOs and we have seen the Oxfam report on gender issues. The analysis has been done there. When we met Israeli NGOs, we discussed Israel but we felt it might be a bit tokenistic because it was purely a development programme in which we were engaged. We were looking at Syria and Palestine. It is something we will do in the future and we will certainly try to get as high a level of Israeli engagement at political level and other levels. We met Israeli NGOs and we made a contribution of €85,000 for a programme called Comet-ME, which is a very interesting programme in the Hebron Hills. All of the electricity needs of Palestinian villages in the area are being provided through solar panels and turbines. This is creating a whole new scenario. When there was no electricity, the children could not study in the evenings. A new school has been built for the children and all sorts of new developments are taking place as a result. It has been very good.
We have moved to the second stage of providing water. Energy and water are the two key areas. The Israelis are not doing bore holes because it is too expensive and one needs to go too deep to get the water but they have a massive collection and storage programme for water. Believe it or not, there is a rainy season there and when it rains, they will be able to collect and store sufficient water for the year, which will be able to provide for irrigation, animals and human consumption. It will be treated and filtered. In that way, we are able to provide two of the basic requirements, namely, energy and water. An Israeli NGO is at the heart of doing that, which is very welcome, and it is part of the way Irish money is being spent.
There are no camps in Lebanon. The only camp there is a Palestinian camp and that is why it has come to light now. All of a sudden, there has been a huge new influx of Palestinians who have been displaced from Syria. The old camp is still there from 1948 and it is in rag order. It is hard to imagine people have lived there for all those years. Children have been raised in it and a whole new generation has grown up-----
There is a camp in Gaza but there is only that one camp in Lebanon.
The vast majority of the population are living in what I would not describe as normal set-ups but they are living in the community apart from those two camps in Gaza and Lebanon. It is different in Jordan. They are in camps. It is different in Turkey and Egypt.
Is there a strong commitment to a two-state solution? The interesting thing about it is that it was one of the questions I specifically asked and the reply I got was that the two-state solution was not an issue. Both sides had accepted the principle of the two-state solution and had moved on to the negotiations in respect of the core issues. It is interesting that in the current talks, the two-state solution is now a given. Was there something else?
I asked the Minister of State earlier on about the al Aqsa mosque. This has the potential to affect the talks. It is a holy shrine for Muslims and the worry is that the fact that it is being opened up to Jewish zealots may inflame the Arab street. Did that come up during any discussions?
That issue did come up. The Deputy is quite right in that it is an issue that could inflame the situation. The Palestinian leaders raised that issue as something abhorrent that should not have happened and that could cause trouble in the future.
Is the Minister of State satisfied with the degree to which the international community has been exercised regarding the importance of providing adequate backup and support for the host refugee countries such as Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey given what the Minister of State said about the possibility of resentment on the part of the communities in the host countries?
Fatah, Hamas and Israel all have prisoners belonging to each other to a greater or lesser extent. To what extent does the international community continue to monitor the extent to which prisoners are held in each other's territory, the conditions in which they are held and the extent to which humanitarian requirements are being met?
What was the outcome of that tunnel? What was it about? It is important that we keep an ongoing interest in it.
Somebody asked the Minister of State about life in Gaza. I was there in 2009 with the Taoiseach when he was leader of the Opposition just after Operation Cast Lead. Has Gaza been rebuilt and has life normalised? I know the Minister of State said it is difficult getting supplies in and I know he went in through the areas we went in through. Is life normalising? Israeli people would say life is improving so as someone who has seen it at first hand, could the Minister of State say a few words on life in Gaza?
In response to Deputy Durkan, there is concern on the part of the neighbouring host countries that the international community is not doing enough in respect of accepting a burden of the refugees from Syria who are piling into neighbouring countries. They believe that the international community seems to be satisfied with providing humanitarian aid but that this is not enough to relieve the burden on them because they are small and fragile countries. Lebanon is only the size of Munster and has a population of 4.3 million. Jordan is similar. Both countries are incredibly fragile. The history of both countries has been very difficult. They want the international community to accept some of the burden in terms of taking refugees and assisting them in supporting services and-----
Exactly. That is the message they wanted us to get out very strongly to the international community.
The issue of prisoners is an ongoing saga. I would have loved to have visited the prisons while I was there but, unfortunately, that was not possible. However, we did meet the Minister with responsibility for prisons and detainees in the Palestinian Authority and received a strong briefing regarding how the authority saw it. We did not, of course, meet anybody from Hamas in Gaza so we were unable to see what the situation there is like. There is major concern about administrative detention, children ending up in prison, forms of interrogation, torture and the length of time people are spending in prison. Effectively, internment is a major part of it. People are lifted and end up in prison and the process is very bureaucratic. There are military courts of course. The type of system we would envisage as a normal democratic western judicial and prison system is something they do not have in respect of Israeli jails.
We asked the Minister about jails in the West Bank that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately, the Minister with responsibility for prisoners and detainees is not responsible for those prisons and we had not realised that at the time because we were very anxious to get to see what those conditions are like. We would have looked for the other authority. I do not know the Minister responsible. It would be the Minister for justice. Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to meet that particular Minister. Many speakers spoke about it. They see the prison issue as part of the solution in the same way as it was part of the solution in Northern Ireland. The prisoners or activists were the thinkers who for one reason or another ended up behind bars but they were political people so, therefore, they would be part of the engagement that would bring about a solution.
The tunnel referred to by Deputy Durkan is the most recent tunnel discovered by the Israelis. There were a variety of tunnels. We do not know what the intention behind that tunnel was. It was a tunnel from Gaza that was about 1 km long. There were rumours that it was intended for use in abducting Israeli soldiers but we do not know for certain what the situation was. Clearly, it has given rise to concern from the Israeli side.
There have been some expressions of concern from the Israeli side as to whether international aid was used in the construction of that tunnel or whether international aid goes to the people for whom it was intended. I presume there is no truth in that rumour.
We are not aware of any basis for that rumour. The best information we have on the tunnel is that it was started over a year ago and that construction on it had stopped over two months ago. In other words, construction had stopped at a particular time so we are not sure how long the Israelis knew it was there or what function it was going to serve.
What is life like in Gaza? I would have thought that life was worse when I was there after Operation Cast Lead, which destroyed so many buildings. At one factory, one could see where the tyres of the tanks had destroyed the equipment after the factory had been blown up.
They also made sure that all the equipment was destroyed. Schools and hospitals had been damaged and, while there was not a sense of immediate destruction, there was a real sense of poverty. As fuel was in short supply, there were few vehicles on the road and donkeys were to be seen carrying goods. There was also a sense of malnutrition and inadequate food security. When I spoke to people working in NGOs and UNRWA, they clearly explained that the situation was dire. The Chairman asked about Gaza City.
A considerable amount of work was done after the tunnels opened to Egypt. Some of the tunnels were large enough to allow vehicles through and a large amount of material was smuggled into Gaza. That has since been closed down and approximately 85% of the tunnels are out of operation. The situation has been tightened greatly. A partial element of normal economic life was permitted through the transport of goods through the tunnels but this has now been stopped.
I thank the Minister of State for his frank and open discussion with members regarding his recent visit to the Middle East, and his officials for accompanying him to the meeting. When we visited in June we also met the chief negotiator, Mr. Erikat. He is an experienced negotiator for the Palestinians and I am sure he will do a good job on their behalf. I look forward to another meeting with the Minister of State in the near future and wish him well in his work on trade. The committee will be visiting Ghana in the last week of October to investigate the area of trade and imports. I understand the Minister of State has also visited that country. We will report back to him on our visit. Is it agreed that the meeting will now go into private session? Agreed.