Oisín McConville: Gaza echoes bad days of the Troubles

Former Armagh footballer Oisín McConville was reminded of the intimidation of the Troubles during a recent visit to Gaza
Oisín McConville: Gaza echoes bad days of the Troubles

Former Armagh footballer Oisín McConville was reminded of the intimidation of the Troubles during a recent visit to Gaza

Oisín McConville outside Bethlehem in the West Bank.  Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire.
Oisín McConville outside Bethlehem in the West Bank.  Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire.

I know the sight and feeling of intimidation when I see it: the anxiety that comes when a solider points a gun at you. I grew up with that as an everyday occurrence in Crossmaglen during the Troubles.

Most GAA fans above a certain age will be aware of the issues we faced in Cross where a British Army barracks encroached on our club pitch.

What many people won’t know, or – more specifically – what they won’t know the feeling of, is the intimidation. The reality of living with harassment and stop-and-search being a regular occurrence.

I’ve told the story a few times, but in my early days with the Armagh senior panel, we’d be stopped and searched by soldiers so many times on the way to training in Lurgan that a one-hour journey would take four hours.

You’d have picked up your gear – dumped on the side of the road by soldiers during every search – so many times that it would be the only exercise you’d get. The idea of getting to Lurgan in time for training was out the window, with the gear.

It was all about intimidation and provoking a reaction. Some of the lads couldn’t hold back and they’d make a sharp comment, but it would just give the soldiers the excuse they were looking for to hassle you more. You had to learn to bite your tongue.

I was a few days into my trip to Gaza and the West Bank with Trócaire last December when I got an in-your-face reminder of those experiences.

We travelled to farmland near Bethlehem that a group of Palestinian families, supported by Trócaire, had to battle for 18 years to get back onto because of the presence of an illegal Israeli settlement.

Land grabs are a major issue throughout the West Bank and there are hundreds of Israeli settlements. These are illegal under international law, as they have been established on Palestinian land.

These men were showing us their land when Israeli soldiers arrived. The soldiers got out of their armoured car and were trying to intimidate these Palestinian farmers, purely on the instructions of the Israeli settlers nearby.

The two farmers, Muhammad and Salim, were old boys, wizened looking. They had the look of knowing what was coming when the soldiers arrived. It was clear they’d had their fair share of intimidation over the years even before they told us about their own experiences.

The Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Rehavam was established in 2001 on their land. Before that, their families lived on 90 acres of land here and grew wheat and barley.

But since the Israeli settlement was established, the farmers became afraid to access the lands. They told me how they experienced violent attacks and theft and how the settlers used firearms and dogs to intimidate them.

After all this, they felt unsafe and they stopped going back to the land. The settlers then took over.

Palestinians farmers Muhammad Sabah -58-, and Salim Sabah (67), meet Armagh’s All-Ireland winner and professional counsellor Oisín McConville outside Bethlehem in the West Bank.  Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire.
Palestinians farmers Muhammad Sabah -58-, and Salim Sabah (67), meet Armagh’s All-Ireland winner and professional counsellor Oisín McConville outside Bethlehem in the West Bank.  Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire.

Muhammad and Salim tried to visit the land in 2014. Salim, an innocent and friendly looking 61-year-old man, told us how he was pushed to the ground and threatened with a gun.

During the trip, I learned that the experience of this family is not unique. There are over half a million Israeli settlers now living in settlements built on Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Palestinians’ homes are demolished to make way for these settlements. Many farmers aren’t able to access their olive groves or their farms. This is one of the reasons why these settlements are a major obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

If you’re Palestinian, you don’t often hear good news around those parts. Settlements continue to expand and create misery for Palestinian families like the family I met.

A legal action through Trócaire's partner organisation Haqel meant that the family were able to get back on their land, but even then I got a first-hand experience of what they go through now when they return to it.

The army was called by the settlers, who were monitoring our movements using a drone. Only for the presence of a lawyer, who works with Trócaire’s local partner organisation Haqel, and who accompanied us on the visit to the land, god knows what way the army would have treated the farmers.

It was just one example of a few incidents I witnessed that seem to be part of a psychological tactic to humiliate ordinary Palestinians.

For me growing up, shootings and bombs were the norm. I was 11 before I realised that wasn’t normal. I could see a similar attitude in the kids in Gaza and in a refugee camp I visited in the West Bank.

Bombings, shootings and killings, windows being blown in, all that sort of stuff, was going on every day in Cross and it was only years later, after treatment, that I realised the trauma I experienced growing up in that environment manifested itself in my gambling addiction. Who knows how these experiences will affect these people?

My own experience means I’m keen to see the Irish people do what we can to support the people I met on the trip. One way we can do this is by supporting the Occupied Territories Bill.

If this bill becomes law, it would ban trade of goods and services between Ireland and Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank. It is not a ban on Israeli products, just the goods and services produced in the illegal settlements.

The Occupied Territories Bill has passed through the Seanad, and the Dáil has already voted in favour of it – Fine Gael is the only one of the seven main parties that does not support it.

Reading reports on government negotiations, I was pleased to see that the Greens and Fianna Fáil are apparently holding firm in their support of the Bill.

I’ve seen the apartheid wall built in the West Bank and I’ve seen the intimidation the Palestinian people face with my own eyes. I really hope the Irish people will see a new sovernment support this Bill, which will make a real difference to the lives of the farmers and the Palestinian people I met.

Oisín McConville, former Armagh All-Ireland winner and professional counsellor

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