As you read this I will be in the Middle East. The purpose of the visit is to meet key players in the region, and to receive first hand information about the current conditions there. I have an invitation from UNWRA, the United Nations agency which provides aid to the Palestinian people, to visit Gaza but as yet have no word on whether that the Israeli government will permit this.
On Thursday I will be meeting with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and with Israeli Labour leader Issac Herzog in Tel Aviv. I will write more on this next week.
The enormity of the violence and of the resulting humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq, and the impact of the growth of Islamic State, have all dominated the news agenda of recent time. They have also grabbed the attention of the international community.
For a brief period in the summer the decades long conflict involving the Palestinians and the Israelis replaced those headlines with images of huge explosions in Gaza, Israeli attacks on hospitals and U.N. safe havens and the twisted bodies of scores of Palestinian children.
Much of Gaza was reduced to rubble. It services and public utilities, including water and sewage, which have all been stretched to breaking point by years of the Israeli siege, are now grossly inadequate. For those who live in this huge open air prison the Israeli assault devastated their lives and traumatised millions.
Three weeks ago Amnesty International accused Israel of war crimes during its assault on Gaza. It also acknowledged that Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes firing thousands of rocks that killed 6 civilians. However the bulk of its criticism was aimed at Israel. During the 52 day conflict 2,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed and 18,000 homes destroyed.
My constituency of Louth is roughly the same size as Gaza but Gaza has fifteen times the population. Almost two million people are packed into that small area. Imagine the impact that so many deaths, the loss of so many homes, and the destruction of much of the public infrastructure would have on Ireland’s smallest county and the people who live there, if it was subject to such overwhelming ruin and destruction?
Amnesty documents eight specific incidents in which Israeli forces killed 104 civilians, including 62 children, when they targeted eight homes. According to Philip Luther Amnesty’s Director for the Middle East the report ‘exposes a pattern of attacks on civilian homes by Israeli forces which have shown a shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians, who were given no warning and had no chance to flee.’
We have seen it all before. Cyclical war – international condemnation – and nothing really changes. Every couple of years the underlying tensions between an Israeli state occupying and stealing Palestinian land and resources, and a Palestinian people denied their right to sovereignty and independence erupts into a major conflagration.
And then for a brief period the international community will call for peace talks. An initiative might be taken. But ultimately nothing much will change for the people who live in that region.
In recent weeks there have been more announcements of new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. Israel plans to build 4,000 housing units. Violence on the streets over Israeli plans and actions has led to a series of attacks on Israeli citizens, including one in which four rabbis and a policeman in a synagogue were killed. Palestinians have died also.
To add to the tensions the Israeli Cabinet last week voted in favour of the ‘Jewish State’. At its core the debate around this Bill is about declaring the state of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. Prime Minister Netanyahu claims that this new law will ‘strengthen the State of Israel as Jewish and democratic’ while ensuring ‘full equality, before the law, of every citizen without reference to religion, race or gender.’
But the fear of those Palestinians who live in Israel and those occupied by Israeli forces, is that all of this will reinforce the apartheid nature of the current arrangement and reinforce the ghettoisation of the Palestinian people.
Even within the Israeli Parliament there is strong opposition to the Bill. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labour) described the "Jewish State bill" as provocative, irresponsible and unnecessary.
Too often in between the different phases of conflict the world looks away from what is happening in Israel or the west Bank or Jerusalem or Gaza. Despite all the talk of a peace process and of US and European Union support for meaningful negotiations they lose interest or acquiesce to an Israeli government strategy which seeks to keep the Palestinian people physically divided, economically impoverished and politically weak.
It is a recipe for continuing and escalating conflict.
The tragedy is that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians and Israelis want peace. They know that this requires mutual respect and good neighbourliness. They know too the likely shape of the outcome – a two state solution.
Exasperated by the lack of progress in the peace process the Palestinian Authority has been pushing for greater international recognition of Palestinian statehood. In 2012 it was granted non-member observer status in the U.N.
Recently the Swedish government officially recognised the state of Palestine. This followed a non binding vote in the British Parliament and in the Irish Seanad, in Spain and in France and yesterday in Belgium. The European Union’s newly appointed foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, publicly said at the beginning of November that, ‘We need a Palestinian state ... that is the ultimate goal and this is the position of all the European Union.’
The Dáil should now move to debate this issue and the Irish government should recognise the state of Palestine and upgrade the Palestinian Mission in Dublin to that of a full embassy.