27TH FEBRUARY 2007
Rev Dr Eoin Cassidy, Chair of the International sub-committee of the Irish Commission for Justice & Social Affairs, opening remarks at the media launch of: “Palestine/Israel – Principles for a Just Peace”
Buswells Hotel 27 February 2007
Friends, colleagues and all present
To those among you who have visited the Middle East over the past ten years or longer the publication of this position paper by the ICJSA will come as no surprise. The only surprise is that it has taken so long – a delay that has been undoubtedly occasioned by an understandable reluctance to be seen to be criticizing Jews who had suffered so horrendously during the course of the holocaust – still a living memory to many in Israel and indeed in Ireland.
And yet, if for no other reason then that it dishonours those who have died as innocent victims in the holocaust, one cannot remain silent in the face of the manifest injustice that is visited primarily but not exclusively upon the Palestinian people, an injustice described by the former US President Jimmy Carter in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, an edited version of which appeared in the Guardian (13/12/06) as “in many ways more oppressive than what black people lived under in South Africa during apartheid.”
The purpose of this publication however, is not to apportion blame or to criticise one side or the other but rather to offer a modest contribution to understanding the causes of the conflict and so to promote peace in the region. The perspective that we bring to this task is that of the Gospel and also our experience in Ireland with meeting the challenges associated with promoting peace in our own country.
The core principle underlying this position paper is that, whatever is envisaged as a satisfactory final outcome to the Israel / Palestine conflict, it will not be achieved unless all enter into dialogue with openness and generosity that is the prerequisite for the beginnings of a peace process. At a minimum, this involves both the ability and a willingness to hear the other’s voice.
Hearing the other voice
If we are to truly hear the Israeli voice we must begin by acknowledging that every citizen has the right to belong to a state in peace and security, and one in which the freedoms and dignity associated with citizenship are respected. Furthermore, given the appalling history of “anti-Semitism” that has scarred European civilization, it is difficult not to be sympathetic to the legitimate aspirations of Jews who have struggled for the best part of a century to secure a homeland in what has become the state of Israel. For far too long the rights of Israelis to be recognised as citizens of the state of Israel have been denied by their neighbours.
Finally, one has to acknowledge the deleterious effect on the population of the two Intifadas. In the past six years no fewer than 171 people have been killed in 38 suicide bombings in the city of Jerusalem alone. This wanton destruction of human life has left scars that will take generations to heal.
The Palestinian story is one that has its roots in the expulsion in 1948 of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the forceful expropriation of land which many had occupied for centuries. Today, these historical grievances are exacerbated by further restrictions on their ability to make a livelihood in their homeland. One major issue that forms part of the contemporary Palestinian story is the 2003 nationality law, which in effect obliges many Palestinian couples, married and living in East Jerusalem, to live either apart or illegally together. For example, a Palestinian woman with a Jerusalem identity card can be living with her husband in East Jerusalem ‘illegally’ because he has a West Bank identity card and is not allowed to live with her in East Jerusalem.
Other restrictions on the rights of Palestinians living in Jerusalem include the severe difficulty in obtaining planning permission to build houses in East Jerusalem and the fact that those who leave Jerusalem to study or work abroad lose any automatic right to retain their Jerusalem identity cards. These obstacles to Palestinians living and making their home in East Jerusalem are designed to ensure the status of Jerusalem as an exclusively Jewish city.
Of the restrictions on the Palestinian freedom of movement, by far the most serious issue is the construction of the separation wall. If physical safety for Israeli citizens were the aim, simply building the separation wall along the Green Line (the 1948 ceasefire line which is the internationally accepted de facto border between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories) and within Israeli territory would suffice. However, the route currently been taken by the wall will ensure that approximately 10% of the West Bank, encompassing the most fertile land, will remain in Israeli hands. Furthermore, in some areas the route of the wall defies all security logic. For example, there are places in Jerusalem where the wall cuts through Palestinian neighbourhoods, at times literally running down the middle of busy, urban streets. Finally, the manner in which the line traced by the wall deviates from the “Green Line” and follows the contours of planned illegal settlement expansion suggests that security concerns are not the only factors at play in its construction.
Whatever the intentions behind the construction of the separation wall, it is an unarguable fact that its present course effectively dissects the Palestinian West Bank into a series of semi-autonomous enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements, reducing Palestine to a patchwork of municipal cantons or a collection of Bantustans and thus destroying any hopes for a viable state.
The humanitarian crisis
As the economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate it is becoming increasingly clear that the humanitarian crisis caused by the expansion of illegal settlements, the separation barrier and numerous military checkpoints is fast becoming one of the chief obstacles to peace in the region. In the five years from 1998 to 2003 the incidence of poverty in the West Bank has increased six-fold
The most recent 2006 World Bank report estimates per capita income in 2005 to be about 31% lower than in 1999 and that some 44% of Palestinians in the West Bank and up to two-thirds of those living in Gaza are living below the official poverty line of US$2.3 per person per day. In addition, the debilitating effect of large-scale unemployment is everywhere to be seen. In 2005, 27% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and 36% of those living in Gaza were unemployed. Finally, as if the economic situation was not already serious the financial and trade sanctions imposed by Israel following the election of a Hamas led government threaten to unleash what can only be described as a humanitarian disaster.
Most seriously, as the recent violence between Fatah and Hamas demonstrate, there is increasing evidence that these restrictions on normal social and economic life are fostering a level of political instability, which unless checked, has the potential to lead to civic unrest of a most serious nature.
Never far from the surface of the Israel / Palestine conflict is the issue as to which should take priority, namely security considerations or the rule of law and the protection of human rights. In this context, the position paper draws our attention to the existence of an important international protocol that sets limits to the legitimate use of force by an occupying power. The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which relates to the protection of civilians in wartime, is the primary legal document governing the Occupied Palestinian territory. Under this convention civilians are given special protection in a number of areas. For example, Article 3 explicitly prohibits violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture. Article 27 guarantees to respect for persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. Finally, Article 147 explicitly prohibits amongst other things, the unlawful deportation or transfer or imprisonment of persons and the extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity. Just as the possibility of peace hinges on an end to wanton terror so also does it hinge on a full acceptance of the appropriateness of this protocol as a means of regulating the use of state power in the Occupied Territories. The position paper rightly concludes that for Palestinians, Israel’s refusal to recognise the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza alongside the continued use of collective punishment, detention without trial and extra-judicial killings is a matter of the deepest concern.
The position paper draws to a close with a plea for all to strive for a just compromise. As it says, “we can only re-iterate that a just compromise – and a solution is always going to be a compromise between conflicting series of rights – will only be found if and when the needs of the weak take priority over the wants of the powerful and both sides have the courage and the far-sightedness to hear the other’s voice and to recognise each others rights.” It is a fitting note on which to conclude this presentation. However, before finishing I would like to express on my behalf and on behalf of the ICJSA our deepest appreciation for the generous and unstinting support of Trocaire and in particular their Palestine programme officer, Eoin Murray for this project. Without the support of Trócaire it is highly unlikely that we would be launching this position paper today.
Thank you for attending and for your attention this afternoon.