Tuesday, 30 January 2018
Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted to table the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018. I welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber to discuss the Bill and thank him for his sincere engagement and input on the legislation to date. I also warmly welcome the Palestinian ambassador, H.E. Ahmed Abdelrazek, and Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, who are watching from the Public Gallery. I acknowledge the fantastic work of Trócaire, Christian Aid, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Sadaka in helping to prepare this Bill and for their years of research and advocacy on the issue. In particular, I wish to thank Michael Lynn, SC, and James Crawford, professor of international law at Cambridge, for their written legal input to ensure the legislation is robust in its compliance with EU and WTO trade rules.
At its core, this Bill is about respect for international law and standing up for the rights of vulnerable people. It is a chance for Ireland to state strongly that it does not support the illegal confiscation of land and the human suffering which inevitably results. As the issue can be complex, I will outline briefly what the Bill seeks to do and why. In practical terms, we are dealing here with a breach of international humanitarian law where one state has occupied another. It is about the construction of illegal settlements beyond internationally recognised borders as a means slowly to confiscate land and natural resources. International law is clear on this. Such settlements violate the prohibition of the fourth Geneva Convention on the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territories and constitute a war crime. Importantly, they also break domestic Irish law. Despite this, Ireland continues to provide economic support through trade in settlement goods.
The most high profile and clearly documented modern example of this issue is the Israeli settlement of the Palestinian West Bank which has been condemned repeatedly by the EU, UN and Irish Government. Ireland and its EU partners have a clear position on the Israeli settlements. They state that the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, are territories which have been occupied by Israel since 1967. They have also stated that the Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution to the conflict impossible.
That peaceful solution is what we should all be seeking but trade in settlement goods is fundamentally undermining it. In the occupied Palestinian territories, people are forcibly kicked out of their homes, fertile farming land is seized and the fruit and vegetables produced are then exported to pay for it all. We strongly condemn the settlements but support them economically. As international law is clear that the settlements are illegal, the goods they produce are, in effect, the proceeds of crime. We must face up to this and cannot keep supporting breaches of international humanitarian law and violations of human rights. That is what the Bill seeks to do. It can end our complicity by prohibiting the import and sale of goods from illegal settlements and prevent Irish involvement in the provision of settlement services and the extraction of natural resources.
Section 3 outlines the scope of the legislation, which is important given the variety of military occupations around the world. If enacted, the Bill will apply by default to territories in respect of which there is clear international consensus on the status of an occupation as outlined in the judgments of international courts, including the ICJ and ICC. This includes the occupied Palestinian territories. The Bill provides for the option to go beyond this but only where there is agreement between the Minister and both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is an objective standard which works on the basis of consensus. We begin from the most limited position, relying on legal certainty, and move beyond it only if the Houses agree. The principle remains the same, however, and the application of the Bill could be extended to similar cases where a case on occupation can be made.
It is important to be clear that this is not a boycott of Israel or a ban on Israeli products. We must be accurate on this. We are making the same distinction the EU makes between goods from Israel and goods from illegal settlements beyond its borders. In 2012, the then-Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, outlined this important distinction. He said:
I have previously stated that Ireland would support a ban on settlement products. We do not support bans or boycotts on Israel, and this is not in question, but the products of illegal settlements constitute a separate and specific matter.
I urge colleagues to keep this vital distinction in mind.To me, this issue matters because of the devastating impact it has on human lives on the ground. I am concerned with the little girl whose horizons are bounded by soldiers and a steel fence, whose family suffers from deprivation because they can no longer farm their land. It is the child who goes without eating because what was once food on the table is now harvested and sold around the world to pay for occupation.
I stand today in opposition to this war crime, not because of the abstract legal principles, but because of the real human suffering caused on the ground. This is the daily reality in the occupied West Bank. The construction of illegal settlements has seen extreme water shortages, lack of electricity, restrictions on movement, house demolitions and land confiscation. Over 500,000 settlers have been transferred into the area, supported with financial incentives and highly subsidised housing. As land is gradually confiscated, it becomes increasingly difficult to provide basic services and the viability of a functioning Palestinian state is undermined.
A 2013 World Bank study found that this has cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion. Meanwhile, agricultural produce and other goods in the settlement have appeared on Irish shop shelves, sustaining this injustice. A farmer from the West Bank told Trócaire's partner NGO:
My family was forcibly displaced in 1967 when our land was annexed. The village's structures were demolished and levelled out to establish an agricultural settlement. Every day I watch settlers expand their land and cultivate it with grapes and almonds while we are not allowed. I work in the settlements because I am forced in order to provide for my family. I feel overwhelmed and bad every time I work as a paid labourer, watching settlers grow on the land I inherited from my parents. I always imagine how my life would have turned out if I had control over my land, as well as how my children's lives would turn out. It is a horrible feeling to see my land a couple of metres away, but not to be able to access it due to the annexation fence, part of the annexation wall.
Today we can take a stand against this kind of injustice. A ban on settlement goods is not a radical ask. It is a disassociation from clear breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. It is a modest and tangible step we can take. It has long been called for in the Oireachtas. In 2012, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, with members from across all political parties, called for such a move on the basis that it could have a strong and effective impact on suffering in the region. Six years ago, the Irish Government criticised the relentless progress of Israeli settlements and said it could seek an EU ban if matters continued to worsen.
In the years since then, it has only gone one way with settlements expanding, more homes being demolished and more land confiscated. Last year, the Israeli Government approved the construction of the first new settlement in 20 years. This month alone, it sanctioned the construction of over 1,000 new settlement homes. It is clear that mere condemnation simply has not worked. As long as we support the settlement economically and they remain profitable, they will continue to grow.
Concerns have been raised over our capacity to do this as a member of the European Union. On this point, I refer to the former legal opinions provided by Michael Lynn and Professor James Crawford. They accept that while the EU's governing treaties outline common trade rules, Article 36 provides for exceptions where it can be justified on the basis of public policy or the protection of the health and life of humans. Member states are perfectly entitled to seek derogations when it serves a fundamental interest of that state, such as ensuring respect for international humanitarian law or domestic laws. This is made absolutely clear in the legal opinions, which I am happy to share with my colleagues.
What is at issue here, however, is not legal capacity but political will. I fully agree a co-ordinated EU action would be fantastic. However, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Dáil last week that there is no prospect of that happening. At EU level, we are at a point of paralysis as we have been for decades. In this context, Ireland has a responsibility to show some leadership. We have done so before. In 1980, we were the first European state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation, PLO, and our neighbours soon followed. When the EU decided in 2015 to issue labelling guidelines for settlement goods, it did so as a result of member states taking the lead. The UK moved first in 2009, followed by Denmark in 2013, Belgium in 2014 and the EU as a whole one year later.This is collective action spurred by individual action.
The economic impact here would be low. Based on EU and Irish estimates, the value of settlement imports is approximately €1 million per year. Given the small figures involved, this will not cost Irish jobs. In reality, it would mean showing that certain products are produced in the settlements and asking a supermarket not to stock them. The financial impact is small, but the political and symbolic importance is significant. I recall the brave Dunnes Stores workers who stood against apartheid in 1984. It was not about the money but the principle. They refused to be complicit and so should we. However, this is not simply about taking a stand, but offering a real and practical step that other states can follow. Certainly, there will be questions about how well exporters are obeying the EU’s labelling guidelines but these are the issues that deserve to be examined in detail on Committee Stage if we agree to this proposal in principle. There is a wealth of information available, for example, linking specific products to specific settlements, most recently from a coalition of 22 human rights organisations working in the region.
It is clear that a peaceful, two-state solution has never been under greater pressure. I have spoken to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and I acknowledge and respect his genuine determination to work on this issue. However, I believe that Ireland must be firm in stating that its foreign policy will always respect international humanitarian law and human rights, and that illegal settlement expansion is not acceptable. We have a duty to stand up to injustice, and we owe it to those living at the sharp end of occupation. I ask my colleagues to take that stand today.
I thank Senator Black. She has made a thorough study of this matter and I salute her and her group for pursuing it. It is an issue on which I have been engaged for many years. In fact, in 2012 I raised it at the foreign affairs committee and we had a willing participant in the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, former Deputy Eamon Gilmore. He committed himself to this type of position.
It is important to emphasise that this concerns only goods originating from the settlements. It is not a boycott of Israel or Israeli produced goods and it is not a boycott of academic institutions. I have been a lifelong supporter of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign but I have broken its picket on meetings where academics, writers and artists from Israel were addressing the Irish public. It is very important to keep open the channels for information and exchange of ideas. In fact, although I am a strong supporter of Palestinian human rights, I was also instrumental in getting the Israeli Embassy established here.
One matter that disappoints me is the position people take and the pretence they make. For example, there is an agreement in place known as the Euromed agreement, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Human rights protocols are attached to that agreement but they have never been assessed. I have asked repeatedly, year after year, for the Euromed agreement to be examined in light of the human rights protocols and the extraordinary and extreme violations of human rights undertaken by the Israeli Government. Nothing has happened. What is the point of having human rights protocols if they are just left to one side and completely ignored? That is worse than not having human rights protocols attached because it is a defiance and denial of human rights.
I refer to a letter in The Irish Timesthis morning, which was circulated to many of our colleagues in the Seanad. It is extremely important. Israel always says it is the only democracy in the Middle East and I have received wearying correspondence from people urging me to look at the way the Arab states treat gay people. I am aware of that. It is awful and very regrettable. I campaign against it and I have spoken out against it very strongly. However, that does not mean we deny human rights. Human rights exist not just for the people with whom we agree but, most importantly, for the people with whom we do not agree. The position of the Arab states on homosexuality is a complete irrelevance when dealing with the question of human rights for the Palestinian people.
I believe it is arguable whether Israel is a democracy. It has certain features of democracy but the Palestinian people do not think they live under a democracy. It is extremely important to recognise the courage of the people who sent the letter to The Irish Times. I will quote some of it. It is from a group that includes ambassadors for the State of Israel, half a dozen or more winners of the Israel Prize, professors, artists, members of the Knesset and the former attorney general of Israel. They have all signed this wonderful letter as Israeli citizens. They say:
We are convinced that Israel's ongoing occupation of the Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is morally and strategically unsustainable, is detrimental to peace and poses a threat to the security of Israel itself. [That is pretty strong stuff.] [...] While Ireland, along with the rest of the EU, considers the occupation illegal, it continues to economically sustain it by trading with illegal Israeli settlements established in clear and direct violation of international law.
I listened to the briefing this morning with great interest. Dr. Barghouti, who is in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery, and two other people spoke. They pointed out that the Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories beauty products, such as bath salts and so forth, and which are available in this country, come from settlements, although that is not labelled. I must acknowledge that I have used the bath salts, not the beauty products, in ignorance of that fact.
The letter continues:
The occupation has been correctly identified by successive Irish governments as a major obstacle to peace. [...] As people who care deeply for Israel's future and long for our country to live in peace with its neighbours, we urge you to support the aforementioned Bill.
That is the real voice of Israel. That is the Israel I knew more than 40 years ago when it was a left leaning, socially conscious, politically active and decent country, before the inrush of 1 million Soviet citizens who had been scalded by communism and had become extremely right wing. They fractured the political system.
With regard to the occupation, I have witnessed the demolition of houses. Last year, I was in the Jordan Valley and saw the demolition of a pathetic house. It was actually just a tent as the original house of the people, who had been living there for generations, was bulldozed to make way for settlements. The people put up a pathetic tent so the bulldozers were brought back and demolished the tent. It is rarely acknowledged but there is a type of secret war taking place in the Jordan Valley all the time. There are 600,000 Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine. If one looks at a map of Palestine with the settlements marked in red spots, it looks as if it has measles. They are everywhere. There is no such place as Palestine. The Israelis have made sure of that.
I read an interesting book some time ago by two Jewish Israeli writers. They outlined the history of the establishment of the State of Israel and, to my surprise and consternation, they showed that even the earliest leaders such as David Ben Gurion envisaged driving the Palestinians out of their land. That is at the heart of Zionism. One need not be anti-Semitic to be anti-Zionist. It is a tragic irony that we in Europe resolved our consciences after the Holocaust by inflicting what the Palestinian people call the Nakba, the catastrophe or disaster, on third parties, the Palestinians, who were not involved in that situation. Two thousand applications for building permits have been made by the Palestinians in the past few years but only 30 have been granted. Is that not astonishing? The Israelis use bureaucracy to destroy the ethos of the Palestinians. I have been there and I have seen the separate roads. What is that but apartheid, when the Palestinians cannot drive or walk on the roads in their own country? The water is diverted from Palestinian land into the settlements. People have been living there for generations but, under this system, they do not have title papers to their lands. The Israelis use that argument. They ask the people where are their title deeds. They then demolish their properties in order to give the land to the Israelis.
It is a dreadful situation. It is one where Europe has shown a complete lack of courage. The Minister should not wait for a unified European situation. He will never ever get it. The Germans and the Dutch are against it. Of course the Germans are against it; they have a bad conscience because of the Holocaust. It is dreadful that the Israeli Government should use the Holocaust as a political weapon. I was at the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony on Sunday and it was extraordinarily moving. There was a photograph of children waiting in a forest in 1944 - one radiantly beautiful little girl was looking straight into the camera and there was also a terribly attractive young boy aged about five or six. How could anybody gas those children? That is a universal crime and it should not be used politically in the 21st century.
I welcome the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, to the House and thank him for the very effective work that he has been doing in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, notably on Brexit and in Northern Ireland and, hopefully, that will fructify shortly across a range of activities. We appreciate that important work for Ireland and for the values we hold internationally.
I congratulate my colleague, Senator Black, on bringing forward this Private Members' Bill. She is a thoughtful and active Member of the Seanad who is passionate about issues. She made a very sincere, well researched and excellent presentation. She deserves all our credit in bringing about this important debate and putting this matter squarely on our agenda.
I want to make clear that the Government and virtually every Member of this House are opposed to the construction of settlements. They are also strongly opposed to the relentless expansion of those settlements. We abhor the restriction to the freedom of movement of the Palestinian people this involves. We abhor the reduction in income and the effect that has had on the livelihoods of the Palestinian people. We also abhor the restricted access to electricity, water and to power. We abhor the confiscation of Palestinian lands. All that is wrong and morally indefensible. It must stop and it has to be reversed. That is the position of the Irish Government and people. Let there be no ambiguity about that before I progress to discuss the legislation.
The Government has constantly conveyed that concern. There has been no shirking that. It is great the Tánaiste took this issue sufficiently seriously to come to the House to deal with this Bill. On visits to Palestine and Israel in July 2017 and January 2018, the Tánaiste openly and clearly condemned the settlements. On 12 January he condemned the Israeli plans for further settlements in the West Bank. I join in that condemnation, as do colleagues. As a Government and as Irish people, we strongly support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. We support a shared capital in Jerusalem. We support the self-determination of the Palestinian and Israeli people in those situations. We want to use our moral authority, as an independent neutral State with great traditions and with great international traction, within the EU, the Council of Europe where I had the privilege of leading the Irish delegation, and the UN, to continue dealing with this issue.
Despite the worthy intention underpinning Senator Black's Bill and the great research that went into it, I am concerned that, in practice, it may not work out the way she would envisage it. International trade is a EU competence and it cannot be reasonably breached. I understand Senator Black made the point that it can be breached on grounds of public policy but there is a question mark over that and some of the best legal advice to the Government is that this may be a difficult case in a European court situation. There are domestic constitutional issues with the Bill. One would not need to be a very subtle constitutional expert to see how they might arise. It is also valid to say that despite the good intention underpinning the Bill, this unilateral action by Ireland would have little impact on the settlements. They are essentially dormitory settlements from which people commute. While we say they are wrong the economic impact of Irish sanctions would not be enormous.
It is difficult to implement the nuts and bolts of this legislation because many goods from the settlements come into Ireland from other EU countries. They make their way from the settlements, in so far as there is a volume of goods, into other EU countries and come into Ireland that way. They are multinational sourced goods and there is not a concept of the different policies of individual countries and how to administer that. Therefore, that would be an implementation difficulty.
Many people believe this proposal would compromise and negatively impact the moral independent authority of the Tánaiste and Government in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Were we to go down this road, however understandable in the context of the wrongness of the settlements and all that goes with them and I did not mention the harassment of people in a security sense, it would put us clearly into one camp and remove our objectivity and in a sense our capacity to be a force for peace and for a settlement. That is an important point.
We are competently addressing this question in the context of the Council of Europe and only last week, one of our delegation, Deputy Crowe, made an excellent contribution to the plenary assembly of the Council of Europe stating the Irish view that there should be a two-state solution. Moreover, on behalf of the delegation, he actively questioned and spoke about the wrongness of the settlements.
In essence, we are opposed to the settlements and support a two-state solution. I understand the sentiments behind the Bill and share the concerns but am not confident that the Bill can be implemented in practice. I honestly believe it may be the strategically wrong thing to do in terms of ultimately getting a solution to this awful problem.
I hope the House will agree that by my speaking early, it will give Members an opportunity to respond to what I have to say. I also wish to indicate that I will be obliged to leave at 6.15 p.m., when I will be replaced by the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. I need to fly to London this evening. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address this House on this important issue. At the outset, I express my appreciation to Senators for the re-scheduling of this debate which allowed me to be present today. Senator Frances Black and her colleagues have put some very important issues on the agenda, and I really wanted to be here to speak to them. I also want to recognise and welcome the presence of the Palestinian ambassador and Dr. Barghouthi, who I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to on a number of occasions. I would also like to pay tribute to the considerable work, and the sincere commitment, which has gone into developing this Bill from a number of different sources. From my discussions with Senator Black, I know that it has been put forward in a spirit of wishing to contribute to the well-being of the Palestinian people, and from a desire to bring an end to the construction of settlements on land in the occupied Palestinian territory beyond Israel’s internationally recognised borders. These are objectives which I, and the Government, fully share. I know they are also shared by Fianna Fáil, and I have discussed this Bill in depth with that party’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and trade, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, on more than one occasion, and indeed the Leader in the Seanad.
The relentless expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory is unjust, provocative, and undermines the credibility of Israel’s commitment to a peaceful solution to a conflict to which we all want an end. The introduction and settlement of communities from an occupying power to alter the demography of the area is unambiguously illegal under international law. The process of establishing settlements also inevitably involves violations of the rights of the occupied population through seizure of their land, demolitions, discriminatory treatment, including unequal implementation of planning laws, and other restrictions, including on movement. The Government has consistently and repeatedly condemned the construction and expansion of settlements. We have conveyed these concerns to the Israeli authorities at the highest level, and highlighted them in our interventions at EU, UN and in other international fora. We have also stated clearly to Israel that we believe that settlements are unjust and do untold damage. I raised Ireland’s concerns about settlements directly with the Israeli authorities during my visits to Israel and Palestine in July of last year and also a few weeks ago.
It is not a coincidence that in the first six months of being Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade I have chosen to go to Israel and Palestine twice. I have met the Israeli Prime Minister three times I have had the pleasure of meeting the Palestinian President twice, and indeed his Foreign Minister, Minister Maliki , on multiple occasions. I am interested in this issue, and I want Ireland to play a constructive role in helping to find political solutions.
I also condemned Israel’s recent announcement of plans for further settlement units in the West Bank in a statement on 12 January. I know that our concerns on these issues are shared by many Israelis. Senator Norris reminded us of that today in the letter he quoted from. Settlements are deeply damaging to the prospects of a peace agreement and are undermining the very basis of a two state solution, which of course is the only solution Ireland supports, and indeed is supported by the EU as a collective. I have been very clear to Israeli and US interlocutors, as well as within the EU, that settlement construction is an obstacle to the successful peace process that both have stated they want to see. It is extremely difficult for both sides to engage in good faith negotiations if, as they are talking, one side is quite literally pouring concrete on the space for negotiation. That is the impact of settlements. While people dream about a future for themselves in an independent state for Palestine, they are physically seeing their future neighbour pouring concrete on land they see as their own. That is why it has such a corrosive impact on the relationship between both communities and why it creates such political tension. We have repeatedly made this an issue, whether in the UN in New York last September, or in conversations we have had in Ramallah or Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has told me that he is committed to negotiations. I believe him, although I suspect there are some in this House who do not. I know how committed President Abbas is to the path of peace, and to securing a positive outcome for his people through peaceful negotiations. He would not continue to pursue that objective, given the history he has, and the fact that he has to manage in the context of occupation, if he was not committed to negotiations. I also know that, more than 20 years after the Oslo accords, he is finding it hard to persuade his people to continue to hope, and to continue to trust, that the establishment of the long-sought Palestinian State is near. Settlement construction is consistently undercutting Palestinians’ hope for the future and has an undermining impact on the belief that political negotiation can deliver for the hopes of Palestinian people.
Before I say a word about what this Bill is, I would like to say a few words about what it is not. This Bill does not propose a boycott of Israel. Successive governments have opposed boycotts of Israel, and I strongly disagree with those activists advocating a policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions, BDS. I firmly believe that such an approach is counterproductive, and that it would not help to increase understanding in Israel of why the international community has such a concern about occupation. There are very many countries around the world about which we have serious human rights concerns. We do not seek to prevent trade with those countries, except in very rare circumstances in accordance with decisions at EU or UN level. It is important to put on the record, as I have done before, that I believe that activists are entitled to advocate for any non-violent political viewpoint as a matter of freedom of speech, in the context of the work that many NGOs do.
This Bill does not propose measures against Israel. A lot of careful work has been done to craft a Bill which relates to occupied territories only, and which does not aim to impact on Israel itself within its internationally recognised borders. This is a really important point for me, but despite that the Government is going to oppose this Bill, and I want to outline the reasons it will do so. Ireland has supported, and will continue to support, action at EU level which differentiates between settlements and Israel. I believe that Ireland and the EU should have good relations with Israel, a country with which we have much in common, but also a country with which we have disagreements. We have an extraordinary shared history - a very tragic one - that should remind us of the need to work together.
Before I move on to the political issues raised by this Bill, I want to refer to legal aspects, because that has been mentioned. Issues of international trade fall under the common commercial policy of the EU. Under Article 3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, TFEU, the common commercial policy is an exclusive competence of the Union. I have heard the argument that a public policy exception could apply to this Bill. However, I am advised that this argument is not well founded, and that the Court of Justice of the European Union interprets such unilateral restrictions on trade imposed by member states very narrowly. While all EU member states oppose settlements, and many feel as strongly as Ireland, the legal position is such that no member state has yet taken the step of taking action on a national basis on this issue. This Bill is proposing that Ireland be the first country to do so.
A number of other legal concerns have been flagged to me in this Bill. However, rather than going into these in depth, I would like to focus this evening on the political question of how Ireland can best use its influence on the Middle East peace process, for the good of Palestinians and Israelis. If a way around the legal and practical challenges were found, and the Bill were adopted, the impact on settlements would be minimal. However, the cost to Ireland’s ability to influence the Middle East peace process in a positive way could be significant, particularly at this time, given the amount of time and effort that we have put into building relationships over the past six months. The Middle East peace process has been a priority for me since I took up the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I know those proposing the Bill share my view that Ireland can play a positive role in the Middle East peace process. I want to set out how I think we can do that. Ireland can be a positive influence on the Middle East peace process by engaging directly with the parties. That means engaging with both parties, Israelis and Palestinians, in a constructive, direct and open way. In addition to the very good relations that Irish people have with the Palestinians, it is important that Ireland also has a good relationship with Israel. Ireland and Israel share a lot of history. The sixth President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, was born on the island of Ireland a hundred years ago this year. I am regularly asked in the Dáil whether I have raised issues of concern with the Israeli Government. Often, I am able to answer that question by saying "Yes, I have". I have had frank and open conversations with the Government and Prime Minister of Israel on issues of common interest and in respect of matters of concern. I have also listened and heard Israeli concerns about fears for the safety of their families and the security of their state in the future. This dialogue, although imperfect, currently provides valuable opportunities to raise difficult issues and to press for action towards peace, which is ultimately what we want - a negotiated peace solution with both parties at the table feeling they are being heard in terms of legitimate and fair aspirations. If adopted, the Bill would, rightly or wrongly, be seen very negatively in Israel. At this critical moment in the Middle East peace process, it would undermine the impact the Government may have in its direct interaction with the Israeli Government.
This is a critical moment for the peace process. I have been very clear about my disappointment at and disagreement with the US announcement on Jerusalem last month. Ireland joined 127 other member states at the UN to restate our long-held position on Jerusalem. It is important to say to the House that in advance of that decision, when we understood it was coming, I contacted the US embassy in Dublin directly to outline our opposition to that approach because we knew it would cause significant political division and polarisation which is exactly what has happened since. The US Administration has big ambitions in the Middle East. Many have given up on this conflict but this Administration has not and that has the potential to be a positive thing. It is important for Ireland to engage with the US team that is preparing the Middle East peace initiative. I have done that on multiple occasions, meeting the key figures involved. Ireland has a perspective to bring, in advocating for a balanced and fair approach and in drawing on some of the lessons of our own peace process. The perspective among Palestinians towards the US has changed in the past couple of months because of the Jerusalem issue. It is all the more important now that Ireland and other countries can play a role in reassuring Palestinians that a peace process is possible involving the United States and also other countries as well.
I am a committed multilateralist and a committed European. Ireland has its greatest impact of all on foreign policy when it acts in concert with others. Working with our EU partners allows us to magnify our influence. Over a period of many years, Ireland has been an important and effective voice in the EU on the Middle East peace process. Ireland’s influence has been important in ensuring that the EU adheres to long-established positions, including on the two-state solution, on the acceptable parameters of that solution and in highlighting the impact of the occupation on Palestinians. We have that influence because we are clear and consistent but also because we work with others. We are not isolated. Ours is not a principled voice in the wilderness, rather we work with other countries whenever we can find common ground. We work to bring the whole EU debate forward, which is what we are trying to do now. A number of debates that have happened at the Foreign Affairs Council would not have happened if Ireland had not insisted on ensuring that the Middle East peace process was on the agenda. For example, Ireland supported action at EU level on labelling settlement goods, which was mentioned earlier, and that was subsequently implemented. Acting with our EU partners, we have ensured that goods from settlements, when imported into the EU, are excluded from the low tariff rates applied to Israeli goods. I would be open to consideration of whether the EU’s approach on settlement products could be tightened up further, when the political climate in the EU allows for that. Reaching consensus at EU level is hard. It requires work and a lot of patience but it is worth doing because Ireland is at its most effective when we work within the EU to amplify the impact of our convictions. It can mean policy does not always move fast and perhaps we do not get the headlines we would like to get. Sometimes the results of our efforts are not apparent to all but I know how much Irish diplomatic energy has gone into achieving better, fairer, more consistent EU positions on the Middle East and on a full range of global issues because I have been working with our team on that.
Many believe that by adopting this Bill, Ireland would send an important signal to the Palestinian people, and that is true. I understand that such a signal would be well-received by many but the day after, the lives of Palestinians would probably remain the same. The memory of the signal may fade over time and Ireland’s reputation would be of a country willing to go it alone rather than a country determined to influence, persuade and bring others with us. I strongly believe that Ireland can best support the Palestinian and Israeli peoples by remaining a strong and engaged partner in respect of the Middle East, by continuing to exert a positive influence in the EU, and by continuing to advocate with the US Administration, which I will continue to do when I go to the US in three weeks' time. It is for this reason that I have recommended that the Government oppose the Bill. Our approach on the Middle East needs to constantly be reassessed. I hope my speech is clear on this: our approach in our efforts to try to achieve a negotiated two-state solution that is fair to both sides should be focused on intensive diplomacy on straight, blunt discussion in our efforts to try to persuade and also in our efforts to try to get a stronger more unified position within the European Union, which is the way the European Union can really be persuasive with an Israeli Government.
In the meantime, we will continue to support the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians generally. We spend approximately €12 million a year on humanitarian assistance and supports mainly through education. We will probably double that figure this year in some of the new projects we have agreed to work on. We are committed. We have 85% of our peacekeepers in this region - in the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. Let us be clear, we are a small country that is and wants to be engaged in this issue, with an objective to try to get a result. A result means a negotiated peaceful solution, not simply Ireland making a statement. While statements are important, they do not necessarily deliver outcomes that we need. There was a lot of optimism last September and October about a new US initiative and, speaking to very senior Palestinian politicians, there was real hope that a new US initiative would move the process forward in a major way. The Jerusalem statement has been a huge setback and all of us who are interested in trying to find a solution here, need to find a way to create a new political engagement that can allow us to get back to where we were in September and October expecting an initiative from a US team. The structure needs to be different now; it needs to involve other countries.My focus is on trying to get that structure back rather than adding to the polarisation on either side of the Atlantic on this issue. The perception is that the EU is supporting Palestinians and the US is supporting Israelis. We need to close that gap, not widen it. That is why I believe that at this time, this Bill will have a polarising effect rather than one of encouraging political solutions. I am open to persuasion in future if we get nowhere on political engagement. I strongly believe that we need to maintain a relationship with both sides, in a respectful manner, listening as well as talking. If we do that, Ireland will remain politically relevant in helping progress a new initiative that ultimately can deliver a workable two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis. Until that happens, we will always be in a position of managing conflict in a way that is totally unsatisfactory and in a way that is causing so much misery, particularly for Palestinians in the West Bank and especially for those in Gaza.
I hope that gives a sense of where the Government is coming from in this regard. I look forward to hearing more contributions.
I thank the Minister for being here today and accommodating this Bill. I have visited the occupied territories. I have been to UN schools as part of a delegation of the foreign affairs committee. President Higgins, who was then a member of the committee, was there too. We met a class of 12 year-old girls in a UN school in Bethlehem and discussed the issues regarding Ireland and our search for peace and the parallels with Israel and Palestine. While they are not exactly the same, the search for peace is the same in both cases. The girls spoke of their daily experience, which sounded somewhat similar to the experience of people who lived in Belfast during the Troubles. As they came to school in the morning, they were stopped by Israeli soldiers, their bags were searched, their books were thrown on the ground, they might be told to stand somewhere and they could be there for an hour or two. They ended up being late for school and when they returned home in the evening, the exact same thing happened. We put it to them that they have two solutions, that is, to either beat their enemy or to negotiate with their enemy. The question was posed as to who wanted to negotiate peace and no one put their hand up. When asked whether they wanted to kill all the Israelis, all 52 of the 12 year-old girls put up their hands. That is because of the treatment they receive daily at the hands of the Israeli Defence Forces.
Recently, we had a delegation from Israel which spoke about further and more engagement with the Irish tourism board and how we could have mutually beneficial relations. They asked why we do not understand them better and why we seem to take the side of the Palestinians. I replied that there is only one army in the world which has continually put Irish troops in danger and in fear of being killed and that is the Israeli Defence Forces, as well as the South Lebanese Army, which it backed. When, over the past 40 years, with rare gaps, we have seen news reports of Irish troops being put in harm's way by the Israeli Defence Forces, it is little wonder that we are concerned about Israel and its activities.
Fianna Fáil has long been engaged in the issues of the Middle East and the search for a solution. We were the first party, and Ireland was the first country, to put forward the idea of a two-state solution with a sovereign Palestinian state and an Israeli state that could live in peace and harmony with its neighbours. It must, however, wish to do that and in order to do that, a state must be a good neighbour. Being a good neighbour does not include stopping 12 year-old girls going to and from school and punishing them for the very fact of their religion and nationality.
We condemn illegal settlements, as has the Minister. What they do in Israel and the occupied territories is a breach of international law. Israeli politicians tell us that despite all the EU or UN resolutions, it is creating the facts on the ground and what that means is that Israel is taking over the land. As the Minister observed, it is putting concrete on the negotiation process. That does not make a solution easier to achieve. It makes it far more difficult.
We are sympathetic to the idea of this legislation but what all of us are determined to do is to get formal results. The Minister has outlined a possibility and has committed to Fianna Fáil in respect of putting down questions at the next meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council. We want a long-term solution. The long-term solution is hampered daily, as the Minister will have seen when he visited Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is being bought up house by house and street by street in a systematic way by elements within Zionism. Those Palestinian people are being offered a new life away from the Middle East, their houses are being bought for enormous sums and new Israeli families are being put into that location. That means that when, if ever, there are negotiations in the future, and people examine where Palestinians are living in Jerusalem, they will find that there are very few left because they have been bought out or forced out and encouraged to leave by every way possible. Each time a new building is erected or there is another development which encircles Jerusalem, it makes the solution to the conflict more difficult.
I have said this to visiting Israeli delegations and when visiting there. We have a long and tragic history of settlements that still have consequences 800 years later. It has a detrimental effect. While the EU has a role to play, I do not believe it is being sufficiently robust. As the Minister has pointed out, it is the United States which is the ultimate player in this game. If the United States does not wish to make the Israeli Government stop the settlements and come to a negotiated solution, it will never happen. Even the American General Petraeus has said that the US policy in the Middle East, particularly in Israel, is costing the lives of American soldiers in that area and is doing untold damage to US interests globally. Notwithstanding that, the Arab world has a part to play in this. The recent announcement that the US is going to withdraw funding for Palestinian support is an opportunity for the Arab world to step up and replace that funding and to commit publicly to doing so. One cannot condemn the US for withdrawing funding and for supporting Israel when the Arab world is not playing its full role in supporting Palestinian refugees in their own countries, as well as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
We support the broad thrust of the Bill. We want to see a solution for the Palestinian people in the long run in order that those girls who attend the UN school in Bethlehem can go there unimpeded and unimpinged and to reach their full potential, which is currently not the case. So long as the current policy of Israel continues, it is unlikely to happen and we will see the situation deteriorate because of the expansion of illegal settlements, rather than checked, as should be the case.