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Leah Farrell/ Crowds march Dublin in solidarity with the Palestinian people (file photo)
# Middle East
Ireland, Israel and Palestine: how politics and history have created a complicated relationship
Ireland is attempting to re-kindle support for a solution to the conflict.

SENATOR MAURICE GEORGE Moore is not someone whose name features often in the annals of Irish political history.

A semi-obscure nationalist figure with a slightly more famous literary brother, Moore nevertheless goes down as the first politician to raise the cause of Palestine in either House of the Oireachtas exactly one hundred years ago. 

“England had made treaties with the Arabs assuring them freedom, promising them in high-flown terms that henceforward they would be free to proceed on their own lines,” he told the Seanad in 1923, recounting the actions of the United Kingdom in the Middle East during and after the First World War.

“Instead of insisting that these promises would be carried out, the sanction broke all these promises, imposing the yoke of England on Mesopotamia and Palestine, and making Palestine a Jewish home, to the disadvantage and great objection of the great bulk of the inhabitants.”

Over the succeeding century, the treatment of Palestinians has been raised by many more politicians, while discussions about Israel and Palestine are never far from Ireland’s political agenda.

The issue made headlines again last week when Tánaiste Micheál Martin visited the Middle East in an effort to articulate Ireland’s position on the conflict and to reinvigorate support for a solution to the conflict.

Ireland has a relatively unique position on Palestine, and various proposals are being progressed at domestic level that would show official support for the Palestinian side.

But there are questions about whether that can translate into widespread European support, particularly given Ireland’s complicated relationship with Israel.

Intractable conflict

Ireland’s stance on Palestine is often conflated with its colonial past, with allusions to the oppression experienced by both peoples under imperialism and our recent experience of conflict resolution in the North.

During his visit to the region last week, Martin repeatedly played up the similarities between the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Troubles – with the latter invoked multiple times as an example of how a seemingly intractable conflict can end.

“We are able to show our own experience of the peace process in the North with the authorities here, and that there is a process there,” he told reporters during his visit.

“They can do it, and [...] we were able to explain to them that the most important thing is peace.”

That peace would be hard-fought, however.

Although decades in the making, the modern conflict began in 1947, when the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 to partition what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states.

Palestine had until then been under the control of Britain after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and was earmarked as a potential home for the Jewish people early in the 20th century.

Irish people were originally sympathetic towards the Zionist movement, which aimed to create a Jewish state, because of a general feeling that both groups had suffered oppression.

That changed around the 1930s, when plans to partition Israel and Palestine gained momentum.

In 1948, Israel declared independence as a Jewish state, causing five Arab countries to invade Palestine which began the first Arab-Israeli War. 

The war ended in victory for Israel in 1949, and 750,000 Palestinians were left displaced. The territory was divided into three areas which make up Israel and occupied Palestinian territory today: the State of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians today refer to it as the Nakba (which means catastrophe) and it is seen as a crucial and devastating part of Palestinian identity – with the right for Palestinians to return to the area among one of their key demands, though one which Israel rejects.

In subsequent wars involving neighbouring countries in the decades that followed, Israel gained territorial control over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which it controls under occupation.

The overall question of Palestinian nationhood and self-determination remains unresolved, despite a series of as-yet unfulfilled agreements that would see the formation of a new state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.

Numerous attempts at peace talks have broken down, and discussions between Israel and the Palestinians have not been held since 2014.

Both sides are now locked in an ongoing stalemate over a solution to the conflict, largely as a result of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and its actions towards Palestinians since the turn of the century.

The Palestinian side is divided between parallel governments of Hamas, an Islamist group who rule the Gaza Strip, and of Fatah, which administers Palestinian-run areas of the occupied West Bank under the rule of president Mahmoud Abbas.

There has been a rift between the two sides for years, during which Israel has also carried out a series of major offensives on Gaza, which has been under blockade since Hamas took control of the area in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew troops and settlers.

There have been four major outbreaks of fighting between Israel and Palestinians since 2008 which have left thousands dead, most of them Palestinians, which have also left Gaza’s infrastructure ravaged.

Various solutions have been mooted over the years.

Martin’s visit was partly intended to help re-kindle support for the so-called ‘two-state solution’ – which has been talked about for decades but has become less and less of a priority – among other European Union countries.

The idea envisages the creation of two distinct, independent nations for Israelis and Palestinians west of the Jordan River in territory currently under Israeli control or occupation (in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). 

It was first adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 1967 following the Israeli-Arab War, and has been repeatedly endorsed by the UN General Assembly since the 1970s.

However, numerous diplomatic attempts to see the idea come to fruition have failed, from the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Oslo Accords two years later, through to unsuccessful peace talks hosted by the Arab League.

Right-wing government

The conflict has also been exacerbated by the recent election in Israel of what analysts describe as the most right-wing government in the country’s history, led by its longest-tenured prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Under Netanyahu’s 15 years of leadership, the peace process has stagnated while Jewish settlements have rapidly expanded in the occupied West Bank.

He has also pledged that there will be no Palestinian state while he is leader of Israel.

“I’m certainly willing to have them have all the powers that they need to govern themselves, but none of the powers that can threaten us,” he said earlier this year, dismissing the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-chairs-the-weekly-cabinet-meeting-in-jerusalem-sunday-sep-10-2023-ap-photoohad-zwigenberg-pool Alamy Stock Photo Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Alamy Stock Photo

Following his election win last November, Netanyahu entered into talks with ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties, among them the Religious Zionism formation and the Jewish Power party.

Both have a history of inflammatory remarks about Palestinians, with the head of the Religious Zionism group Bezalel Smotrich, who this week was given the power to govern the West Bank. 

The current government has seen the conflict Palestinians turn more deadly, causing to major military raids in the West Bank and rocket exchanges with Gaza.

The government’s policies have even strained relations with the United States, a long-time ally of Israel, with Joe Biden repeatedly criticising the expansion of settlements though analysts say that American support for Israel is not about to weaken.

The US sends more than €3 billion in military aid to Israel every year.

A snapshot into the view of Israel’s government towards Palestine came last month, when Netanyahu expressed support for the far-right Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, amid a row over remarks which backed settlers’ rights in the West Bank.

Ben Gvir, an outspoken champion of the interests of Israelis who live in West Bank settlements, defended restrictions on Palestinians in the area and settlers’ rights to free movement.

His remarks also drew sharp criticism from the Palestinian Authority, which described them as “racist and heinous” and labelled the minister a “fascist”.

“Israel allows maximum freedom of movement in Judea and Samaria for both Israelis and Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.

“Unfortunately, Palestinian terrorists take advantage of this freedom of movement to murder Israeli women, children and families.”

West Bank violence

Ben Gvir’s comments came amid a surge in violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank, which has seen attacks on Israeli forces and settlers, as well as near-daily army raids and settler violence against Palestinians.

Official figures show that 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied territories since the UN began keeping records of such incidents, while last year also saw the highest number of conflict-related deaths for both sides since 2015.

This year’s figures suggest that 2023 could surpass that record, with well over 200 deaths of Palestinian combatants and civilians already this year.

The violence has also claimed the lives of more than 30 Israelis this year, including three members of the Arab minority, as well as a Ukrainian and an Italian national.

Volker Türk, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned earlier this year about the potential impact of Israeli actions in the West Bank amid a sharpening of political rhetoric.

“Israel must urgently reset its policies and actions in the occupied West Bank in line with international human rights standards, including protecting and respecting the right to life,” he said.

“For this violence to end, the occupation must end,” he said. “On all sides, the people with the political power know this and must instigate immediate steps to realise this.”

nablus-palestine-08th-sep-2023-palestinian-protesters-confront-israeli-soldiers-during-the-demonstration-against-israeli-settlements-in-the-village-of-beit-dajan-near-the-west-bank-city-of-nablus Alamy Stock Photo Palestinian protesters confront Israeli soldiers during a demonstration against Israeli settlements Alamy Stock Photo

One of the main things driving violence is the issue of settlers, which critically undermines the possibility of Palestinian statehood by reducing the amount of space that the state could have via an unofficial expansion of Israel’s territory.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967.

Excluding the annexed east Jerusalem, the territory is home to nearly three million Palestinians and around 490,000 Israelis who live in settlements which are considered illegal under international law, though Israeli disagrees.

Under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the transfer of people from an occupying power – in this case Israel – into occupied territory is considered illegal.

More than 200 settlements have been constructed in the occupied West Bank since 1967, covering more than 10% of its territory. More than 100 of these have legal status under Israeli law.

Peace Now, a watchdog on settlements in the West Bank, has said that 2023 has already seen record numbers of settlements built in the occupied territory.

Although Israeli settlements are considered illegal, Netanyahu’s coalition government continues to expand into the West Bank and has even created a new settler agency to formally oversee land use in the occupied territory.

UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, has described the process of demolitions and settler attacks as “forced displacement” of Palestinian people from their homeland.

“Forced displacement has devastating short and long-term socio-economic consequences, resulting in increased poverty, a reduced standard of living and an increased dependence on humanitarian assistance,” the agency says.

“It also produces a devastating psychological impact on those affected, exacerbated by the fact of displacement being a repeated occurrence for generations of Palestine refugees beginning in 1948.” 

Allegra Pacheco, head of the West Bank Protection Consortium said the situation means other countries must do more to assist Palestinians living in the West Bank.

“More concrete political action is needed by the international community in order to bring about a cessation of this situation and to hold accountable those persons who are responsible for these serious violations of international law,” she said in a statement to The Journal.

Irish support

Ireland has long recognised this, and various steps have been taken at an official level to show support for Palestine in different ways during the decades-long conflict.

In 1980, Ireland became the first EU country to endorse the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state that would be independent of Israel, and both the Dáil and Seanad passed motions in 2014 calling for formal recognition of the State of Palestine.

Despite this, efforts to support Palestine at a domestic level have stalled somewhat in recent years.

The Government has yet to follow up on those Oireachtas motions, despite a commitment to do so featuring in the current Programme for Government.

Asked by The Journal during his visit to Israel when the Government would recognise Palestinian statehood, Micheál Martin demurred.

He instead suggested that the Government did not want to act unilaterally by making such a call, and that it would prefer to have “a critical mass” of European countries who could recognise Palestine at the same time.

“A country doing that on its own, in terms of its impact, is an issue that has to be assessed,” Martin said.

“It’s far better right now that we engage in dialogue with all of the parties involved to see what the pathways forward are.”

That may be a harder sell than it seems.

Although Martin’s visit was partly intended to reinvigorate EU support for the two-state solution at EU level, the conflict is seen as having fallen down the international agenda in light of other issues, such as the war in Ukraine.

Ireland, Luxembourg and Belgium are seen as leading the way on the issue, but the European Union isn’t exactly considered an ally to the Palestinian cause.

pro-israeli-protesters-seen-outside-the-israeli-embassy-on-pembroke-road-dublin-during-a-pro-israel-protest-on-sunday-30-may-2021-in-dublin-ireland-photo-by-artur-widaknurphoto Alamy Stock Photo Pro-Israeli protesters in Dublin (file photo) Alamy Stock Photo

Earlier this year, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen was criticised by Palestinians for her remarks in congratulating Israel on its 75th year in existence, an episode which caused a diplomatic spat between the Palestinian Authority and the EU.

Meanwhile, the Occupied Territories Bill – legislation which would potentially ban and criminalise trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank – is moving at a glacial pace through the Oireachtas.

The bill has not progressed during the lifetime of the current Government despite passing in the Dáil in 2019 – during the lifetime of the last government.

The current Government claims it is still working to get the legislation through to Committee Stage, but Martin suggested last week that a UN-published list of companies with business ties to Israeli settlements needed to be updated before it could do so.

“The principle of the bill we support, and we’re working constructively with the opposition in the Dáil to seek to have that bill progressed with the correct technical application so that it can be legally enforceable,” he said.

Although a source working with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank indicated to The Journal that the bill would help their cause, its passage would likely be seen in Israel as colouring Ireland’s stated aim to help progress peace talks between the two sides.

Ireland is already viewed within Israel as being hostile towards its side of the conflict, both publicly and politically, though at a diplomatic official level, Israel maintains that ties between the two countries remain strong.

An Israeli embassy spokesperson welcomed Martin’s visit, saying that such trips were important to “achieve better understanding” between countries and their leaders.

“We look forward to closer co-operation between Israel and Ireland from now on, especially with the introduction of direct flights from Dublin to Tel Aviv, which can reinforce the growth of trade and tourism,” a statement said.

In Israeli media, however, articles occasionally appear linking Ireland’s stance on Israel to “hatred” and anti-semitism.

It’s also understood that figures within the Israeli government do not view Ireland positively, despite what embassy statements might say.

Whether Ireland can get EU momentum behind support for a two-state solution, in that context, remains to be seen.

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