In January, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil party, I was proud to present the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill in the Dáil. The bill, which seeks to prohibit trade with settlements illegally established in occupied territories, was first tabled in the Seanad by independent Senator Frances Black.
It was passed in full by the Upper House last year, and I was delighted to see that strong support continue in Dáil Éireann – TDs resoundingly backed the bill, by a margin of 78 votes to 45.
Days later, Michael Lynk, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for human rights in Palestine, issued a stark reminder as to why such initiatives are necessary. He stated that “if further settlement steps by Israel are left unanswered by the international community, we will be driving past the last exit on the road to annexation”.
Watching the situation on the ground deteriorate, he urged states to match their condemnation with decisive action: “It is impossible to square the international community’s rhetorical support for a genuine two-state solution with its persistent unwillingness to confront Israel with any meaningful injunctions to halt and reverse these steps towards annexation.”
This is the spirit in which the Occupied Territories Bill is tabled. At its core, it is a modest bill that seeks only to uphold the basic principles of international law. It would not ban trade in Israeli goods, only goods produced in settlements built illegally beyond Israel’s borders.
Ultimately the settlements will continue to expand unless countries committed to human rights take meaningful action to oppose them, and that must include a refusal to support them economically
This distinction is vitally important. Fianna Fáil unequivocally supports Israel’s right to self-determination and self-defence, and we want the strong ties between our two countries to continue. But we cannot support the illegal construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian land and the devastating consequences this is having on the peace process.
Nearly 15 years ago, the International Court of Justice held that these settlements are illegal, and called on States not to recognise them, nor to rend aid or assistance in maintaining them. The UN has repeatedly called on States “to distinguish in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967”. Indeed the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, recently listed Ireland and the Occupied Territories Bill as a notable effort to advance this policy.
Ireland is no stranger to leadership on this issue, and the promotion of human rights internationally. Under a Fianna Fáil-led Government in 1980, we became the first European country to propose a two-state solution, calling for a sovereign state of Palestine independent of, and co-existing with, Israel. Today, the overwhelming consensus is that the conflict ought to be resolved in this manner.
The extensive building of settlements on occupied Palestinian land is threatening to make this impossible, however. I visited the region last year with my colleague, Deputy Billy Kelleher, and saw first-hand the impact that it’s having – settlement construction is expanding rapidly, carving up the West Bank and seizing the land upon which an independent Palestinian state is supposed to exist. It is impossible to witness this first-hand and not see that, unless something is done urgently, there will soon be no Palestinian state left to recognise.
For decades, the Irish government has criticised the settlements for this very reason, stating repeatedly that they are “illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace, and threaten to make a two-state solution to the conflict impossible”. Yet there is a deep inconsistency at the heart of our current position.
How can we repeatedly condemn the settlements as illegal, as theft of land and resources, but still trade in the proceeds of this crime? We criticise the construction of settlements on Palestinian farmland, but pay for the fruit and vegetables they export. Ultimately, by trading in the produce of these settlements, we provide them with vital economic support and help to sustain injustice.
We cannot support the illegal construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian land and the devastating consequences this is having on the peace process
Decades of empty condemnation simply have not worked, and the international community must recognise that time is running out. It is an exercise in futility to continue down this ineffective path, while Israel, emboldened by the current US administration, rapidly approves further settlement construction. Ultimately the settlements will continue to expand unless countries committed to human rights take meaningful action to oppose them, and that must include a refusal to support them economically.
Listening to the debate last month, I was heartened to see agreement on this point from all sides of the house – the bill has now won the support of every single opposition party in the Oireachtas, and this is testament to the fact that it’s a modest, reasonable ask.
It is recognition of the fact that Ireland, as a country with a proud history of commitment to human rights, cannot in good conscience support clear, sustained breaches of international law.
In opposing the bill, the government has relied on (unpublished) legal advice that it is incompatible with EU trade rules, but this is simply unsustainable in light of the chorus of eminent legal scholars stating the opposite. As those (published) legal opinions show, Ireland is entitled to restrict trade in settlements goods in compliance with EU law, ultimately because they are produced as a result of clear and flagrant breaches of international law.
Having passed all stages in the Seanad and won its first vote in the Dáil, the bill should now be sent to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, for detailed scrutiny and improvement. Suggestions by the government that they will attempt to delay the bill’s progress using procedural rules should be roundly rejected. Our parliament has spoken clearly – Fine Gael should listen, back this vital bill, and facilitate its progress as a matter of urgency.