17 December 2009 Edition
Solidarity with Palestine
ONE year after the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, Sinn Féin has added its voice to calls for Israel to be held to account for war crimes and for an immediate end to the devastating economic siege of the territory, home to 1.5 million people.
To mark the anniversary, a thousand Palestine solidarity activists from around the world, including representatives from the Irish Palestine Solidarity Committee (IPSC), are planning on joining an estimated 50,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Freedom March from northern Gaza to the Erez border with Israel on 31 December.
The third Viva Palestina convoy of humanitarian and medical aid departed from Ireland and Britain on December 6 and is scheduled to arrive at Gaza’s Rafah border with Egypt on December 27, a year to the day the brutal onslaught began.
Building on its long history of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for national and democratic rights, Sinn Féin has campaigned throughout the year for an end to the siege and for Israel to be held to account for war crimes.
As well as the immediate humanitarian issues that must be resolved, Sinn Féin has this year stepped up its efforts to bring pressure to bear on Israel and leading international actors to foster the necessary political conditions in which a just and lasting settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be achieved.
The immediate issues that must be addressed by the international community are ensuring that Israel is denied the impunity it has so far enjoyed to ever again carry out such a deadly assault against defenceless people, and to break the deadly siege of the Gaza Strip.
On 15 September the leader of the UN’s Fact Finding Mission into the Gaza assault, Justice Richard Goldstone, concluded that “actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly in some respects crimes against humanity, were committed by the Israel Defence Forces”.
The Goldstone report confirmed the horrific details that had already been reported by the Palestinian victims; that civilian neighbourhoods, public infrastructure, mosques and schools were deliberately targeted; that banned weapons including flechette rounds and white phosphorous were used against civilian targets; that medical aid workers were prevented from reaching the wounded – and the list goes on.
The report, endorsed by the UN General Assembly, demands that all parties to the Gaza war investigate the allegations of war crimes and if this is not carried out to a satisfactory degree the cases will be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Sinn Féin has supported the recommendation by Goldstone for Israeli war crimes documented by the UN to be prosecuted in the ICC – for justice for the victims, and as a means to prevent such abuses in the future by demonstrating to Israel that its days of ruthlessly attacking its neighbours with impunity are over.
Break the siege
Well before the military assault drastically deepened the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk described the blockade of movement of goods and people in and out of the territory as “a prelude to genocide” and “a holocaust in the making”.
Even before the bombardment, electricity was only available to households for a few hours a day, 80 per cent of the population depended on UN food aid and 98 per cent of industry was not functioning. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, who visited Gaza in April, described it as an “open-air prison”.
Under rare US pressure under the terms of the 2003 Road Map to Peace, Israel withdrew its 8,500 settlers from Gaza in August 2005. But far from “ending the occupation” Israel sealed Gaza’s residents in the tiny area and maintained military control of the border crossings, sea and air space. Since the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, won decisively by Hamas, the blockade has become almost total, with an inadequate trickle of food and medical aid the only goods allowed to pass through the borders.
The US and EU agreed to Israeli demands to suspend aid to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority in 2006 and still refuse to provide aid directly to the PA in Gaza, even though it is responsible for health care, education and other social and civil services.
Sinn Féin has repeatedly demanded an end to the illegal blockade – calling on the EU and US governments to force Israel to open the borders – and has also since 2006 demanded that the EU respect the democratic mandate of the Hamas-run PA in the Gaza Strip and restore full and direct aid to the government.
Sinn Féin representatives have also travelled to Gaza to raise awareness of the people’s suffering and build pressure for an end to the siege. In addition to Gerry Adams’s April visit to the region, including Gaza, MEP Bairbre de Brún travelled to Gaza and the West Bank in February as part of a European Parliament fact-finding delegation and Sinn Féin councillor Gerry Mac Lochlainn took part in an international aid convoy to Gaza in May.
While Sinn Féin has been campaigning on these urgent human rights issues, Irish republicans are also committed to engaging politically with all the major actors in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Sinn Féin representatives have travelled to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel to observe first-hand the impact of the occupation, listen to the views of the various political forces, share the experiences of the Irish Peace Process, and outline the view of Irish republicans on developing the process of conflict resolution.
Following his April trip to the region, Gerry Adams called for “a real and sustained international effort to construct a durable peace settlement which provides for two states, including a Palestinian state that is sustainable and viable”.
Sinn Féin has sought to influence the Irish, British, EU and US governments to play a constructive role in this effort.
Adams also met with the Palestinian ambassador to Dublin and the Israeli ambassador to London this year as part of this engagement. A Sinn Féin delegation met with the Friends of Israel group in Belfast in order to put forward the party’s view on the conflict and on the necessity of reviving the peace process.
Speaking after his Middle East trip, Adams said: “While no two conflicts are the same there are nonetheless broad principles which can be helpful in all conflict resolution processes.” Sinn Féin has consistently raised the principles and lessons that republicans have learned from the Irish experience in relation to other struggles for national self-determination around the world and has regularly been invited to participate in international discussions about the Middle East conflict.
In June, Sinn Féin members Pat Sheehan (Middle East Desk) and Raymond McCartney MLA took part in a conference in Zurich organised by Forward Thinking and Humanitarian Dialogue on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The leadership of Hamas, including a number of members of the government in Gaza, also participated in the conference.
In July, Sinn Féin representatives Pádraic Wilson (Director of International Relations), Pat Sheehan and Raymond McCartney travelled to the Middle East for a series of engagements organised by the London/Washington-based Conflicts Forum where they met with the leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah in Beirut and Damascus and were able to hear directly from different political forces in the region.
Path to peace
A major outcome of this long-term political engagement was the report launched by Adams following his visit this year, entitled Israel, ‘The Gaza Strip and the West Bank, April 2009 – A Report’ by Gerry Adams.
Adams used the report to make a series of recommendations that Sinn Féin believes are the necessary steps to create conditions in which a just resolution to the conflict can be achieved.
- The siege of the Gaza Strip should end;
- United Nations resolutions and international law should be enforced;
- All armed actions and acts of violence should cease;
- An inclusive process of negotiations should commence in which all democratic mandates are respected, clear objectives are set, and there is a fixed timeframe;
- The building of the Separation Wall should stop as a first step which would see its demolition;
- An immediate and intensive programme of reconstruction and economic development must commence;
- The ongoing Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and the building of settlements should stop;
- The occupation of the West Bank and the denial of freedom of movement to Palestinians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, and between the West Bank and Gaza, should end as part of the process to decolonise the West Bank.
The report represents a serious effort to make a constructive contribution to the search for peace in the Middle East. A politically significant recommendation in this report is that all democratic mandates must be respected and that the international community and Israel must engage directly with Hamas.
Sinn Féin believes that this must happen for several reasons. In principle, democratic mandates should be respected. But specifically, in the Palestinian context, the international isolation of Hamas has been used by Israel to justify its brutal attack on the people of Gaza a year ago, as well as the continuing blockade.
Israel has also successfully used the tactic of excluding Hamas from negotiations to divide and weaken the Palestinian national movement.
The primary goal of Israel’s rulers is to prevent, or delay as long as possible, the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke openly of using the election of Hamas as a “window of opportunity” to establish “facts on the ground” – Israeli settlements, outposts, bypass roads, and the apartheid wall throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem – to be taken into consideration in a final status agreement.
Speaking after she returned from visiting the West Bank and Gaza in February, Bairbre de Brún said: “While the world’s gaze is on Gaza, the ongoing Israeli colonisation of the West Bank – where the apartheid wall is annexing huge sections of land and where the settlements expand relentlessly – is destroying the dream of a Palestinian state.”
West Belfast Sinn Féin MLA Jennifer McCann, who together with Pat Sheehan visited the West Bank in November in order to participate in a PA-hosted international conference on Palestinian prisoners in Jericho, visited East Jerusalem as part of her visit.
“In East Jerusalem we witnessed a family with young children being forced out of their home and living on the street while Israeli settlers took their house,” McCann told ‘An Phoblacht’ this week.
The US and EU must engage with Hamas in order to pressure Israel to do the same – to end the stalling, which each day reduces the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, ever emerging.
Engagement would act to prevent the further outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip. It would lay the basis for the reunification of the PA, led by Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.
Of course, the most fundamental issue with regard to respecting the democratic mandate of Hamas is that a political settlement cannot result in peace or justice for the Palestinians if the political party supported by the majority of the people in the most recent elections is entirely excluded from the process.
“Dialogue has to be a central tenet of any attempt to make peace; to achieve justice, stability, security and peace,” Adams said in his report.
“A political settlement is required and this is only possible if there is a recognition and acceptance of democratic mandates of all of the participants.”
The Sinn Féin representatives at the PA-hosted International Conference on Palestinian and Arab prisoners in Israeli Occupation Prisons, held from November 24-27 in Jericho in the West Bank, stated their support for the demand by Palestinians that no political settlement can be contemplated if the issue of the more than 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails is not part of it.
Holding Israel to account
As well as pressuring Israel to engage with Hamas, Sinn Féin believes the international community must exert the utmost pressure on Israel to abide by the countless UN resolutions it is currently violating, and to international law and standards of human rights.
The global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel has grown significantly since the slaughter of December and January in Gaza; in Ireland the campaign is being led by the IPSC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
Patricia McKeown, then President of the ICTU and Regional Secretary of Unison, launched an important ICTU report in Parliament Buildings in Belfast at a public meeting hosted by Gerry Adams in February.
The Israel/Palestine report calls for Congress to organise a boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
McKeown said the decision to organise a campaign of economic, political and cultural sanctions against Israel until it obeyed international law and upheld the basic human rights of Palestinians was “the very obvious option to those of us who were involved in the anti-apartheid campaign against the South African regime”.
Following the lead of the South African and Irish trade union federations, the British Trade Union Congress, which represents 7 million workers, passed a motion in September in support of organising its membership in a BDS campaign.
Sinn Féin has also been actively supporting the IPSC and its solidarity projects. Party president Gerry Adams participated in the annual general meeting of the IPSC in Dublin in May and Dublin Sinn Féin councillor Daithí Doolan took part in the recent planning meeting of the committee earlier this month.
Speaking at an IPSC press conference during the assault in January, Sinn Féin Vice-President Mary-Lou McDonald demanded strong action by the EU including the immediate suspension of the Israel-EU Association Agreement and Euro-Med Agreements.
“These agreements make preferential trade conditional on Israel respecting human rights and democratic principles. Israel is now, and arguably always has been, in breach of these agreements,” McDonald said.
The IPSC has called for the Irish government to make the suspension of these agreements a foreign policy priority in the EU.
Voicing her support for the solidarity and aid actions taking place to mark the anniversary of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Jennifer McCann said: “A year has now passed and no real progress has been made in either ending the economic siege of Gaza or developing the conditions where meaningful dialogue can take place.
“We must redouble our efforts to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people; to hold Israel to account for war crimes; and to demand the international community engage in a vigorous and sincere attempt to facilitate an inclusive dialogue that can make progress towards a just peace in the Middle East.”
Sinn Féin representatives Pádraic Wilson – Director International Relations, Pat Sheehan – Middle East Desk and Raymond McCartney with Khaled Meshal, Head of Hamas Political Committee