Dáil debates

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Priority Questions

Middle East Peace Process.

3:00 pm

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Question 31: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs his plans to visit the Gaza Strip; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47059/09]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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As Deputies will be aware, I have paid particular attention to the worsening conditions in Gaza, even before the conflict at the beginning of this year. I have stressed the humanitarian needs of the population there, and the urgent necessity to end the blockade and open the border crossings, not only to unrestricted humanitarian aid, but also to reconstruction materials and ordinary commercial traffic.

It has always been my intention to visit Gaza and see the problems there for myself. I also wished to see the impact and effectiveness of the substantial assistance we give to Gaza from Irish Aid, principally through UNRWA, whose vital work is well known to Deputies. My interest in a visit was only strengthened by the disastrous course of events in Gaza over the last year.

It was not possible for practical reasons to include a visit to Gaza in my visit to Israel and the West Bank in July 2008. I sought, accordingly, to make a visit this month which would have included Gaza as well as Israel and the West Bank.

As I reported to the Joint Committee on European Affairs recently, the Israeli authorities refused to allow me permission to cross into Gaza. Fears had been expressed on the Israeli side that a visit to Gaza would serve to legitimise Hamas, irrespective of whether meetings with Hamas representatives took place. I found, and continue to find, this explanation unconvincing.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Israeli authorities have made clear that they are refusing all political level visits to Gaza at this time. Supposed security considerations have also been cited.

This is a matter of deep disappointment and concern to me. It is still my intention to make such a visit and I would hope to be given a positive response when I make such a request in future. My understanding is that a number of requests from other foreign ministers to visit Gaza have been turned down in recent weeks.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I regret that the Minister's request to visit Gaza was turned down, particularly in light of the fact that a delegation from the Joint Committees on European Affairs and Foreign Affairs was able to get in, as was the Fine Gael Party leader. It is intolerable and unacceptable that the Minister's request was refused. Will he say whether he will follow this up and continue to attempt to visit Gaza? I believe it is very important that he does so, without any preconditions. I am not suggesting it would be correct to meet Hamas, as I do not believe it would. However, the president of Sinn Féin has visited Gaza and I understand he met members of Hamas when he was there. That visit was sanctioned, so I do not know whether there was an outside influence from the region which facilitated the meeting.

We are coming up to the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, and on the other side of the equation, attempts will be made by groups to get aid into Gaza over the next few weeks, which will ultimately serve to undermine real efforts to get aid in there through UNRWA. It is important that the Minister makes further requests to the Israeli authorities and through the European Council, to try to get the blockade lifted for a time to get in the much-needed supplies. By the same token, within the next few weeks we shall see various solidarity groups of no benefit to the people of Gaza, who will be trying to seek publicity in terms of getting in aid by a mechanism that will not be possible.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Deputy's comments and believe we are broadly at one on the issue. I will be pursuing this further. We were of assistance to the previous delegations mentioned by the Deputy in terms of our embassy there and so on, in facilitating the entry to Gaza of people such as Gerry Adams and, indeed, Deputy Kenny and others. I have written to the incoming Spanish Presidency and the Foreign Minister, Mr. Mauratinos, on this issue and it is my view that perhaps a delegation of EU Foreign Ministers should go to Gaza. There has been an attempt, in essence, to suppress information about Gaza, to keep a lid on it and prevent the wider world from knowing what is going on regarding the deprivation there and the unacceptable humanitarian situation and------

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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No Israeli journalists have been there for 12 months.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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------the inability to rebuild Gaza because of the unacceptable blockade. That is what is at issue here. France's Foreign Minister, Mr. Bernard Kouchner, has been refused entry and he is still trying to pursue it.

We are not doing this to be provocative. We are doing it, in essence, to draw attention to the plight of Gaza as well as to see at first hand what is happening on the ground there. The second overarching point is that the longer moderate opinion is isolated, the more difficult any resolution of the broader question becomes, in terms of the Middle East Peace Process.

I am mindful of the number of young students who had visited Gaza during the conflict and who are not allowed to return to college, and of the harassment of young Palestinians who want to pursue third level education. I had to write recently, at the instigation of Members of the House, on behalf of a young lady from Bethlehem, who could not pursue her third level education. It is appalling and I do not see the logic of it, either strategically or in any shape or form.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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An Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Yigal Palmour, has claimed that a request was never made by the Department of Foreign Affairs for the Minister to visit Gaza. On the other hand he is reported as saying that such a request was made. I wonder whether the Minister has a view in that regard.

When one is not in an area at the time something happens, it can be difficult to pass judgment on it. My view, however, is the claim that the attack on Gaza was to deal solely with Hamas is completely untrue. That is epitomised by the destruction of the American international school and the industrial areas on the periphery of Gaza in the last days of the actual conflict, where the industrial and intellectual bases of the territory were wiped out.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Many statements have been made, but it is interesting that an article in the Jerusalem Post reported that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Government has an undeclared, but de facto, policy of not letting senior political figures, such as foreign ministers, enter the Gaza strip from Israel. That would appear to be the position. I gave the Deputy both reasons, one of which is Israel's view that a visit to Gaza gives some legitimacy to Hamas. I do not believe that is acceptable. We made inquiries in terms of our requests to facilitate a visit to Gaza. I intend to pursue the matter further.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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It is also important for the Minister to raise with the Egyptian authorities reports of the construction of a wall on their 10-km or 12-km side of the border.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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We will leave that point unanswered because we are well over time.