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Opinion: There really is no excuse for a new Government not to pass the Occupied Territories Bill

Duncan Casey argues that the Bill, which would prohibit the import of goods from the West Bank, should no longer be delayed.

Duncan Casey

UNTIL RECENTLY, IRELAND did not blaze much of a trail when it came to human rights at home. The 20th century saw plenty of shameful treatment of vulnerable people, normalised by a deep and often blind devotion to a religious institution that preached a message of compassion.

“Fallen” women were ostracised and their babies often were taken from them, thousands of children were abused by pillars of their communities, a lot of damage was done. In Ireland, same-sex intimacy was illegal until 1993 and until last year, women had to travel to another island to terminate a pregnancy.

The 21st century has seen some improvements but there is still a long way to go. Recent events in the United States and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests have shifted the focus once again to our State’s reliance on Direct Provision. We are no gold star winners either when it comes to the rights of Travellers or people with disabilities.

A country evolving

Referendums on marriage equality and the 8th amendment to the Constitution in recent years have shown Ireland to be a very different place to the one that turned a blind eye to injustice for so long. Becoming the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote, we stepped forward on the international stage to declare that we are a society that believes people should be treated with fairness and dignity, regardless of who they are.

By taking that step forward, however, Ireland now has a responsibility to continue to lead the way internationally. The Occupied Territories Bill is an opportunity to do just that.

Originally tabled by Senator Frances Black in 2018, the Bill would prohibit the import of goods and services produced in illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, more commonly known as the West Bank. Having passed through the Seanad, the Dáil voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill, which passed Committee Stage in December 2019.

Six of the seven main parties support the legislation, with Fine Gael being the exception. It has become a sticking point in Government formation talks, with Fine Gael stating that the Attorney General’s advice is that it may contravene EU law. This advice has not been published, and there has been plenty of international legal opinion to the contrary.

It is worth remembering that acting Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, said the same thing about calls for a ban on importing fruit from South Africa during the apartheid era. The brave actions of Dunnes Stores workers caused Ireland to lead the way then, and in a similar fashion, Ireland can lead the way now.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is an emotive one for many, as illustrated by the reaction that the Bill has received since first introduced in the Oireachtas. Former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has slammed those supporting the Bill, as well as suggesting they would choose not to take a vaccine for Covid-19 were it made in Israel. In the midst of tense discussions around such a divisive issue, it is crucial to stick to the facts.

What are the facts?

It is a fact that Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from moving its civilians into the territory it occupies, and that Article 8.2 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines such actions as a war crime.

Since occupying the West Bank in 1967, Israel has transferred over 600,000 of its citizens to live in settlements there and provides financial incentives for people to do so.

It is also a fact that the European Union has declared settlement construction anywhere in the West Bank to be illegal, and that the United Nations Security Council has called on Israel to cease their construction. It is, undeniably, a gross violation of international law to continue to do so – and neither ‘fanatical’ nor ‘extremist’ to believe such laws should be respected.

It is a fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, awaiting trial for corruption, publicly stated that Arab votes were “not part of the equation” in the aftermath of the recent election. He plans to annex parts of the West Bank completely, as he promised in 2019. This will be a further step towards the elimination of any potential Palestinian state and any prospect of lasting peace.

The lives of Palestinians have already been brutally impacted by the occupation. A separation barrier, the so-called ‘apartheid wall’, runs through hundreds of kilometres of the West Bank. I have experienced the checkpoints around the territory myself – people are treated like livestock.

Those travelling to Jerusalem for work start queueing between 3 am and 4 am each morning. Access to water is severely restricted, with Palestinians in the West Bank consuming a quarter of the amount that Israelis do. Settlements are fully serviced by separate water infrastructure which Palestinians cannot access.

upi-20191223 Palestinians walk past graffiti on Israel's separation wall in the biblical town of Bethlehem, West Bank, December 23, 2019. Source: UPI/PA Images

Additionally, hundreds of residential structures were demolished in the West Bank in recent years for lacking construction permits, which are impossible for Palestinians to attain.

Propping up the system

Importing goods and services from settlements legitimises and normalises something that is inherently illegal. It makes a mockery of the world’s supposed commitment to a two-state solution to condemn them on one hand while doing business with them on the other.

The Occupied Territories Bill will not send shockwaves through the Israeli economy. The value of imports from settlements is estimated to be a modest €1 million. It will, however, allow Ireland to lead by example and show its counterparts in Europe and beyond that rogue states should not be allowed to repeatedly ignore the law without consequence.

If international treaties, conventions, resolutions and commitments only exist to pay lip service to human rights and justice in the world, then what is the point? For too long, the responses here and elsewhere have been statements of concern and other platitudes, with no concrete action. There is now an opportunity for Ireland, a small country that punches above its weight, to play an influential role in shaping international opinion towards this issue.

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The Bill has been passed in both the Dáil and the Seanad. There is no excuse for any further delay, and efforts to block it can only be viewed as undemocratic. The people of Palestine are relying on us to show leadership and do what is right. It would be a tragedy for us to fail them.

Duncan Casey is a former professional rugby player for Munster and FC Grenoble who has been a vocal supporter of the campaign for Palestinian rights for many years. He has visited Israel and the West Bank as part of his advocacy work.

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