It is unusual for this column to deal with the same issue three weeks in a row. But the Israeli assault on Gaza makes this a very special case. The scenes of desolation and destruction, of whole streets reduced to piles of broken rubble, and the images of torn bodies, especially of young children and babies, demand that the international community do all that we can to end this slaughter.
Just before noon on Tuesday morning I spoke to Saeb Erekat in Ramallah on the west Bank. The Palestinian Unity Government was holding an emergency meeting to discuss the deteriorating situation.
Saeb is an Executive Committee Member of the PLO and is the Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian government. He took a few minutes to brief me on the current situation in Gaza and the behind the scenes efforts to achieve a humanitarian ceasefire.
He explained that the Palestinian government, including Hamas, had accepted a United States proposal for a 24 hour humanitarian ceasefire. The Israeli government rejected this. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon then proposed a 72 hour humanitarian ceasefire. The Palestinian government accepted this but again the Israeli government said no.
Saeb thanked the people of Ireland for their support and asked that they and the international community endorse and support the United Nations call for a ceasefire. He told me that there is no oil, no water, and no electricity in Gaza. Saeb described this current Israeli assault as seeking the total destruction of Gaza.
The proof of this can be found in the statistics of death and destruction coming out of Gaza. In the 24 hours before I spoke to Saeb another 100 Palestinians – mostly civilians – had been killed in attacks by the Israel military.
Since July 8 when the current violence erupted around 1300 Palestinians – according to the UN 80% of them civilians – have been killed. Almost 7,000 have been injured. Israel has lost 53 soldiers and three civilians.
An explanation for the disproportionate number of civilian deaths between Palestinians and Israel can be found in the words of Major General Gadi Eizenkot, now a deputy chief of staff in the Israeli Army. Six years ago he admitted that any village or city from which rockets are fired would be regarded as a ‘missile base.’
The Israel Army and its defenders claim that it is the most moral army in the world. The evidence of the last three weeks disproves that claim. On the contrary the Israeli army, air force and navy have demonstrated again and again their capacity to deliberately and systematically and accurately target the civilian population.
They are engaging in collective punishment of a civilian population – a practice which is supposedly outlawed under international law. But the truth is that the end game is about the theft of Palestinian land and water and control of the occupied territories through terror.
When Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005 it wasn’t about peace or acknowledging the rights of the Palestinian people. Arial Sharon the former Prime Minister of Israel said that their disengagement ‘will strengthen its control over those same areas in the ‘Land of Israel’ which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel.’
Israel’s assault on Gaza, including the blockade that was imposed in 2007, is about defending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, denying the Palestinian people their national rights, undermining Palestinian political institutions and its economy and to weaken Palestinian resistance.
Israeli government aggression has to be challenged. The rights of the Palestinian people must be defended. The violence against the civilian population of Gaza must be ended. The Irish government can play an important role in this. Ireland is generally viewed as progressive on international matters around the world. The UN has called for a three day ceasefire. The Irish government and the Dáil should be united in supporting this.
Last week I wrote to An Taoiseach requesting that he recall the Dáil to discuss the situation in Gaza. The Taoiseach has not answered my letter but in briefings to the media he has indicated that he is not willing to accede to Sinn Féin's request for the Dáil to be reconvened.
Thus far Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, 14 independent deputies, one Fine Gael TD and one Labour TD and six Seanadóirí have endorsed our request for the recall of the Dáil.
I believe the Taoiseach’s position is a mistake, particularly now that the Seanad will be reconvened to discuss this urgent issue, but also in light of the Palestinian support for the UN ceasefire call. The Irish government and the Dáil can provide leadership at this critical juncture as efforts are made to end the violence.
Given our own history as a people, our experience of conflict and our peace process, a recalled Dáil uniting in support of an end to violence and in support of the United Nations appeal for a 72 hour humanitarian ceasefire, would send a powerful message of solidarity to the people of that region and encourage an intensification of pressure on the Israeli government to accept the United Nations ceasefire proposal.
In the meantime I want to commend all of those who are organising and participating in public protests against Israeli actions and in support of the Palestinian people. Nelson Mandela once remarked that; ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ He was right.