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Simon Coveney: 'Gaza is slightly smaller than County Louth but nearly 2 million people live in it'

While in Gaza I saw the pressures on food, water and electricity, writes Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

Simon Coveney Tánaiste

THE LAST TIME I was in Gaza was 2004. I was a Fine Gael TD and made a low-key entry into the strip with colleagues Liz O’Donnell and Senator David Norris through the Erez crossing from Israel.

We spent two nights there and my lasting impressions were of a place challenged by significant overcrowding and tragic living conditions, a population locked in by security fences that prevented movement in and out, full of young people intensely frustrated at not being allowed to help themselves.

This week I entered Gaza as Ireland’s Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs in an armoured Jeep under UN escort.

The first difference hit me right at the border. Erez is no longer a secure checkpoint but a fortified border terminal. Since I was last in Gaza there have been three wars and in the most recent in 2014, 495 children died.

2018-01-12-PHOTO-00000051 Erez crossing (File photo from 2015)

The strip is slightly smaller than County Louth but has nearly 2 million people living in it. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth and is barricaded by a large security wall.

On its sunny shoreline you can stare at the horizon across the blue Mediterranean, but Gaza’s 1,300 fishing boats are only allowed venture five nautical miles before they are turned back by warning shots.

‘Gaza is being crippled by blockades’ 

The strip has been crippled by the Israeli and Egyptian blockades and youth unemployment is over 65%. In Gaza 1.3 of the 1.9 million people now rely on food relief and Ireland is proud to stand with United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in providing food, healthcare and education.

2018-01-12-PHOTO-00000054 Gaza fishermen Source: File photo

Nobody envisaged UNRWA’s work lasting 70-years but its thousands of workers are still in the region because of the failure to secure and guarantee a lasting peace.

Appeal to the US

UNRWAs funding is currently under threat, I committed €4 million of Irish money for 2018 this week, but have also appealed to the US administration directly not to reduce funding to this essential agency at such a sensitive time.

A major report has predicted Gaza will be unlivable by 2020. It was obvious to me on the ground this week that the situation is unsustainable and unacceptable. Gaza is about to implode under the strain of multiple socio-environmental challenges and we are running out of time to prevent it.

All this will most likely lead to a new cycle of violence and a repeat of past atrocities. Everyone I spoke to recognises the urgency of new actions in Gaza.

I spoke about Gaza with both the Israeli Prime-Minister and Palestinian President on Wednesday and have committed Ireland to funding and supporting new projects focused on improving quality of life and hope for the future.

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On the need for a broader peace process, which ultimately is the only solution, I hope both leaders will lead their people into fresh peace talks leading to a long overdue two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital. There are many sceptics, with good reason, but I do believe a fair negotiated peace agreement is possible.

Palestinian right to have their own State

Israel has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed and Ireland recognises that. However Palestinians also have a legitimate ambition to have their own State which Ireland continues to support.

Hamas has controlled Gaza for more than a decade and is classed as a terrorist organisation by the EU. We do not deal directly with Hamas and condemn their violence.

2018-01-12-PHOTO-00000058

However we support the renewed efforts for reconciliation of Palestinian factions as the people of Gaza have suffered badly from this internal division. One government structure for both the West Bank and Gaza is essential for the creation of a future functioning State.

While in Gaza I saw the pressures on food, water and electricity. I also saw reasons to be very hopeful.

The land is fertile, a natural gas find at sea could be harvested, a viable commercial port could allow the region to trade in the absence of a blockade, water desalination plants will turn seawater into drinking water and the EU is funding one to be constructed. Most of all Gaza’s youth are smart and well educated.

2018-01-12-PHOTO-00000048 Meeting Gaza Sky Geeks - a tech start-up in the region.

There’s an old Chinese proverb that has been adopted by the development community: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

One of the UN staff added to it in Gaza, “The people of Gaza don’t need your fish or to be taught how to fish, they are well educated with plenty of their own resources. What the people of Gaza need is access to the sea and the outside world and they’ll determine their own future”.

My 2004 visit was 14-years ago next week. The tensions, frustration and danger I saw then are at boiling point now. It is time for the international community to act to save Gaza, to give young people hope for the future, before despair and extremism fill that void – something ISIS and other extremist groups are only too eager to fill.

That is why I’ve traveled to the region twice in the last five months. Ireland will liaise with our EU partners and the European Commission in the coming weeks to show the people of Palestine and Gaza that they are not forgotten.

Simon Coveney is Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs

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Simon Coveney  / Tánaiste

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