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President Higgins: Israel must not fall into same 'category' as Hamas by breaking international law

President Higgins added: ‘If you put yourself into the category of unmediated, unrestrained response, you’re taking great risks I believe yourself.’

IMG_2796 President Higgins signing a book on the occasion of laying a wreath in honour of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty at the Vatican Diarmuid Pepper / The Journal Diarmuid Pepper / The Journal / The Journal

Diarmuid Pepper reporting from Rome

PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins has said Israel must not put itself in the same “category” as Hamas, adding that Israel is “taking great risks”.

Following a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican today, President Higgins spoke to reporters about his meeting with the Pontiff as well as the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

On Saturday, 7 October Hamas gunmen burst through the heavily militarised border around the Gaza Strip and killed more than 1,300 people, mainly civilians.

Many of those killed were at a music concert, and one of the deceased was 22-year-old Irish-Israeli citizen Kim Damti.

“I understand, when you see the circumstances in which children were killed, when those at an event in relation to music were killed, I have no reservation in accepting and knowing the reaction of the people whose families were affected,” President Higgins told reporters.

He added: “But however bad it is, you must save yourself from going into the same categories.

“If you put yourself into the category of unmediated, unrestrained response, you’re taking great risks I believe.”

During his visit to the Vatican, President Higgins laid a wreath in remembrance of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, whose work during the Nazi occupation of Rome during World War II saved the lives of thousands of people.

When asked how important it is to remember people like Monsignor O’Flaherty when there are reports of a rise in antisemitic acts, President Higgins said: “It is incredibly important as we move on now, from the horrific, horrific events that have taken place, that would be absolutely unequivocal about antisemitic expression.”

However, President Higgins called for people to appreciate the difference between criticising the state of Israel and antisemitism.

“I do think it is incredibly important that the distinction be honoured between those who make criticisms, of any breaches of international law, or indeed of illegal settlements.

“If you’re criticising the state of Israel for illegal settlements, as some of us have done in the past, it’s entirely wrong to be describing that as antisemitic behaviour.

“So we have to get to a sophisticated, honest, straight discussion. Nobody should tolerate antisemitism for a moment, and that’s certainly my view.

“But equally, we must be free to speak about the responsibilities that are there for all states in relation to international law.”

President Higgins also hit out at Israel for “threats” it has made on Gaza.

“I think that to actually threaten that you’re going to have no limitation in your exclusion of water, food, shelter, the threat itself is in fact introducing the likely fact that you’re going to be breaking international law.

President Higgins added: “There are many people in Israel itself, who do not want Israel to be outside of the context of international level, who do not want it to be claiming some impunity to do whatever it likes.”

He also drew a contrast between the efforts put into the Troubles and the efforts put into Israel and Palestine relations, and said there has not been a continuous engagement from civil servants towards relations in the region.

“War makes a stone of the heart,” said President Higgins.

“We have to move on but I think moving on can only be done on sure footing if it is on the basis of principle, and that basis of principle means that you do not allow yourself to drift along with measures that do not accept the full rigours of international law.”

During his trip to Italy, President Higgins has made a number of comments about the situation in Israel and Gaza and the international community’s response

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was asked today if he felt that President Higgins’ comments put the government in a difficult position, Varadkar said they do not. 

“I think it’s well understood around the world that we have a constitutional president, not and executive president. That’s the case and lots of European countries for example,” he told RTÉ’s Claire Byrne. 

Varadkar added: “I don’t actually think what the President said is hugely different from what the government’s been saying over the last couple of days.”

Meeting

President Higgins added that he had an “open” meeting with Pope Francis, discussing topics such as migration, climate change, and the war in Ukraine.

A historic Synod is currently ongoing in the Catholic Church and topics to be addressed include the place of LGBTQ+ people within the Church and whether women should be ordained.

This is also the first Synod where women have the ability to vote in the process.

The Synod, it is a very important process,” said President Higgins.

He added: “I think very, very much that it is not his view that one is just offering permission to women to attend but also that through the Synod and the outcome of the Synod, there should be a consideration of the role of believers, men and women, in relation to a Church that is changing.”

President Higgins said he and Pope Francis “discussed the role of women” in the Church and on the role of women in the Church, President Higgins said: “Women should be participating fully as equals at every level and at every policy decision in relation to Church and in its administration, and that’s a journey, even for him.”

President Higgins said he also discussed with Pope Francis his “recent announcement about welcoming the space that would be given to the blessing of civil unions and the position of the LGBT community”.

On the eve of the Synod, a letter published by the Vatican revealed that on the issues of blessing same-sex couples, Pope Francis said “pastoral charity” requires patience and understanding and that priests cannot become judges “who only deny, reject and exclude”.

“I was asked to communicate to him (Pope Francis) the appreciation (of the LGBT community) of what direction in which he was seeking to move,” said President Higgins this afternoon.

President Higgins also told reporters that he “doesn’t give instructions to the Pope”, but added that “the Pope knows of where I stand myself in relation to respecting the expressions of the human body but also expressing it in all its circumstances, cultures and freedoms”.

“He has no difficulty with that,” said President Higgins, “but of course, he faces grave difficulties from the institution of which is the head.

“I think I get a sense of that nearly every time I meet him, but his heart is in the right place.”

- Diarmuid Pepper is reporting from Rome and you can follow on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @Diarmuid_9