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Yousef Mohammad/PA

Grace O'Sullivan Ireland must lead Europe's response to support the people of Palestine

The MEP, writing from the West Bank, calls for movement on the stalled Occupied Territories Bill.

Things escalate quickly in the Holy Land. Before the end of a week-long visit to the Occupied Territories, one of my fellow MEPs had already been deported and at least 10 Palestinians had been shot dead.

When I arrived at Ben Gurion airport, it was already the holy day of Shabbat in Israel, which means that the buses and trains don’t run and most of Jerusalem comes to a standstill.

The taxi driver on the way to the military checkpoint into the West Bank recalled travelling to Bethlehem in his childhood to visit the birthplace of Jesus, something that he could not do with his own children due to the nine-metre militarised concrete wall which now dominates the landscape of that small town just twenty minutes south of Jerusalem.

“It’s all political,” he said to me through the rear mirror.

Indeed, I myself was travelling as a member of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Palestine, one of the most intensely political delegations in the institution.

Already our chairperson had been banned from travelling to Israel. Another MEP was told at the airport in Tel Aviv that she would be sent back on the next flight due to her role in a 2015 flotilla of boats that attempted to reach Gaza by sea and break the embargo that has kept over one million people essentially locked into a crumbling city.

We were somewhat prepared for a less than warm welcome from the Israelis.

A new far-right government had come to power and had already attracted unprecedented criticism from normally stalwart allies in the USA and in Europe.

In this context, civilians and civil society groups and activists in the occupied West Bank were in more danger than ever before, as the government in Tel Aviv was openly calling for the annexation of Palestinian territories and the expansion of illegal settlements there.

Eight respected organisations had been declared ‘terrorist groups’ and had their offices raided and doors literally welded shut.

One of those organisations helped children imprisoned by the Israeli military courts. Another worked on employment for Palestinian women. Even the USA was baffled by this escalation of Israel’s authoritarian tendencies.

This reality is clearer in the city of Hebron (or Al Khalil as it is known to the locals) than anywhere else.

It is the only Palestinian city where Israeli religious settlers had occupied houses and entire neighbourhoods. Over the years, this had inevitably attracted the Israeli security forces, who effectively segregated the city into Jewish and Arab areas.

Pilot project

On the way through one of the checkpoints, guarded by heavily armed soldiers in their early twenties, we passed under a large mounted gun: a remote-controlled ‘pilot project’ by the Israeli army – so Palestinians could be shot at without the need for soldiers on the ground.

Over the narrow streets of Hebron, above shops that sell an incredible array of spice blends and soaps, Israeli settlers had occupied the high ground of third-floor apartment blocks.

The Palestinian locals had to put a mesh over the street to catch the stones, debris and even human waste that the settlers throw down on the passers-by below.

Issa Amro is a Palestinian activist who lives atop a hill surrounded by increasing numbers of Israeli religious settlers and from here he runs a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience.

The Israeli occupation is believed to see this as a threat, and we saw how Issa’s house is constantly watched by soldiers stationed outside his front door.

At one point, the army conducted a so-called ‘training exercise’ inside his house.

That same year a local Israeli right-wing politician broke into the house and assaulted him. That politician’s attorney is now Israel’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Just this month, Issa was thrown to the ground by a soldier while giving a tour of the city.

The soldier in question was given ten days punishment after it transpired that one of the tour group was Pulitzer Prize winner and writer for The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright.

After the incident, Minister Ben-Gvir took to Twitter to give the soldier his “full support”.

Under the shade of an olive tree, Issa made his opinion clear: “As a Palestinian I am under Israeli military law here. The settlers who are living here, my neighbours, fall under Israeli civilian law.

When you have two sets of laws in the same area for different people, the Europeans and the Irish should describe it as it is: It is apartheid.

Military courts

The term apartheid is contentious. But Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Israeli military courts and martial law, without the right to translation or representation.

Just this week, the Israeli government passed a law to strip the citizenship of any Israeli Arab and deport them to the West Bank or Gaza, even if they had spent their entire life in Israel.

The same law does not apply to non-Arabs. For organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, this is clearly apartheid.

As we sat in his garden overlooking the city and chatting about his recent altercation with the army, a young Israeli settler on a scrambler bike came screeching past.

We had to stop for a minute while the young man revved his engine and did wheelies around Issa’s house.

When the scrambler broke down with a whimper, it was hard for us to hold back a grin.

In Bethlehem, foreign volunteers do what they can for the locals who live in the shadow of the concrete separation wall.

Irishman Ainle Ó Cairealláin set up a gym programme called Aclaí in one of the many refugee camps that have been in the West Bank since the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948.

Ainle and his colleagues focus on the physical and mental wellbeing of the local children, despite almost weekly incursions by the Israeli army who use so much tear gas that the spent canisters are used by a local artisan to make trinkets for the tourists on their way to see the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.

The stories and videos of everyday violence are hard to reconcile with the bright and bustling streets of Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where it actually felt quite safe.

Just one day later, the Israeli army would march into Nablus, a Palestinian city about the size of Cork, killing 11 people and wounding over 100.

Israel itself is turning a new, terrifying corner.

Once content with the status quo of keeping the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza fearful and oppressed, Israeli politics is now turning on Israelis who do not fit the national narrative.

A new far-right government has put in power religious extremist Ministers, who have set their sights on Israel’s otherwise liberal democracy. Women and the LGBT+ community are now in their line of fire.

Strong defender

So far in my time as an MEP, the European Union has proven itself to be entirely unable to act against Israel’s breaches of international law.

Statement after statement expressing ‘concern’ over Israel’s complete disregard for international law have not been accompanied by any action from the EU or its most influential member states.

President Ursula von der Leyen herself condemned the murder of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last year by Israeli soldiers, and a month later flew to Tel Aviv to sign a multi-million euro deal for Israeli gas.

Just this month, the Israeli government announced openly that it would expand illegal settlements in the West Bank, yet millions of euros in EU funding, trade and investment continues to pour in.

One of the primary means for bringing down apartheid in South Africa was economic pressure and boycott.

Now, as Israel builds its own apartheid regime, Ireland must lead the way in showing our fellow EU Member States that we must stand up for the rule of law at home and abroad.

Ireland has always been a strong defender of Palestinian human rights. But while Israel steps up its annexation of Palestinian territory, our discourse has remained the same as twenty years ago.

There is an urgent need for unilateral action by international actors in order to show that a response is possible.

One of the tangible ways of doing that is for Ireland to put the Occupied Territories Bill, tabled by Senator Frances Black, back on the table and show the world that there are consequences for slipping into authoritarianism.

The legislation is now even more relevant than when I co-sponsored it with a group of Senators in 2018.

I have also called on the European Commission to cut funding to Israel for their destruction of Palestinian schools and institutions often built with EU funding in the first place.

It has shown no willingness to respond. In the face of inaction, Ireland should be the first to turn the tide on apartheid.

Grace O’Sullivan is a Green MEP for the South constituency.


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Grace O'Sullivan MEP
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