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Minister Costello to Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs & Trade, on visit to the Middle East

Minister for Trade and Development Joe Costello T.D., appeared before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade to discuss his visit to the Middle East, which took place from 6-11 October. The following is the text of his opening address:

Chairman, Members of the Committee, I want to thank you for inviting me here to discuss the outcomes of my visit to the Middle East last week.

My main purpose in travelling to the region was to visit the Occupied Palestinian territory and see for myself the Irish Aid programme there. I also, however, took the opportunity to visit Lebanon and maintain the strong focus and attention that the Government has placed on responding to the humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing conflict in Syria.

During my visit I announced an additional contribution of 3 million Euros in humanitarian assistance for Syria. This announcement has brought Ireland’s support to a total of almost 14 million Euros, one of the world’s most generous donors to the Syria response – on a per capita basis.  As we look towards the Donor Pledging Conference for Syria in January 2014, my visit offered an opportunity to demonstrate Ireland’s continued leadership and commitment to respond to one of the most complex humanitarian contexts in the world today.

As the Chairman is aware, my visit coincided with a period of heightened international focus on the region and I was keen to see for myself the impact of the ongoing Syrian crisis and the particular impact it has on Palestine refugees. The scale of the Syria conflict and its devastating humanitarian consequences continue to outstrip forecasts and planning scenarios.

This crisis continues to have a serious impact, not just on Syria where over 100,000 people have been killed and almost 7 million displaced, but on the wider region where neighbouring countries such as Lebanon continue to face an almost impossible burden.

My visit took place as Syria marks almost three years of devastating conflict. Since the violence began, more than 2.1 million have fled the country into neighbouring Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and across North Africa. More than one-third of the people of Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The most pressing needs are protection, health care, shelter, food and water and sanitation. An estimated 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria: amongst these 235,000are Palestine refugees, approximately half of the total number of Palestinians in the country.

Visit to Lebanon

The purpose of my visit to Lebanon was to get a better sense of the efforts being made to address the unprecedented and appalling humanitarian needs on the ground. I was deeply conscious that political tensions are never far from the surface across this region. Lebanon, with a population of 4.3 million, has been fractured by almost two decades of civil war and the country remains fragile. It has found itself increasingly impacted by  the Syrian conflict through the large-scale influx of Syrian refugees and its border region has frequently been subject to shelling.

Lebanon receives the highest number of refugees in the region. A country of 4.3  million persons now hosts 768,175 refugees and at the UNHCR registration office in Beirut I saw for myself that thousands of people are still arriving every day, seeking life-saving assistance from the UN. In fact, UNHCR now estimates that with current trends, the country will host a million refugees by the end of the year; equivalent to almost a quarter of Lebanon’s current population.

This visit gave me an opportunity to demonstrate Ireland’s support to key partner agencies such as UNRWA, and while in Beirut I announced 500,000 Euros of financial assistance for their Lebanon programme, and a further 500,000 Euros for the work of UNHCR. As winter approaches, I was assured that the Irish contribution will be of great assistance in meeting essential needs for protective items such as blankets, tents and other essential items.

A major challenge in Lebanon is the fact that the majority of refugees are hosted in communities that even before this crisis, were among the poorest in the country. Local capacities are increasingly stretched. Reaching out to populations not residing in formal camp settings is a major challenge. Both host and refugee populations in the country have been affected by increasing pressure on health and education systems, housing, employment opportunities and food prices. The Lebanese government fears that resentment is building amongst host communities and that the needs of these communities should be better addressed by the international community as we work to provide assistance and services to refugees.

In addition to the continuous arrival of Syrian refugees, Lebanon has experienced several influxes of Palestine refugees from Syria totalling some 47,000 (on top of the pre-existing case load of 440,000 Palestinians in Lebanon before the Syria crisis). The vast majority of these newly arrived Palestinians have been displaced more than once within Syria before even crossing the border. Most are housed in informal shanty towns and enjoy few legal rights.

A highlight of my visit to Lebanon was a tour of the UNRWA-managed Burj Barajnah refugee camp located on the outskirts of Beirut which is home to over 16,000 people. I was shocked at the poor and crowded conditions of the camp which is prone to flooding with its narrow roads and dysfunctional sewage system. I visited the home of a Palestinian refugee who had escaped the war in Syria with his family. I was impressed that despite the ongoing shortage of humanitarian resources, this family has been able to benefit from basic food, health care and education services through Irish and other donor assistance.

I also visited Toulkarem School in the refugee camp, where I had the opportunity to learn more about UNRWA’s education programme and to meet with Palestinian refugee students from Syria. I met with a little girl called Palestine, aged 6, whose family had finally decided to flee Dar’a when their home was burnt to the ground. These are the human faces behind the appalling statistics we read every day.

At the political level, the visit provided me with the opportunity to meet with Wael Abou Faour, Minister of Social Affairs for Lebanon. Minister Faour repeatedly emphasised the danger of losing the support of host communities in Lebanon and expressed concern at the limited options available to the Lebanese government if a critical level of refugees entering the country is reached in the coming months. The meeting provided me with an important opportunity to express Ireland’s recognition and gratitude to the Lebanese government for having maintained an open border policy for those seeking refuge from the war.

On behalf of the Irish people, I commended the Lebanese people for their generosity in hosting such significant numbers of refugees, and acknowledged the great strain that this is placing upon national social infrastructure and services. I agreed with Minister Faour that a strengthened comprehensive regional response – and increased support to host countries - is crucial to defusing any growing tensions which could further exacerbate an already entrenched and complicated conflict.

Visit to the occupied Palestinian territory

During the course of a busy four-day visit to the occupied Palestinian territory, I had an opportunity to see for myself the conditions on the ground and how Ireland is contributing to meeting urgent as well as ongoing chronic needs. I met with a cross-section of civil society organisations (both Israeli and Palestinian), humanitarian actors from the UN and NGO fraternity, as well as local community representatives who told me about the real-life effects of the occupation on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Palestinian men and women.

I held a series of high-level meetings with senior Palestinian government representatives and attended a roundtable discussion with a number of our human rights and democratisation partners in the region. I also visited Gaza, where I discussed the continuing humanitarian crisis with both UNRWA and civil society, and paid a field visit to Hebron and the surrounding region.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, the humanitarian situation continues to be precarious as the key drivers of vulnerability remain in place. Limited access to essential services, entrenched levels of food insecurity and serious protection and human rights concerns continue to characterise the day-to-day lives of many Palestinians. Currently, over half of households in Gaza and one fifth of households in the West Bank are food-insecure because of restrictions on mobility which put sufficient and nutritious food out of reach for many.

I learned from my various meetings that the search for peace remains the overriding political priority within the region. I was very glad of the opportunity to be briefed on the ongoing US-facilitated peace talks by the Palestinian government representatives I met, including Dr. Saeb Erekat who is the Chief Negotiator on the Palestinian side and intimately involved in current efforts.

I assured the Chief Negotiator that Ireland and our EU partners are fully supportive of the current talks process as well as of the intense diplomatic engagement by Secretary of State Kerry and the US Administration which succeeded in re-launching the talks at the end of July. The Tánaiste has emphasised Ireland’s full support for the current process in his address to the UN General Assembly last month.

Dr. Erekat briefed me on progress in the current talks. The actual details of negotiations are not being publicised at the request of both sides and of the US, in order to build confidence and create room for meaningful dialogue. Dr. Erekat did assure me however that all core issues are now being addressed and he confirmed that both sides are engaging intensively and in good faith. It is far too early to say whether the current process will succeed, given that we are less than three months into a negotiating process due to last nine months. However, I can certainly affirm the seriousness of intent on the Palestinian side. Dr. Erekat also expressed to me his appreciation for the very supportive role played by the EU and his hope that the EU can have an important role in underwriting any agreement that may eventually be reached.  

There is widespread recognition within the region and more generally that the Kerry initiative may represent the last opportunity to bring about a just negotiated peace deal resulting in a viable two-State solution. The continuation of the occupation and Israel’s failure to halt or reverse in any meaningful way its current settlement policies has cast increasing doubt over whether a two-State solution is attainable. Such doubts were certainly very evident in the discussions which I had with the various interlocutors during my visit.

I also discussed the Middle East peace process with Prime Minister Hamdallah. The Prime Minister briefed me on the current economic situation in the occupied Palestinian territory and the continuing efforts of the Palestinian Authority to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state and strengthen its economy. During the meeting, I was happy to announce further funding of 1.5 million Euros to the Palestinian Authority in the current year, to be channelled through an EU-administered mechanism and which will go towards supporting public service salaries and pensions as well as social allowances for vulnerable families.

My discussions with Foreign Minister Malki also covered the current peace talks as well as regional issues, where I briefed him on my visit to Lebanon and our ongoing substantial humanitarian support to the Syria crisis, including the many thousands of Palestinians who have been displaced as a result.

I used the opportunity of my meeting with the Foreign Minister to discuss how we can extend areas of practical cooperation between Ireland and the occupied Palestinian territory. The Palestinian side is keen to mobilise the diaspora so I briefed the Foreign Minister on discussions which took place at the third Global Irish Forum earlier this month. I also mentioned that the Government was looking forward to exploring the scope for closer cooperation with the new Palestinian Ambassador/Head of Mission (Ahmad Abdelrazek) who is due to present credentials shortly.

Also in Ramallah, I participated in a round table discussion on 8 October with a number of Palestinian and Israeli human rights NGOs which Irish Aid supports through our Human Rights and Democratisation programme. This was a useful opportunity to hear about the actual situation on the ground and the continuing serious impact on ordinary Palestinians of the Israeli occupation, the continued expansion of settlements and such practices as demolitions, evictions and the ongoing blockade of Gaza.

Committee members will be aware that Ireland has been very active at EU level in encouraging continuing close attention to such matters as failure to address and persuade Israel to move away from policies and practices inimical to peace will only adversely affect the prospects for an overall peace deal and for the attainment of a viable two-State solution.

An issue of major concern to the Palestinian Authority and people is the situation of the approximately 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody. We know well here in Ireland the overall importance of such issues and of encouraging those who are detained to play a positive, constructive role in support of any peace process. I welcomed the opportunity to discuss such issues with Minister for Prisoners and ex-Prisoners’ Affairs, Mr. Issa Qaraqe, who himself served ten years in Israeli prison during the 1980s.

Finally Mr. Chairman, Committee Members,

My visit to Gaza confirmed my assessment that the ongoing political turmoil and insecurity in the wider region is resulting in a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in that narrow strip of land. I learnt how the ongoing instability and change of leadership in Egypt has let to restrictions in access for imports to Gaza, and in particular, a reduced flow of essential items such as fuel which is leading to higher prices and further hardship in Gaza.  I met with Palestinian refugees in Gaza City to hear how the blockade is impacting on their lives and to learn about their needs and hopes for the future. High unemployment, particularly among young people, low wages and high food prices are major concerns. Food security, however, is the principal cause for alarm. More than 800,000 of the over 1.2 million Palestine refugees in Gaza receive food assistance from UNRWA. 

I was able to see this vital work first hand during my visit to a distribution centre in the Nuseirat refugee camp. The support provides a lifeline for thousands of refugee families in Gaza and the demand for UNRWA’s services has grown as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian situation. In recognition of the current humanitarian needs in Gaza, I approved funding of 500,000 Euros for UNRWA’s Gaza Emergency Appeal for 2013, bringing Ireland’s total contribution to UNRWA’S appeals for Gaza to 4.64 million Euros since 2006.

In East Jerusalem, my visit concluded with a meeting with the Head of UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territory who described the operational challenges faced by the UN and their impact on the delivery of assistance. OCHA is an important partner for Ireland in supporting humanitarian action, particularly with respect to coordination, needs assessment and response planning. I was pleased to announce funding of 300,000 Euros to support OCHA’s relief operations in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Mr. Chairman, Committee Members,

Long-term, sustainable development in the occupied Palestinian territory is, of course, dependent on a successful outcome to the ongoing political negotiations.  Ireland will continue to actively support the search for a lasting and peaceful political solution in the oPt as well as in the wider region, but in the meantime will continue to offer the humanitarian support which is essential in addressing the ongoing basic needs of the Palestinian people.