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"We must take action"... Senators call for Ireland to strengthen stance on Gaza

Senators hit out at Minister Charlie Flanagan over Ireland’s UN vote abstention this afternoon, as politicians came back from their summer breaks to address the spiraling crisis.

Updated at 6.30pm

THERE WERE IMPASSIONED speeches from – amongst others – Independent David Norris and Labour’s John Whelan this afternoon, as senators returned to Leinster House to debate the Gaza conflict.

A number of members also called for Ireland to expel Israeli ambassador Boaz Modai from the country as the upper house held a lengthy discussion on the topic.

The Seanad was recalled from its summer break after pressure from senators on both the government and opposition sides, with this afternoon’s session beginning shortly after 2pm.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine was also on the agenda — but most members spent the majority of their speaking time addressing the spiraling crisis in the Middle East.

It was confirmed today that some 425,000 people – around a quarter of the population of Gaza – have been displaced since the Israeli action began on 8 July.

Over 1,400 Palestinians – mostly civilians – have been killed since the launch of ‘Operation Protective Edge’ over three weeks ago. Some 58 Israelis have also been killed – 56 of whom were soldiers.

Ireland’s stance

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan began the debate, by setting out Ireland’s position on the conflict.

The recently appointed Minister said he fully shared “the horror and revulsion of Senators and very many of our citizens” at “the horrendous scenes we have witnessed since the start of the Israeli military operation”.

In a carefully-worded speech, Flanagan said “the horror has not been confined just to the Palestinian side” .

He said that, in addition to the deaths on the Israeli side, “millions of Israelis have been forced to seek shelter on a daily basis from the indiscriminate firing of rockets”.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan

Flanagan said that the Government had been “quite categorical” in condemning attacks by both sides.

Criticism

The Fine Gael politician has come in for criticism in the last few weeks over the Government’s stance on the conflict, including from his own backbenchers.

Last Friday, he defended the decision to abstain from a vote on a UN resolution that sought to investigate Israel’s military actions in Gaza — saying the motion should have called for violent acts on all sides to be investigated.

Addressing that controversy once again today, Flanagan expanded on the Government’s position, saying…

The decision to abstain was a collective EU decision, only taken after prolonged deliberations.

“One day after the adoption of important EU conclusions on the peace process, it would have sent a very negative signal and undoubtedly weakened EU leverage if we could not agree on a common response to the resolution.

Flanagan stressed that:

The cold reality also is that, if a common abstention had not been agreed, there was a very high likelihood of a number of our EU partners voting against the Resolution, thereby reducing overall EU influence even further.

Senators stand for the pre-debate prayer.

Flanagan also detailed how he had spoken “at length” with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about the crisis earlier this week.

“I condemned the appalling attacks which we have seen on UN and civilian facilities in Gaza and we agreed that both sides have to cease violating international law.

The Secretary General was also fulsome in his praise of the Irish Government’s humanitarian efforts to date.

The Minister – who was interrupted several times by Norris in the course of his speech - also addressed the ongoing situation in Ukraine. He repeated calls for a full investigation into the MH17 crash, and stressed that there could be “no military solution to the situation”.

Contributions

Norris — who, of course, is well known for his outspoken contributions in the chamber — was among the first few speakers to reply.

He said Ireland’s decision to abstain from last week’s UN vote had been “shameful, absolutely shameful” — and condemned US President Barack Obama “for his utter inaction” in bringing about a peaceful solution.

Senator David Norris.

Norris added that he had “no doubt” that the recent Israeli attacks on schools had been deliberate.

How could anybody claim that they didn’t know what they were doing. Israel’s policy is shoot first, and weep afterwards: ‘oh, did we hit children, what a terrible tragedy’.

“Nobody believes you anymore,” Norris said.

You’re doing this to exert pressure on Hamas – but I tell you this: you will not resolve this problem until, like we did in this country, you involve both of the participants.

“There’s no point in having any kind of alleged truce that only has one side in it,” he said, referring to attacks that took place last evening, during an Israeli-announced ‘partial humanitarian ceasefire’.

Norris said that entire families had been “obliterated” and called for immediate lifting of the embargo on Gaza.

And, calling for Ambassador Modai to be expelled, observed:

He has his fingers in his ears all the time, and he just repeats slogans from Jerusalem.

Concluding, Norris said the United Nations should accept full responsibility for the welfare of the people of Gaza.

“If that means an international force going in, that’s fine,” he said, adding that the actions of the Israeli Government in recent weeks had amounted to ‘Nazism’.

Senator Averil Power.

‘Shocked’

Several senators drifted out the chamber as the debate passed the 90 minute mark, as Flanagan remained in the room to hear each member’s contribution.

From Fianna Fáil, Averil Power said she had been “shocked” at Ireland’s decision not to cast a vote in the UN last week.

As a country we have always prided ourselves in using our voice in international organisations like the UN to promote human rights and stand up for the oppressed.

“Last week Minister, we were shamefully silent,” she said, adding that Ireland had “hidden behind” the collective agreement of the EU.

Sanctions

Senator Sean Barrett, who is also an economics lecturer at TCD, highlighted the disparity in average income in Gaza and in Israel.

He said the armed actions “must cease” and, backing Norris’s call for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted, said that investment in the region could contribute to a lasting solution.

Later — addressing the Minister directly — Senator John Whelan of Labour called for the immediate imposition of sanctions on Israel.

He said Flanagan needed to engage in a “more robust” approach to the situation, and said the State shouldn’t take its lead on the issue from the UK Government.

Senator John Whelan.

Ireland shouldn’t be neutral in its position, Whelan implored, adding:

I’m certainly not neutral when it comes to the slaughter of women and children in schools, in hospitals and in UN shelters.
He said senators were asking for Ireland “to distinguish itself now”.
We must take action … We must take a position … Minister, we must initiate sanctions.

The Co. Laois senator said he believed the Israeli Defence Forces were “a law unto themselves, enacting war-crimes and slaughtering children”.

As the debate continued,  Sinn Féin Senator Kathryn Reilly also backed calls for the ambassador to be “thrown out of Ireland” and said Ireland should support an arms embargo on Israel.

How many more dead babies and civilians will it take before we start to send a strong message to the Israeli Government that it cannot continue to kill civilians with impunity?

Pat O’Neill of FG.

Amongst the members who spoke in support of Israel’s right to defend itself against the actions of Hamas was Fine Gael’s Pat O’Neill.

The Kilkenny politician said that though the “world media” had depicted Israel as a terrorist nation “if you look back in history you’ll see what Hamas stands for”.

While urging that “every diplomatic solution” should be tried to end the violence, he said the Israeli Government had a right to respond to “years of rockets being fired indiscriminately at its citizens by a terrorist organisation”.

Minister Flanagan.

Conclusion

Minister Flanagan responded to a number of the claims raised by senators as he rose to address the house for a second time at the conclusion of the session.

On the issue of the UN vote, he stressed that, in abstaining, “Ireland didn’t oppose the resolution”.

He said the State had “made a very clear statement condemning civilian deaths and stating we believed international law had been breached, and saying we supported an investigation into all such breaches”.

Flanagan said there had been a “numbers of specific issues” with the language Ireland was being asked to back, and that that wasn’t “something we can wipe away with the stroke of a pen”.

He said that he wouldn’t be taking any action to expel the Israeli ambassador, telling the chamber “ambassadors exist, as we know, to allow clear channels of communication between governments — and are more necessary in bad times than in good”.

And on the issue of sanctions, he said that, as a small trading nation, the country could only consider sanctions as part of EU or UN measures.

The Minister said that Ireland was “too small” to effect change by itself — adding that he wasn’t sure how effective sanctions would be, considering the urgency of the situation.

The session ended shortly before 6.30pm — with senators now not due to return to their legislative work until mid-September.

There are also calls for the Dáil to return to discuss the crisis. Fianna Fáil Seanad Leader Senator Darragh O’Brien repeated his assertion today that Enda Kenny should ask TDs to come back early to debate the situation.

Read: The Seanad is coming back on Thursday to discuss Gaza and Ukraine

Explainer: What is happening in Gaza?

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