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Opinion: The government should be brave and stand on the right side of history with the Occupied Territories Bill

If Ireland is committed to peace between Israel and Palestine then we must show it and pass this legislation, writes Niall Collins.

Niall Collins TD

THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN a huge interest here in Ireland in Israel and Palestine – unsurprising, given our own history of occupation – and it’s rightly a priority in Irish foreign policy. 

In June, along with my colleague Billy Kelleher, I travelled to Israel and Palestine on a fact-finding mission. As Fianna Fáil spokesperson for foreign affairs & trade, I wanted to see the region firsthand. 

It was also important preparation for legislation that is moving through the Oireachtas. The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 was tabled by Independent Senator Frances Black, and seeks to prohibit trade with settlements illegally established on territories considered occupied under international law.

While the Bill can quite rightly apply to any occupied territory in the world, much of the debate has focused on the fifty-year Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the settlements it continues to build in flagrant violation of international law.

The reality of life under occupation is difficult to witness. Having met with both Israeli and Palestinian representatives, we travelled across the West Bank. Human rights organisations described the deteriorating humanitarian situation, including limited access to water and crippling restrictions on movement. We saw how the rapidly expanding settlements were carving up the territory, seizing farming land and making daily life hugely difficult for ordinary Palestinians.

Opposition to the settlements

In February 1980, under a Fianna Fáil government, Ireland became the first European country to call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The rest of Europe soon followed. Today, the overwhelming international consensus, fully supported by Fianna Fáil, is that the conflict ought to be resolved with a peaceful two-state solution.

The building of settlements on occupied land, a war crime under international law, threatens to make this impossible. They fundamentally undermine the prospect of a viable Palestinian state, fragmenting the land on which it’s supposed to exist. They’re rightly condemned by the EU, UN and the Irish government as a major obstacle to peace, and as Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem reports, have now taken over 42% of the West Bank. At this rate, there will soon be no Palestinian state left to recognise.

If Ireland is committed to the two-state solution, then we must show it and move beyond decades of ineffective and empty condemnation. The Occupied Territories Bill recognises that while we strongly criticise the settlements as illegal, trading in the goods they produce pays for this injustice to continue.

The Bill would not ban trade in Israeli goods, only those produced in settlements built illegally beyond Israel’s borders. This distinction is crucial, emphasising that while we trade freely with Israel, we must also respect international law and cannot support settlements that are unambiguously illegal. It gives effect to longstanding EU policy and UN resolutions, which call on states “to distinguish in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”

palestine 072_90535169 Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has opposed the Bill, stating in the Seanad that it would “undermine my capacity to be seen as someone to whom both sides can talk, even though I clearly advocate strongly for Palestinians all the time.”

Wide support

But this misses the point that opposing breaches of international law is not taking sides, it’s standing up for the basic rules that all states must follow. And however genuine these efforts to promote the Palestinian cause may be, decades of condemnation simply have not worked. Settlement construction continues, and it’s only accelerating under the current Israeli administration.

Far from undermining peace talks, the Occupied Territories Bill is a restatement that a workable peace process must be based on respect for international law. Under the Mitchell Principles, the parties to our own peace process were required to cease activity inconsistent with the achievement of peace. In Israel and Palestine, this must include the ending of violence, entering peace talks, and the cessation of illegal settlement building.

When the Bill was first tabled, several prominent Israelis wrote to all Oireachtas members urging support. Among them were former MPs, ambassadors, artists, and academics. In calling for a ban on settlement goods, they join a long list of human rights organisations, from Trócaire, Christian-Aid, Ictu and Sadaka here in Ireland, to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch globally.

In December, the Bill passed all stages in Seanad Éireann, with support from Fianna Fáil and every other opposition party in the Oireachtas. The huge level of cross-party support shows that it’s a modest, realistic initiative, and that government claims that it runs contrary to EU rules are unsustainable, given the chorus of eminent legal scholars categorically stating the opposite.

Fianna Fáil unequivocally supports the right of Israel to exist securely within internationally recognised borders. It also equally supports the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and a state of their own. In the new year, I’m proud to say that I’ll be bringing this bill to Dáil Éireann for debate. This Fine Gael government should show some courage, stand on the right side of history, and support it.

 Niall Collins TD is Fianna Fáil Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Trade 

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Niall Collins TD

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