Last week, when I was writing about Martin Luther King I came across a line which as I watch the desperate events unfolding in the Gaza Strip struck me as particularly appropriate. In a speech in December 1956 King said: “There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job; it is worth going to jail for.” And for Martin Luther King it was worth dying for.
According to some media reports it was King and Ghandi’s example of non-violence which spurred some Palestinian academics and students to organise a mass, non-violent series of protests - ‘The Great March of Return’- in the Gaza Strip along its heavily defended border with Israel. Their intention was to draw attention to the 70th anniversary of ‘The Nakba’ (catastrophe) which witnessed the forced expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian refugees from their homes in 1948 and that led to the creation of the state of Israel.
The protests commenced on March 30th and are due to continue until May 15th. At the same time on May 14th Israel will celebrate its 70th birthday and the U.S. Embassy in Israel will formally move to Jerusalem.
The response of the Israeli state to the border protests has brought widespread international condemnation. On the first day at least 17 unarmed Palestinians were shot dead and hundreds more were wounded by military snipers dug in on the Israeli side of the border. The Israeli Defence Forces had made no secret of their intention to shoot to kill. Two days before March 30th they announced that there would be 100 snipers in emplacements along the border with orders to fire live rounds at Palestinian demonstrators.
Clearly the intention was to intimidate and frighten Palestinians into not protesting. It failed. On the first day tens of thousands took part in the protests. None presented a physical threat to any of the Israeli forces. But in a calculated and planned operation Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) opened fire. In one tweet the Israeli military said: “nothing was carried out uncontrolled …everything was accurate and measured and we know where every bullet landed.”
Last Friday, April 6th, a further 9 Palestinians were killed, including a 14 year old boy, and Yaser Murtafa a 30 year old photo journalist, who was clearly wearing a blue and white vest with media stamped across it, when he was shot by an Israeli sniper. Five other journalists were also shot and wounded that day. As I write this 31 Palestinians have been killed and hospitals in the Gaza Strip, under-resourced as a result of the Israeli siege, are overwhelmed with the wounded.
The brutal strategy and violent tactics employed by the Israeli state and its armed forces against the current Palestinian protests are not new. They have been part and parcel of Israeli policy for decades. At its core Israeli policy is about control, occupation, theft and repression.
In December 2014 I visited the region. It was my fourth visit there in 8 years. Among the Israeli citizens I met was Yehuda Shaul, a former Sergeant and Commander in the Israeli Army. He is co-director of ‘Breaking the Silence’ an organisation made up of former Israeli soldiers who speak out against the actions of the IDF. He gave me a copy of a book – Our Harsh Logic – which they had published containing the testimonies of Israeli soldiers who were active in the occupied territories between 2000 and 2010.
The book exposes not just the deeply oppressive nature of the Israeli state in its treatment of the Palestinian people; it also provides an insight into the appalling day to day living conditions of Palestinians. The constant fear, the brutality of the IDF, the use of collective punishment, the destruction of homes, theft of property, and the lack of freedom of movement, even within the Palestinian territories.
The book states: “On a daily basis the Israeli authorities decide which goods may be transferred from city to city, which businesses may open, who can pass through checkpoints and through security barrier crossings, who may send their children to school, who will be able to reach the universities and who will receive the medical treatment they need…Houses, agricultural land, motor vehicles, electronic goods, farm animals – any and all of these can be taken …”
Shaul told me: “It’s all about offensive,” he said, “and maintaining Israeli military control over Palestinians”. He also said that the Israeli policy of occupation and settlements is not designed as a temporary measure but is intended to be permanent. “Occupation takes place every day; it is an offensive act every day.”
This is the reality of life for the people of Palestine. It is especially true for the almost two million people who live in the Gaza Strip. It has a land area half that of County Louth but with a population which is fifteen times greater. They can not leave. The Israeli siege has created the largest prison in the world with the people of Gaza being denied the basic requirements of a decent life. In the nine years since I was there it is clear from every report published that the Israeli stranglehold and conditions for citizens has worsened.
The failure of the international community to take a stand against the multiple injustices being inflicted on the Palestinian people by Israel is a shame and an outrage. It is especially scandalous in this year that also marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At its core is the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
I believe that the Irish government has an opportunity to give leadership on this issue to the international community. It can do this by taking decisive actions that reflect the widespread abhorrence of Israeli actions by the Irish people and by acting in solidarity with the Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression. It should expel the Israeli Ambassador and it should agree to formally recognise the state of Palestine. The equal rights and dignity of the Palestinian people demand nothing less.