Israel urgently needs two-state solution – BREEN

June 22nd, 2009 - Pat Breen

After a recent trip to Israel Fine Gael TD Pat Breen believes Ireland and the EU must redouble their efforts to enable a two-state solution to be implemented in the troubled country 

My first view of the Gaza Strip came from a hilltop outside the southern town of Sderot which lies one kilometre from the Strip. Sderot is a city under constant attack from rocket fire launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Officials told our group, including party leader Enda Kenny, that the population has fallen by up to 25% in recent years as families flee.

The Gaza Strip lies between Israel and Egypt, and measures about 25 miles long by 6 miles wide. It is one of the most populated places on earth, the home of 1.4 million residents, mainly Palestinians living in refugee camps.

Since 2000 13 residents have been killed in Sderot and hundreds have been wounded. People suffer from psychological distress. The government has installed a Red Colour alarm system that gives a 15-second warning of a rocket attack.

As we toured the city we saw bomb shelters at regular intervals and at the Qassam Museum we were shown the remains of rockets fired at the city.

Getting into Gaza was never going to be easy but we had permission from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the assistance of the Irish ambassador, Jim Carroll.

A metal and concrete fence separates Israel from the Gaza Strip. Along the border are several fortified border crossings. We crossed at Erez, which would remind you of the terminal building at Rosslare, with various zig-zag areas guarded by Israeli forces. Sniffer dogs check for explosives.

We saw what suicide bombers can do – a huge wall halfway inside the border patrol area had been partly demolished in an attack.

Eventually we got across and we were transferred to UN personnel who had three armoured patrol vehicles. My first reaction on entering Gaza was thinking this is a sad place. There is no access to the outside world because it is like a fortress with its 20-foot wall. Built to stop rocket attacks from Hamas territory, it has caused huge devastation.

Last December Israel began a military operation in Gaza with the aim of suppressing rocket attacks. The fighting ended three weeks later. More than 1,440 Palestinians were killed, 40% of whom were children, according to UN figures, as against 13 Israelis, who mostly died by friendly fire.

I was taken aback by what I saw. Civilians paid the highest price and their suffering continues to be immense. I saw people at the side of the road doing nothing because there is nothing for them. War leaves a terrible mark on the landscape and on humans. F16 fighter planes and ground patrols, particularly tanks, flattened everything in the areas they targeted – apartment blocks, factories, schools, cement plants, trucks, cars, everything.

Food is controlled going in. A lot of the land has been destroyed and there is little industry. One of the people we met had 230 people employed in an ice-cream factory. He was exporting to Israel. In the last days of the war they flattened his €14 million factory. It is one thing we could not understand. What Israel has done is deprive them of a livelihood and it is driving them to Hamas. Unemployment was at 42% before the conflict, today it is much more.

The people live amongst the rubble in tents. If you get sick how do you get out? There were few vehicles working while we were there because there is a fuel shortage. It was very sad to see young fellows going around with donkeys and carts trying to clear up the rubble, like something you would see in the Dark Ages.

We visited the American International School which was also bombed. Nobody ever thought it would be hit. We met the father of the night watchman who was killed. He described how he watched while they brought out his son’s body parts.

When you target education facilities, you are targeting the young. They have nowhere to go. The biggest task for the UN now is to get these people re-housed.

As a Fine Gael human rights spokesperson, I feel it is important that all human rights abuses committed by Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups be investigated. 

We had the privilege of meeting John Ging, director of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency Operations in Gaza. An Offaly man, to me John Ging is one who told the truth of what happened. He and his team are doing fantastic work supporting the refugees, tackling the hatred through summer school education programmes for kids from the Fatah and Hamas sides of the Palestinian political divide. He described the humanitarian conditions as shocking and shameful. Israel only allows in minimal amounts of food, medicine and fuel. “People need a dignified existence” he said.

When he appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs in March, he said ‘Come and see for yourself’ and we did. His life is now under threat. He has the protection of three security guards.

It is only when see the devastation that you realize its extent. Conflict does not resolve anything. Yes, the walls have probably stopped suicide bombers from getting into Jerusalem and other parts of Israel where they were killing on a daily basis. But they have created a bigger problem, one that will take years to resolve. Once you create artificial barriers you are demeaning people.

The next day we went to Ramallah and the West Bank where Israeli settlers have built settlements, taking the best agricultural areas and building walls around them. Palestinians cannot cross to the other side of the road if there is an Israeli settlement there. You notice these by the water tanks – white water tanks for the Israelis and black ones for the Palestinians. The Israelis also control the water supply, a huge problem for Palestinians. The whole thing amounts to an ethnic divide.

In Ramallah we met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Foreign Minister. They are very impressed with Senator George Mitchell, now the US Envoy for the Middle East, and they see some hope for the situation.

On the Israeli side, there is an understanding that there has been damage done as a result of the war.

I came back with a very different view. It is a very complex situation, there is no doubt about that. The fact that Israeli settlements are being built on the West Bank will make the resolution of the problem more difficult.

The political wing of Hamas is going to have to sit down and talk. In the end everybody is. The time will come for that.

We did it here in Ireland where we had to sit down with the IRA and there are enough power brokers there – there are the Egyptians, there are the Americans. Obviously the EU has an interest as well and I hope as a member of the Council of Europe that I will be able to influence the situation.

The coming weeks will see intensive diplomatic activity in Washington and the international community supports a Palestinian State.

Both Enda and I prayed at the Western Wall, better known as the Wailing Wall, in the old city of Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site. This is the only remaining wall of the second temple destroyed by the Romans. It is a tradition to leave a note between the stones and I can only speculate that the bulk of the prayers left there in recent years, including the Pope’s in early May, are for peace in this troubled region.

Pat Breen TD is deputy spokesperson on Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for Human Rights.