We are nothing if we do not act on the promptings of our conscience

We are nothing if we do not act on the promptings of our conscience
A man sells used clothing in the Palestinian refugee camp Burj al-Barajneh, south of Beirut, Lebanon. Picture: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

Even a crash-out Brexit will be a children’s birthday party compared with what has been, and is being, suffered by the Palestinian people, writes Victoria White.

I CONFESS I used to think that Senator Frances Black’s Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories Bill) was a bit of a publicity stunt which would achieve very little.

I changed my mind in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon a couple of weeks ago. The truth is while I knew about the issues in the Middle East intellectually I didn’t feel them in my bones.

I just didn’t really get the fact that millions of Palestinians have essentially been living a stateless half-life since the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, and particularly since the Six Day War of 1967 invaded and occupied land in East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

I had gone to Lebanon to write about the people, not about The Palestinian Question.

What I saw wholly changed my perspective on the bill being debated in the Dáil.

The Palestinians in that shanty town were living in conditions of abject poverty. Many of the buildings were crumbling and there was rubbish all over the streets.

I had difficulty leaving because no taxi would pick me up and no one had a car.

Finally a car was found which broke down several times on the 20-minute journey to my hotel.

Well, it’s a temporary situation, you’re saying.

Folks, this “camp” was established in 1955.

It’s true that the estimated nearly 500,000 Palestinians in Lebanon are particularly badly-off.

The 350,000 who have not been granted citizenship by a country paranoid about preserving its balance between Sunni Muslims and Christians, are essentially citizens of nowhere, with no right to vote and no automatic right to education and health care.

They must have a work permit before gaining employment and the rules of professional organisations effectively bar them from practising as doctors, solicitors or engineers.

In Jordan, Palestinians mostly have full citizenship though the latest wave of Palestinian refugees— those who have fled a second time, from Syria — are described by the UNHWA as mostly living in “abject poverty”. Even those Palestinians who are now Jordanian citizens must cope psychologically with having been banished from their own homes. They are not where their parents, grand-parents and great-grand-parents lived and worked. Farms and homes of which they may still have photographs and sometimes even title deeds.

This is very different to the claim to the land cited by Jewish nationalists which is essentially based in myth. Speaking against the passing of the Occupied Territories Bill, the new Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Ophir Kariv, spoke of the Jews’ connection to ancient lands mentioned in the Bible.

“Of course,” added Kariv, “one cannot ignore the presence today of about 2m Palestinians in that same area, who have their own national aspirations.”

Indeed one can’t.

Contemporary accounts of the establishment of Israel make clear that British support for the Zionist desire for a Jewish homeland, which resulted in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, originated in Britain’s need to secure the east flank of her precious Suez Canal.

The journalist and historian James Barr has consulted recently declassified documents to show that the events which led to the creation of the state of Israel resulted from the competing death struggles of two world powers: France and the UK.

The UK aimed to use Jewish refugees to buttress its position in the Middle East and provide an outlet for the oil which had been struck in northern Iraq in 1927. That they gave not a hoot about the plight of those same refugees, even after the horrors of the Holocaust, is illustrated by their refusal in 1947 to allow 4,500 Jewish refugees aboard a ship called the Exodus to dock in Palestine. It defies belief that these Holocaust survivors were deported to Hamburg where they were forcibly disembarked by troops armed with water hoses, truncheons and tear gas and were housed in two former concentration camps.

It’s very far from surprising that the Jews of Palestine used every means in their power, including colluding with France, to expel Britain.

Even if it was founded in British expediency and is upheld by US electoral and strategic concerns, few would deny that the state of Israel within the 1947 boundaries, now has a right to exist within the terms of international law. Israel does not, however, have a right to the territories occupied since 1967 and that is a position supported by all respected international law; both UN and EU resolutions require states to distinguish between the state of Israel and territories occupied since 1967. A workable two-state solution to the conflict, in itself a conservative response, will not be possible if there is no Palestinian territory left.

This it what makes the Occupied Territories Bill a natural fit for Fine Gael, if they only had courage. While support for Palestine is often seen as a left-wing cause, using every means in its power to protest against the illegal Israeli occupations should be a comfortable position for a conservative Christian Democrat party with a vocal commitment to the rule of international law.

It was the former Fine Gael taoiseach, John Bruton, who was for me the most persuasive voice against the disastrous US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 because he seemed driven much less by ideology than by a strong Christian Democrat allegiance to international law.

At heart, I think our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, is another such Fine Gaeler with a sense of a “higher purpose”. How can he look himself in the mirror after opposing the Occupied Territories Bill which does no more than ban somewhere between €500,000 and €1.2m worth of trade with illegal settlements?

There is a clear moral imperative here which has to over-rule the Government’s fears of annoying an increasingly partisan US.

We were the first country in Europe to signal our readiness to recognise the free state of Palestine, in 1980. Our UN peace-keepers are still working in Lebanon and the Golan Heights; since 1958, 87 of them of them have lost their lives in the Middle East.

If any country should stand up today against the evils of colonialism, surely it is us?

The Taoiseach is certainly making a lot of noise about the rights of Irish citizens in the North, as upheld by the Good Friday Agreement. Even a crash-out Brexit will be a children’s birthday party compared with what has been, and is being, suffered by the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories.

We are nothing if we do not act on the promptings of our conscience. The Government must now honour the will of the people, as expressed through its parliament, and bring the Occupied Territories Bill into law.

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