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Statement by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, T.D., on Palestine


Statements on Palestine, Dáil Éireann

15 May 2018

 Statement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade,

Simon Coveney, T.D.


I wish to begin by expressing, on behalf of the Government, my profound shock at the scale of casualties inflicted by Israeli forces on Palestinian demonstrators yesterday. My thoughts are with the families of those killed, with those who have suffered severe injuries, and with the heroic health workers in Gaza who are working in the most difficult and overwhelming circumstances to save lives.

Reports indicate that the situation has been calmer today, but I am concerned that with no prospects of change in Gaza any time soon, the situation could very easily escalate again.

This has to stop.

I call on the Israeli Government specifically to rein in its forces and to ensure, as they should have done from the start, that force is only used where absolutely unavoidable. I further call on all those who have influence with Israel to use that influence to bring this about.

The Government has made its views very clear. I asked that the Israeli ambassador be summoned to Iveagh House this morning, and I made these points to the ambassador in the strongest terms. I asked him to convey to his Government the serious concern that these events have caused among Irish people and the impact on the international reputation of his country. Today I have also asked my officials to request that the situation in Gaza be discussed at the next meeting of the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, but before then I expect that EU leaders will discuss the issue tomorrow.

These dreadful events tragically underline my view that the Israel-Palestine peace process and the situation in Gaza cannot just be left to fester until a better day comes. They must be addressed urgently or we will see more days such as yesterday. This conviction has been the driver of my engagement on the conflict in the Middle East since I took office.

Even prior to this week, I have been greatly concerned by the events in Gaza since these protests began on 30 March, and especially by the appalling number of serious injuries and deaths to people engaged in demonstrations. The figures may change slightly but to date more than 100 Palestinians are reported to have been killed in this situation, including almost 60 yesterday. Some 3,600 people have been injured by bullets, including 1,350 yesterday, and thousands more have suffered other injuries.

It is possible that a small number of those shot may have been trying to cross the border fence, but clearly many or most were some distance inside Gaza and posed no immediate threat. Violence on the part of some protestors is regrettable and should not be condoned. The evidence, however, is that the great majority of protesters have been peaceful, although some have used stones and catapults, have attached explosive devices to the fence and Molotov cocktails have been floated on kites, setting fire to crops. These actions are reprehensible and we need to recognise that they are not nothing. The organisers, and those who control Gaza, have a responsibility to prevent such actions, but they are nowhere near a justification for the massive use of deadly force employed by the Israeli army. This also ignores the fact that many of those protesting have not been involved in those acts. It is not acceptable to target Palestinians simply because they choose to protest the occupation nor to claim, as some in Israel have done, that everyone in Gaza is linked to Hamas. There are also documented cases where the persons shot were readily identifiable as children, as journalists reporting on the events or as medical workers.

I have always recognised that every country is entitled to defend its territory. It is important to say that because it makes clear that my criticisms are made in the full knowledge of that basic right of any state. International law, however, clearly defines the circumstances in which force, in particular deadly force, can be used against civilians. Such force must only be used in cases of real and immediate threat to life, and only as a last resort, that is, when other methods have failed. The use of force should also be proportionate to the threat posed. It is clear to me that these limits have not been respected.

The right to defend oneself does not give carte blanche for any and every possible action and does not supersede the parallel rights of others. Israel is fully entitled to be vigilant and cautious when there are mass demonstrations close to its border with Gaza, but Palestinians also have a right to protest. The use of live ammunition is not a normal approach to crowd control and the resulting number and nature of casualties in recent weeks have been shocking. Many of the injuries caused by high velocity ammunition have been severe and life-changing. Israel is, of course, entitled to defend itself, but it is not entitled to do this.

The Government has not been silent during these events. I have made three public statements on these incidents: on 31 March, 9 April and yesterday. I called on all sides to show restraint, particularly Israeli forces in their use of force. I have supported the calls made by the European Union and the UN Secretary General for an independent and transparent investigation into the events. This morning I spoke directly to the Israeli ambassador when I expressed to him in the strongest possible terms our view of these events. I emphasised to him, as I have elsewhere, the need for an independent and transparent inquiry into the events, especially the use of force on this scale. It is important that the decision to use live ammunition be subject to appropriate scrutiny.

Ireland will support any appropriate move at UN level to establish an inquiry, for example, such as has been done before by the Human Rights Council. If it is not possible to get agreement at UN Security Council level, perhaps there are other avenues.

I will refer briefly to a related event yesterday - the opening of the United States embassy in Jerusalem.

The decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is disappointing and unhelpful. It also runs counter to UN Security Council resolutions, including UN Security Council Resolution 478. A solution to the Middle East conflict must include agreement on Jerusalem being the capital of both Israel and the future state of Palestine. This decision by the United States makes that solution more difficult to achieve. However, Ireland and our EU partners remain ready to support efforts to bring the conflict to a negotiated peace, leading to two states, Israel and Palestinian, living side by side in peace and security.

Unless that happens, Ireland will not be moving its embassy to Jerusalem. I call on all other states to abide by the international consensus and not to establish diplomatic missions in Jerusalem at this time.

I also stress the wider context in which the events have occurred. As I have made clear in all of my contacts in the region, the situation in Gaza is simply untenable. I have seen it for myself and discussed it closely with UN workers and others on the ground. If the cycle of violence and depression in the strip is not ended, events of this nature will recur. The long-standing blockade cannot be accepted as normal. The 1.9 million people who live in Gaza deserve an end to the decade long blockade in order that they can start to rebuild normal lives. The alternative is to see pressure continue to mount as their quality of life becomes impossible.

It is for this reason that in my many contacts at EU and international level I have been particularly active in trying to encourage and promote international engagement on improving life in Gaza. I have made this a priority in my work as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I have been working in the past year on two parallel tracks in respect of this conflict, the first of which has been to try to help to shape the initiative of the US Government to restart the political process of reaching a peace agreement in the Middle East. It is only through a comprehensive peace agreement that the occupation will be ended.

Second, I have been working, in particular, to encourage international attention for the situation in Gaza precisely because I am aware of the potential for events such as those of yesterday to happen. It is essential to lift the blockade, change the dynamic and offer hope to people living there. I will continue these efforts, engaging with all parties to the conflict, in the coming weeks and months.

However, the efforts made on the peace process and hope for Gaza cannot succeed without dialogue with Israel. I need to conduct an open dialogue with it, including, where necessary, the hard exchanges I had this morning with the ambassador. I need the voice, reporting and work on the ground of our excellent team in the Irish Embassy in Israel and the Irish Embassy to represent Ireland among Palestinians. Ambassadors for any country, including Ireland, convey the policy of their governments and report on the views of the host governments.

While I know that there is considerable frustration that we should be seeing these actions again in Gaza and there is a great will to do something significant in response, I do not agree with suggestions that we should expel the Israeli ambassador. That might provide a good headline for a day, but then what would we do tomorrow about these problems? Ireland's foreign policy is and always has been about the resolution of problems by dialogue and engagement. There are many in the House who should appreciate this, given their own background.