Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 February 2024

Situation in the Middle East: Statements


1:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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We are waiting for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs. I thank Members for their patience. The Tánaiste was just finishing his remarks in the Dáil Chamber.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, to the House. He has ten minutes, group spokespersons have ten minutes each and the Tánaiste will be called to reply no later than 5.50 p.m. He will have ten minutes to reply and statements must conclude at 6 p.m.

I commend the Tánaiste and the Government on their approach and their sensitive and delicate handling of this situation. I thank him for being here and thank Members for their patience. The Tánaiste has not got the gift of bilocation just yet, even though we think he has in Cork.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Go raibh maith agaibh, a Chathaoirligh and Senators.

In Gaza we continue to bear witness to a brutal conflict: 136 long days of war, 100,000 dead, injured or missing, 1.9 million displaced and 90% facing acute hunger. These are numbers but they describe a human reality of mass suffering on an industrial scale, a humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes. More than half of the population of Gaza is now taking shelter in Rafah. Almost 1.5 million people are displaced from their home and seeking refuge. Crammed into Rafah, these war-weary people are in dire need of the basics for survival: food, water, sanitation and shelter.

What they do not need is further military escalation. This casts a dark shadow that will jeopardise life-saving humanitarian operations and bring death, destruction and devastation. Senators will agree when I say this cannot be allowed to happen. A ceasefire now is more urgent than ever.

In New York in the past hour or so, a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza was put to a vote. The United States used its veto to prevent the adoption of this resolution. I deeply regret this. I have been demanding such a ceasefire for months and will continue to demand it. It is high time the UN Security Council finds its voice and calls unequivocally for an immediate ceasefire.

I have said before and say again the veto is an anachronism and has no place in the 21st century. Its use - even the threat of its use - has neutered the Security Council at times when its responsibility to act is most acute. This erodes the legitimacy of the Security Council. We saw this during our recent term on the council. As I made clear at the Munich Security Conference, our view is simple: it should be abolished.

Calling for an immediate ceasefire is a message I brought yesterday to the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. The European Union should join the vast majority of the international community and call unequivocally for an immediate ceasefire. Silence is not tenable. I welcome that 26 EU member states agreed a statement urging Israel not to proceed with an offensive in Rafah.

It is a message I gave to the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, during a conversation I had with him at the Munich Security Conference last week, when I underlined Ireland's deep concern about the situation in Rafah. I also recalled our consistent position calling for an immediate ceasefire, unconditional release of hostages and full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access.

It is hard to overstate the urgency of the humanitarian emergency we are witnessing in Gaza. Every day it deteriorates. At the Foreign Affairs Council, we discussed the deteriorating situation with the UN senior humanitarian co-ordinator, Sigrid KaagHumanitarian responders face access denials and genuine danger. Acute hunger is now a daily reality for virtually everyone in Gaza. These people are on the brink of starvation and famine. Unsanitary conditions are a breeding ground for disease. People need water and food. Hospitals and clinics need fuel and medical supplies. In this context, I highlight the vital work of humanitarian actors, including the UN Relief and Works Agency. I had the opportunity to welcome UNRWA's commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, to Dublin last week. We discussed the work UNRWA is doing in incredibly difficult circumstances in Gaza. My view is absolutely clear; UNRWA cannot be replaced. It is the backbone of humanitarian efforts in Gaza and provides a range of essential services not only in Gaza, but across the region. It will also be vital for the reconstruction of Gaza in the event of a ceasefire and peace process. When its mandate was last renewed at the UN General Assembly, it enjoyed the support of 157 countries. Just one country voted against the resolution. The will of the international community is clear. UNRWA has an important job to do.

The allegations that 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October terrorist attacks are very serious indeed. UNRWA took immediate action to terminate their contracts. The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services is now investigating the specifics of the allegations. In addition, the UN Secretary General appointed an independent review group, led by the former French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna. This group will assess how UNRWA is ensuring neutrality and responding to any allegations of serious breaches that arise. These are important steps and I welcome them. I call on all parties, including Israel, to provide whatever information they have on the allegations to the investigation.

Ireland is a long-standing supporter of UNRWA and, right now, it needs support more than ever. That is why I was pleased last week to announce €20 million of Irish support for UNRWA operations in 2024. As the House will know, some on UNRWA's key donors suspended their funding based on the allegations. I have been engaging actively with our partners in the European Union and elsewhere, including the United States, to press them to urgently rescind this decision. UNRWA provides services not just in Gaza, but also to the 5.9 million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.

This was a reminder, if we needed it, that this war has implications that go far beyond the Gaza Strip. We see that in the escalation in fighting along Israel's northern frontier with Lebanon, where Irish troops are deployed with UNIFIL. We see it in Yemen, where the Houthis have been attacking global shipping. Just yesterday, at the Foreign Affairs Council, the European Union agreed to establish a new defensive naval operation in the Red Sea, Operation Aspides.

Today, I reiterate my condemnation of the brutal Hamas attacks of 7 October. It was an appalling terrorist attack that has deeply scarred Israeli society. All hostages held by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza must be immediately and unconditionally released. The hostages and their families have suffered for 136 days. That must be brought to an end. Hamas should lay down its arms.

I also reiterate that the Israeli response in Gaza has been disproportionate. Even wars have rules. International humanitarian law exists for a reason. It aims to protect all civilians in all situations of armed conflict. These rules apply to all parties, both state actors and non-state actors. They require distinction, proportionality and precaution. Military actions must comply with these principles. What we are witnessing in the scale of civilian casualties and the vast swathes of the strip reduced to rubble leads me to the conclusion that Israel's actions have violated international humanitarian law. In 2022, Ireland hosted a high-level conference on protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Some 85 countries have endorsed the political declaration adopted in Dublin, which is an important signal that reinforces obligations under international humanitarian law. I will take the opportunity to once again condemn attacks directed at civilians. I condemn indiscriminate attacks, including indiscriminate rocket fire.I condemn the use of heavy munitions with a wide blast area in densely populated urban centres, where civilian harm is expected. The civilian death toll and the massive destruction of property throughout Gaza are gravely concerning. The civilian impact on this scale is not in line with the requirements under international law that self-defence be necessary and proportionate, and in the Government's view, Israel has exceeded these limits in its response to the Hamas attacks. Civilians and civilian infrastructure must be protected. This includes healthcare workers, clinics, hospitals and ambulances. Health must never be targeted.

Journalists are protected as civilians. The Committee to Protect Journalists has described the war as “the most dangerous situation for journalists we have ever seen”. Of the 99 journalists killed worldwide in 2023, 72 were Palestinians killed in Gaza after 7 October. Journalists and other media workers who cover conflicts are courageous. In the face of grave risks to their lives, they bring us the truth, and this must never be targeted.

This war has destroyed so much. UNICEF estimates that at least 17,000 children are now unaccompanied or separated from their parents in Gaza. This unspeakable situation has led to a terrible new initialism, WCNSF - wounded child, no surviving family. I shudder to think about the trauma these children are experiencing. This emotional toll may last much longer than the immediate physical danger they face every day. For these children, education is an anchor, but all the UNRWA schools are closed. UNICEF estimates that 625,000 students in Gaza have been deprived of education since 7 October, that is, deprived of their human rights to education. Ending this conflict will allow UNRWA to begin the painful and slow work to rebuild the education system and get students back into the classroom, where they belong. This is fundamental; it cannot happen soon enough.

This week, the Attorney General will appear before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He will set out Ireland's detailed legal analysis of Israel's occupation of Palestine. These advisory proceedings are an important opportunity for the ICJ to pronounce on the matter. We have long been outspoken on Israel's occupation and supported this referral to the International Court of Justice. It is, therefore, right and proper that we participate in these proceedings.

As for South Africa's case against Israel under the genocide convention, the House will be aware we are monitoring this closely. I welcome the ICJ's binding provisional measures. South Africa last week made an urgent request seeking additional measures in response to the situation in Rafah. We are undertaking a comprehensive legal and policy analysis of this case and engaging with South Africa. After South Africa has submitted its memorial to the court, we will then consider how to proceed. The key point for us is that we take these issues seriously and consider them rigorously. Before the international courts, we will prepare our legal grounds and work prior to interventions. These issues are not about issuing press releases but about serious, sustained and proper interventions. Meanwhile, the ICC prosecutor continues to actively investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Palestine. I met Karim Khan in Munich last weekend and discussed progress in this case. The ICC remains an important avenue for accountability.

Another part of the accountability framework is EU sanctions against Hamas, as well as proposed EU sanctions against violent settlers in the West Bank in response to the violence there, which has drastically increased since October. Yesterday, at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, I underlined that sanctions should be adopted without delay. The United States has adopted sanctions, as have the United Kingdom and France. It is high time for the European Union to act against those who attack and displace Palestinian communities. One country objected to that yesterday, while 26 wanted to go ahead.Last week, Ireland and Spain wrote to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, to call for an urgent review of whether Israel is complying with its human rights obligations under the European Union-Israel association agreement. This sends a clear signal. Human rights are not optional extras; they are central to agreements like this. We take human rights compliance seriously. I am looking forward to the response of the Commission.

At the Munich Security Conference I also met the foreign ministers of Norway, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, among others. In all my meetings, one thing was clear: we cannot lose sight of the need for a comprehensive political track leading to a Palestinian state and an Arab-led peace plan. This brutal war is just the latest cycle in a long and inhumane conflict. There will be many more cycles unless we take steps to address root causes. We need to build a pathway to a sustainable peace, and that pathway is firmly rooted in the two-state solution and in Security Council resolutions. In Ireland, we have a voice in the European Union and the United Nations. Here in this Chamber, Senators, too, have a voice. As I conclude, I pay tribute to a powerful voice in this Chamber. Senator David Norris devoted his final speech in the Seanad last month to Palestine, urging us "to continue to push for peace in our times". I assure the House that I will continue to push. I will push for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. I will push for the unconditional release of all hostages. I will push for full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and I will certainly push for lasting peace in our times.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Tánaiste. I welcome St. Anne's National School, Bailieborough to the Gallery. The students are accompanied by their principal and members of staff. I know they are neighbours and friends of Senator Joe O'Reilly, who is doing them proud here in the House. They will be very proud of his work on their behalf. I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for allowing Senator O'Reilly to speak next to facilitate him being here with the group.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I met the children on the way in. They were also in the other House, where I was speaking on the war in Ukraine. I hope the school does not mind me saying this, but is it not saying something that the two debates they have witnessed so far are debates about unspeakable wars? It is a sign of our times, but you are our future and we hope we can give you a more peaceful legacy than the one we have inherited.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Senator O'Reilly is sharing time with Senator Currie. Is that agreed? Agreed. I remind Members that time is of the essence. Their co-operation would be appreciated.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I join the Cathaoirleach in his welcome to my good friends and neighbours from St. Anne's, which does us all proud as an education institution in our community. I echo the words of the Tánaiste to the pupils from St. Anne's that we hope and pray for, and it is our business to try to achieve, a situation where they will grow up in a different world from the one that exists at the moment in terms of international conflict. That is our prayer and our hope, but it must also be what we work towards.

I endorse the motion from the Civil Engagement Group. I absolutely support the motion and every facet thereof. It is a good motion. I say "Well done" to its proposers on bringing it forward. It is timely and right. There is no more important issue they could have brought forward at the moment.

The Tánaiste began by telling us that America has vetoed a UN resolution again today. That is really disappointing and regressive. We are great friends of America in this country, but often the essence of good friendship is straight talking and honest relationships. It is important that, on our behalf, the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach in Washington and every one of us who goes to America for St. Patrick's Day, in whatever capacity, leaves no ambiguity that we think this is wrong, the American support to date is wrong and America has to pull the plug. I saw that the Americans proposed an alternative wording to the Algerian motion. There was a ray of hope in that motion to the extent that America is, at least, calling for there to be no invasion of Rafah, as well as for an end and a humanitarian solution. There is a movement and America is obviously beginning to distance itself, but it is not enough and we must be very firm about that. Israel's behaviour throughout all of this must be utterly condemned. Its behaviour was preceded by years of illegal settlements, effective imperialism and colonialism and the mistreatment of the people of Gaza. All the things it was doing were calculated to make the achievement of a two-state solution extraordinarily difficult. We have to stand firm. I am very proud of how the Government is doing that. We all, collectively, must stand firm on this.

There is a list of statistics that are gruesome and frightening in the prelude to the motion from the Civil Engagement Group. Some of the figures are shocking. A total of 29,000 Palestinians have been killed and 69,000 wounded. Well in excess of 10,000 children are murdered or deceased. There are lots of injuries to people, as well as starvation, malnutrition and a lack of medicine, with amputations and caesarean sections being done without anaesthetic. The entire thing is a horror. I offer one more figure before talking more about the politics of it. A total of 90% of children under two in Gaza and 95% of pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers are facing food poverty at this time. These are horrendous statistics from UNICEF.

We are witnessing horror on a daily basis. We cannot be ambiguous about this. It is openly wrong. Approximately 1.2 million Palestinians were pushed into Rafah in good faith on their part. The idea that there would now be an assault on Rafah is wrong, is a horror and cannot be condoned in any sense of the word. It is not about defence; it is a revenge exercise, as the Taoiseach said recently. It is just wrong. Let us call a spade a spade. A lot of what is happening is genocide in that it is not about the selective identification of terrorists. It is a punishing, criminalising, dehumanising and annihilation of an entire population. It is the elimination of a people in a ruthless, cruel and wrong way. There can be no fancy talk used about this.

I do not like making the next point while our sixth-class visitors are in the Chamber. The West must bear in mind that all of this will breed a new generation of suicide bombers. What will intelligent 15-year-olds do who see their house in rubble, a lot of their family dead, a lot of injuries in those who remain and themselves homeless and orphaned on the street? We know this all too well in Ireland. That intelligent 15-year-old is a potential suicide bomber. That intelligent 15-year-old will bring the war to Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and to Dublin and Paris. It is a horrible thought but there is no avoiding it. That will be the ultimate result of some of what is happening. We will not be able to live smugly in isolation from it. These children are suffering from post-traumatic stress.

We need a ceasefire. We must support sanctions at EU level. We need to recognise the state of Palestine. At this stage, any nice talk must finish. What is happening is not acceptable and we should be unambiguous in our approach.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Tánaiste for his strong speech. We will debate the motion from the Civil Engagement Group tomorrow but I welcome the statement he has shared with us today.

Like so many other people, I feel utterly helpless. Many Irish people feel this way and are expressing it by the sharing of emails and so on. The platform this issue has in Ireland is notable compared with what is happening in other countries. I was in Westminster yesterday for a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and it was shocking to me that this issue does not dominate public discussion there the way it does here. We live in a safe functioning democracy but there are 2.3 million people in Gaza existing in a living hell. There is no end and no hope in sight for them.

I participated in a vigil outside the Kildare Street gate a couple of weeks ago at which I read out the names of the victims in recent weeks. I started with children who were 17 and I got to children who were seven. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever done. I read out those names remembering that I have two children aged nine and 11. The children who have lost their lives in Gaza deserved the same chance of life and the same hope and opportunity as do children in Ireland. The indiscriminate attacks on women and children are appalling. As the Tánaiste said, there is a new term to refer to wounded children with no surviving parents. That kind of terminology is not terminology we should be familiar with, never mind the children concerned.

There has been a targeting of the independent journalists on whom we rely, with 122 losing their lives. Let us also remember the heroic work of health workers and the sacrifice they, too, are making to try to save lives. I am struck by the trauma that will haunt the children in Gaza for years. Senator O'Reilly is right that they are being driven into radicalisation. It is very concerning. Nothing justifies what happened on 7 October. I utterly condemn the keeping of hostages. At the same time, however, Israel needs to stop hiding behind the justification of self-defence. As we know, self-defence is supposed to be a shield. It is not supposed to be a sword. Every day, people have a choice when it comes to the use of violence. We on this island know that. They are choosing to continue the suffering, the destruction of human life and the violation of international law. They are choosing violence as a means to an end, but an end that can never be achieved. An ideology can never be annihilated. It is only possible to offer alternatives and hope.

We need to put all of our energy into a political peace process and the achievement of a sustainable two-state solution. I know from the Tánaiste's speech today that this is where every fibre of the Government's energy is going. I commend him on taking a stand when others were not. I believe Ireland will be on the right side of history as time goes on. We need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We must do everything to stop the military escalation in Rafah and the needless loss of life. We need to use our soft power to influence the EU and the US to achieve a peaceful solution and the use of EU sanctions.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Senator O'Loughlin. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste. Everybody in the House will agree with the sentiments he has expressed today and in international forums, which reflect the horror of the people of Ireland at what we are witnessing in the Middle East. We can debate the politics of everything else but it is critical that there be an immediate ceasefire. It is deeply regrettable that the US chose to veto the motion at the UN today calling for such a ceasefire.

The actions of Israel are a completely disproportionate response to the horrific events of 7 October. I entirely agree with Senator Currie's remarks in that regard. It is important that the Tánaiste continues to call out the Netanyahu Government. In many ways, it is an extreme nationalist, exclusionist and, I would say, far-right Government. There have long been concerns about its approach to the rule of law within its own country and in regard to how it respects human rights. Indeed, the inclusion of settlers from the West Bank in the Netanyahu Government clearly has influenced Israel's policy and its approach to this conflict.

In our rightful condemnation of the Netanyahu Government, and we must continue to call it out, we should continue to respect the people of Israel.We need to ensure that while we continuously call out what is being done by its government, in the same way that we show our detestation for the authoritarian regime of Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China we still show respect for the ordinary people of Israel as we do the ordinary people of Russia and China. There is a worrying rise in antisemitism. In terms of how we express our views globally, we should always stand against such hatred whether it is antisemitism, Islamophobia or discrimination based on any religious or other expression of identity.

We have to look to the future in terms of what is going to happen. It is quite right that the Tánaiste spoke about investment in education. It is to be hoped we will see a ceasefire quite soon. Ireland and the European Union need to commit to helping to rebuild Palestine and the West Bank. We need to move towards the two-state solution that this State has long called for and involved in that is the recognition of Palestine. However, there will be a need for investment in physical infrastructure.

Given our State's history, as the Tánaiste has outlined, it is important to invest in education. We have to give those who survive the atrocities hope. We have to be able to provide them with the opportunity, whether in Palestine or outside of their borders, to complete their education and build a new state for themselves. The lessons of our own peace process show that there will be a requirement for greater co-operation between the peoples of the Middle East.

We know this is an incredibly dark period. We have to look at ways in which we can shine a light and say that we will look to bring people together at the end of this. Physical rebuilding is not going to be enough, and we know that. As hard as it is now, we need to start to talk about how we can ensure a process of reconciliation between the peoples who are going to have to live in this region well into the future. While we must continue our efforts to ensure that there is a ceasefire, we also have to look to the long term and to the rebuilding process.

As the Tánaiste said, we need to continue to call for an immediate ceasefire and the release of the hostages. We all hope that in the not-too-distant future, leadership will emerge in Israel other than that of Netanyahu and those on the extreme right. The people of Palestine are not best served by Hamas or some of those who are leading them at present. It is critical that we start to look at who will provide the long-term leadership within the region. It is vital that the international community supports those emerging leaders, human rights activists and others in Israel and Palestine to be able to rebuild after this horrific period.

It is also important that we do not just see the conflict in Israel and Palestine in isolation. Other events are happening in the Middle East and globally that need to be reflected on. The role of Iran, in particular in supporting some of the militant groups throughout the Middle East, needs to continue to be called out. That includes Hamas, which is a death cult, as well as its role in supporting the Houthis in Yemen and some of the horrific actions that are taking place there. I ask in particular that the Tánaiste raise with Iran its support for the Houthis. At present, the Houthis are engaging in the systematic execution of those who are gay or identify as gay, as well as in many other human rights atrocities in Yemen. In Iran, we continue to see the arbitrary detention of women, LGBT persons and those from ethnic and religious minorities. We know the Iranian authorities are engaged in disappearance and torture, including amputation and blinding. We know Iran is supplying military equipment, including drones, to Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

It is important to mention that Ireland has had a very long and proud peacekeeping record. The Tánaiste mentioned the role of our troops in UNIFIL We should look to participate in any peacekeeping, difficult though it may be, in this region. We have always been willing to step up to the mark. It shows, as the Minister rightly said, the problem with the veto at the Security Council. Our foreign policy should not be held to ransom by a veto at the Security Council, whether by the United States, China or Russia. I thank the Tánaiste for the leadership he has provided in this area and all of this House will continue to support the actions he is taking.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach. When I was 13, my parents bought me The Diary of A Young Girlby Anne Frank. It is something I have always treasured. It was the first time I really learned about man's inhumanity to man. Coincidentally, I was the same age as Anne Frank was when she started writing her diary. I felt I could identify with a lot of what she was talking about. Obviously, I could not comprehend what she was going through. I asked all of the adults in my life, "How could this happen?" They all said that nobody knew what was happening.

Many years later, I visited Dachau and Auschwitz and again asked the question, "How could this happen?" Again, the answer was that people did not know what was happening and if they knew, it would not happen. Many years later, I lived in a kibbutz in Israel for a few months. The kibbutz was founded by Holocaust survivors and named for Mordechai Anielewicz, a Polish Jew. I met survivors and worked with them. I found myself saying that the Holocaust would never have happened if the world had known about it.

Here we are, 82 years later and this is happening on our watch. On Holocaust day, which should always be recognised and commemorated, we use the term, "Lest We Forget". Here we have another Holocaust and it is happening on our watch. We cannot say that we did not know about it. Children, by accident of their birth, have no future. They are lucky if they have a few weeks or months. If Israel does what it is threatening to do in terms of bombing another small part of Gaza to where all of the Palestinians have fled there is no hope.

I thank the Tánaiste for his principled approach to this from day one and the leadership he has shown, not just from the Government but across Europe and the world. I had the opportunity to speak about this in the Council of Europe. We had a very lively debate on what it should do as a human rights organisation. I was quite shocked and horrified by the attitude of a lot of our European neighbours, who are members of a human rights organisation in Europe. The actions the Tánaiste has taken and everything he has spoken about are 100% what we need to do. In his contribution he spoke about the important voice Ireland has to show hope and shine a light, and that is what he is doing. I commend him and wish him well in this arduous journey.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Tánaiste for being here. He has to leave the Chamber. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is going to take his seat. At this juncture, I appeal to people regarding time. Also, while it is not often done, the official to my left is in my GAA club, works in the Department of Foreign Affairs and was a pivotal person in Ireland's battle for a UN Security Council seat, Eoghan McSwiney. He is welcome to the Seanad.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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The human suffering brought about by Israel's military actions is gut wrenching. It is especially reprehensible when one considers that it is being perpetrated by what is called a democratic state. The Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October was clearly abhorrent. The continued holding of hostages is intolerable and they should all be released. Israel's response has been, to say the very least, indiscriminate. It represents collective punishment of all Gazans and it is clear to us that war crimes are being committed.Nearly three quarters of the population of Gaza are relying on contaminated water sources. We are talking about a level of death and misery that is very difficult for us to comprehend. We now have a situation where, after being moved on a number of occasions, they are now in the south of Gaza, many of them vulnerable, sick or old and requiring urgent medication. Israel has begun bombing this one last remaining area of shelter and is threatening a ground invasion, but where do the people go and what does the international community do? We must remember that only about four weeks ago the International Court of Justice, of which Israel is a member, ordered Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent the killing of Palestinians and to stop the physical destruction of Gaza. It is already clear that Israel has completely ignored this interim ruling, even though it is binding. That is a challenge when a democratic state is already in breach of the orders of the court in which it partakes.

Since the beginning of this conflict Ireland has been one of the loudest voices in Europe calling for this conflict to end - something that has not been lost on the Israeli Government. We were one of the first EU countries to call for a ceasefire and we have been pushing for this within the EU, at the UN and in bilateral contacts. I am proud of the Green Party's position on this. From the get-go, we immediately said there should be a ceasefire and that there are underlying conditions. That is not making an excuse for anyone, because all killing is barbaric and never to be condoned, but unless we address the underlying issues, this will go on and will happen again. I was also struck by the use by some commentators of the term "disproportionate" and even "entirely disproportionate" to describe the response by the Israelis. Disproportionate is such an inept word. This is no longer simply a disproportionate, indiscriminate response. It is a bombing of innocent people – men, women and children.

At the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels yesterday, 26 EU member states, with the exception of Hungary, agreed a statement urging Israel not to proceed with the offensive in Rafah and to abide by the ICJ provisional measures, which are binding. It also called for an immediate humanitarian pause, leading to a sustainable ceasefire. As part of the Government's ongoing efforts, Ireland and Spain have taken a lead, on which I commend them, in writing to the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, calling on the Commission to review whether Israel is complying with its obligations under the EU-Israel association agreement, which deals with such matters. I hope that can be expedited because it is clear for anyone to see that Israel is not complying with its obligations. It is in flagrant breach of human rights. Let us not devote so much time to those deliberations and treat them with the prioritised urgency that the indisputableprima facieevidence, which is there for all to see, merits. Article 2 of the agreement states that the relationship between the parties shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles. That is totally out of line. Why is there a big delay?

I know Ireland is doing a good job. A lot of objective people have said Ireland is a leading voice in Europe. We have only to ask the Israelis to hear how much they are disappointed with us. That is what I would expect from Ireland, but we must go further and redouble our efforts if we are leaders in this respect. We cannot become complacent. We must do more.

It is worth noting that the EU is Israel's biggest trading partner. Almost one third of Israel's imports come from the EU and just over a quarter of the country's exports went to the EU. This gives the EU leverage, which member states should use to bring an end to this devastating conflict. On Thursday, 22 February, Ireland's Attorney General, Rossa Fanning SC, will travel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has been asked to give its opinion on the consequences of Israel's occupation of Palestine. He will deliver Ireland's legal analysis of Israel's occupation, on which Ireland has regularly voiced its deep concern, including the growing number of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Picking on UNRWA and pulling the plug and freezing funding to the agency has had and will have devastating consequences. Senior Green Party representatives met Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini in Dublin last week to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and the funding crisis faced by UNWRA. The Government used the opportunity to announce €20 million in additional funding for UNWRA to help address the urgent needs of Palestinian refugees. While the increased funding is welcome, the Green Party has been clear that Ireland and other donors cannot simply be left to pay the costs of Israel's wanton destruction of Gaza. Israel must foot the bill for this devastating destruction that is caused to Gaza's infrastructure. There has to be a day of reckoning. For example, it is estimated that by the end of January, 386 school buildings in Gaza had sustained damage. This represents more than 78% of all school buildings in Gaza and includes 25 schools that were completely damaged and 113 that were severely damaged. Many of these schools were funded by countries such as Ireland.

Green Party backbenchers have written to Ministers urging them to use the opportunity of the St. Patrick's Day trips abroad to raise the issue of Gaza with their hosts and to seek support for an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages and the holding to account of all participants in this brutal conflict. Ireland is a very good friend of America but it is clear that America has armed Israel to the teeth. As long as that remains the position, this war will continue to be sustained by our friends in America. They must see sense. Ireland has direct access to the White House for St. Patrick's week. We should use it now like never before. I was disappointed that we have no planned ministerial visits to the Middle East on this occasion. Perhaps that could be rectified because if ever they were needed, it is now, to show solidarity. I would like to see an increase in scholarships which this State funds at both postgraduate and undergraduate level.

I thank the Minister of State for his presence today. I look forward to his response in due course.

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank him for coming. I think we have reached an inflection point in relation to what is happening in Gaza. The forced expulsion at gunpoint of the civilian population is a war crime, and Israel has done this twice. It has forced Gazans to endure a forced expulsion from Gaza city to Khan Younis and then from Khan Younis to Rafah. Rafah is their final refuge. There are approximately 1.8 million men, women and children trapped in Rafah. They are right up against the border, a fortified zone known as the Philadelphi corridor or the Saladin corridor between Kerem Shalom on the Israeli border right through to the Mediterranean. There is literally nowhere to go.They cannot evacuate. Israel, as the belligerent and having entered the territory of another country, is required under the Geneva Conventions and the laws of foreign conflict to provide a safe evacuation zone for civilians. It has not done that. It is also supposed to provide a safe zone in its own territory to give civilians access to medicine, nutrition, food, water and so on. It has not done so. It is in breach of its responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions.

Israel is also saturating the area with high explosives. If I got a piece of high explosives the size of a cigarette packet and placed it under a car, when it detonated people would not be able to tell what kind of vehicle it was. It would have to be forensically examined to determine its make. That is what one cigarette-packet sized piece of high explosives will do to a vehicle. Israel is dropping 500 kg free-fall dumb bombs in grid patterns onto the civilian population. High explosives have a number of effects on that population. The blast pulps internal organs. For anyone within the blast radius, it will pulp their internal organs - heart, lungs and kidneys - and shatter their bones. Anyone within the range of shrapnel will have catastrophic soft tissue injuries, limb separation or decapitation. During the week, I saw a photograph of a little girl - I would say she was about seven years old - who had been impacted by both blast and shrapnel effect. She was hanging by a piece of clothing which had snagged her on a wall and her intestines were hanging down, her little blue and pink intestines.

That is what Israel is inflicting on the civilian population. Some 70% of the casualties thus far are innocent men, women and children. Benjamin Netanyahu claims to have - I use his word - "eliminated" 9,000 Hamas fighters but the Israelis are killing 183 innocent men, women and children every day and seriously injuring 453 with polytrauma. That means every two minutes an innocent civilian in Gaza is butchered or rendered either to death or to a state of polytrauma that is life-changing. This is a deliberate and systematic strategy; it is not, to use the awful term, "collateral damage". Israel knows what it is doing and is doing it in full view of the international community.

It took the Israelis nine weeks to clear Khan Younis. They say there are four battalions of Hamas entrenched in Rafah among the civilian population. It must be borne in mind that Hamas continues to commit war crimes by firing missiles and rockets into Israel at civilian targets daily. It is also committing war crimes in that it is holding approximately 100 hostages. They must be released immediately but the principal victims are, and the centre of gravity of suffering lies among, the men, women and children of Gaza, the Palestinian people. If it takes nine weeks to clear Rafah, I believe we will see a rapid acceleration in the casualty rates. By my calculations - it is an appalling calculus - we will see a further 20,000 deaths and 70,000 seriously wounded. I use the words "butchered" and "rendered" advisedly because of the ubiquitous and indiscriminate use of high explosives and white phosphorus rounds. That will mean at the end of this operation, if the Israelis proceed, one in ten Gazans will have been either killed or seriously injured. That is a literal and metaphorical decimation of a people. It is biblical in its savagery and bestiality.

I commend the Taoiseach and Tánaiste on their unequivocal leadership on this and their moral courage among a European and international community that has been behind the curve in calling out what is happening in Gaza. They have given us ethical leadership. One can become devoid of hope and feel helpless but we can make a difference. The Tánaiste, who unfortunately had to leave, brokered an international ban on cluster munitions in Croke Park when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs in a previous administration. That shows that one individual, the Irish people and our public representatives can make a difference but we must be resolute in our condemnation and be clear. Israel is a great nation and has an inalienable right to exist and to defend itself; it has no right to perpetrate what is genocide within Rafah in the coming weeks.

I am alarmed that Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to invade Rafah before Ramadan. He is introducing ethno-nationalistic language and, I would argue, hate speech. Some of his colleagues have already referred to Palestinians and Gazans as human animals. As Senator O'Loughlin pointed out, this is happening in plain view. We are seeing it.

I welcome the Private Members' motion for tomorrow put forward by the Civil Engagement Group. Unfortunately, I will be at the OSCE in Vienna tomorrow but I commend the group and support the motion fully. It is great to see the House ad idembut I think of that little girl whose remains were photographed and uploaded around the world. Somebody dressed that little girl in that dress and put her into what they thought was a place of safety. It is unthinkable what is happening there at the moment. Israel is concentrating 1.8 million people in a ghetto for summary slaughter. There is no other way to describe it. It has no strategic benefit and will not achieve the war aims set out by Benjamin Netanyahu, destroy Hamas or eradicate its leadership. I stand in solidarity with other Senators to condemn what has happened. I have witnessed at first hand that slaughter and find it thoroughly heartbreaking and depressing to see it continue 30 years later.