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Dáil Motion on the Interception of the Gaza Humanitarian Flotilla

The Government shares the widespread shock and horror at the outcome of the Israeli military storming of the Free Gaza movement flotilla yesterday, which has resulted in the death of a reported ten people and the injury of many more. I share the sense of outrage that what was intended as a humanitarian act – and was itself a response to unacceptable policies on the part of Israel – should have ended up this way.

May I begin by expressing our condolences to the families of those who have been killed, and our best wishes to all those who have been injured.

In the early hours of yesterday morning Israeli naval vessels intercepted the Free Gaza flotilla in international waters between Cyprus and Israel, and informed the six vessels in the convoy that they would not be allowed to proceed further towards Gaza, and ordered them to proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod. The exact details of what followed have yet to emerge, not least because only the Israeli account has really been heard. Following the boarding by Israeli commandos of the largest vessel, the Turkish MV Mavi Marmara, firing by the commandos resulted in ten persons on board the boat being killed, and a larger number wounded. Exact numbers are as yet uncertain, but most reports now refer to at least 10 dead. The vessels arrived in Ashdod yesterday afternoon, and the injured were taken to various Israeli hospitals. I again express my condemnation of the excessive physical force methods used by the Israeli military in dealing with this situation which I believe cannot be justified.

The House will wish to be updated on the position with relation to Irish citizens, which is our first concern in the immediate circumstances. The vessel owned by the Irish Free Gaza movement, the MV Rachel Corrie, which sailed from Dundalk in mid May, and on which a number of Irish citizens were embarked, had not yet reached the Eastern Mediterranean and was not part of yesterday’s flotilla. The Rachel Corrie is still at sea, and understood to be continuing towards Gaza.

Four Irish citizens were known to be on the Challenger I, which was intercepted and taken into Ashdod. Three Irish citizens were aboard another vessel, and one further citizen, a dual national, was reported as having possibly joined the flotilla among the large Turkish contingent, but this has not been confirmed and may not be correct. Of the seven confirmed Irish involved, two were taken to Ben Gurion Airport, having signed declarations agreeing to immediate deportation, and are awaiting deportation today. They were visited this morning by Ambassador O’Reilly, and their families have been informed.

The other five were being processed for detention prior to later deportation, and were taken to a detention centre in Beersheva, as part of some 600 or more persons detained on the ships. As I came to the House, I received a report that the Irish Embassy had managed make a consular visit to these citizens, and my Department is now passing this information on to their families. I will receive a fuller report later.

There was an early report on one Israeli TV channel that the injured included one Irish person, and this was later repeated by various media - some Deputies may have seen this. We do not have any information to confirm this, and enquiries by the Embassy with the hospitals treating the injured have been negative. So we do not have any reason to believe that there is an Irish person among the injured.

On receipt of the emerging news of the tragic events of yesterday morning, I made a statement condemning what happened and I summoned the Israeli Ambassador to a meeting at my Department yesterday evening. When I met the Ambassador I conveyed a number of very important points to him, which he has conveyed to his Government.

Firstly, the Irish Government’s condemnation of the use of military force in this fashion against the flotilla, which was unacceptable, and which had led to this tragedy.

It will be some time before we have a clearer picture of what happened. I have made the strong point to the Ambassador – very similar to what I said at the time of the assault on Gaza in January 2009 – that when you use excessive military force among civilians you cannot expect to control all the outcomes, and you must accept responsibility for the results of your actions. Who now could possibly argue that preventing this cargo from reaching Gaza was so important that an outcome such as this could be thought to be reasonable force?

I further made clear that all of the Irish citizens involved should be immediately and unconditionally released. At that time, I was also angry at reports that full consular access was not being allowed to our Embassy, as provided for under the Vienna Convention, and I demanded such access immediately for those citizens in detention. As I reported earlier, the Embassy has now seen all those we are aware of, and will maintain contact until they are released.

I made clear to the Ambassador my strong view that these citizens were constrained to enter Israel, which was not their intention, and that therefore questions of illegal entry should not arise. I understand that under Israeli law a person cannot be deported without a three day period in which to appeal, and that in order to leave immediately they have to sign a waiver of this right to appeal. This may be a necessary technicality, but there should be no question of having to admit guilt of illegal entry. Irish citizens were effectively seized by the Israeli forces and forcefully brought into Israel against their will.

I took issue with the description by the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel of the flotilla as “an armada of hate and violence”. We know the Irish activists involved to be sincere, committed people, with deep humanitarian convictions and concerns, who were committed to breaking the blockade of Gaza but in a peaceful, non-violent way. Some members of the Oireachtas had been with them and intended to join the flotilla. It is compounding one injustice with another to try and brand such people as somehow terrorist fellow-travellers.

Deputies will be aware from my earlier remarks that uppermost in my thoughts now is the progress of the ship that sailed from Ireland, the Rachel Corrie, on which a number of Irish citizens are continuing towards Gaza. It is thought that she might be approaching Gazan waters in the next day or two. I asked Ambassador Evrony to convey to his Government my request that, following the tragedy which has occurred, the Rachel Corrie be allowed to continue unimpeded, and to deliver its cargo to Gaza. I have just spoke in the past hour with the former UN senior official, Denis Halliday, who is one of the Irish citizens aboard the Rachel Corrie. We will be watching this situation very closely – as indeed will the world – and it is imperative that Israel avoid any action which leads to further bloodshed.

I have focussed on the situation of Irish citizens, and on the immediate events, but I am also deeply conscious of the wider context. Indeed I find that issues I have been raising since the Gaza war last year have come to the fore again. Israel must be brought to understand that military force is genuinely a last resort, not to be resorted to if any other method is available. It has been said in Israel that “when you have a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail”. Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, which we would all accept, but that right does not override and supercede all other rights, and the rights of all others. As we saw in Gaza itself, so now we see in relation to an effort to help Gaza – when you resort to powerful use of force, especially among civilians, terrible disasters such as this are not unexpected or unforeseeable: they are highly likely, sooner or later, usually sooner.

I return also to a central issue I have been stressing in international dialogue, which is that the continuing blockade of Gaza simply cannot be accepted as part of the status quo, and allowed to continue indefinitely. Public opinion in Ireland and elsewhere has shown that it will not accept this collective punishment of innocent people, and will act to challenge it.

I know myself from my visit to Gaza earlier this week that what exists in Gaza is a dire and indisputable humanitarian crisis, with most of the population living in inhumane and intolerable conditions and with increasing incidence of what the UN euphemistically calls absolute poverty. The current situation amounts to collective punishment of the population of Gaza and, as the EU acknowledged yesterday, is completely counter-productive. As long as the siege of Gaza continues, it will inflict further injustice on the people who live there, without in my view contributing at all to the security of Israel.

We are still gathering the basic facts of what has happened, and there is much more I could say, especially on the broader context. I will be following events closely, and considering what further action we need to take nationally or at EU or UN level. Debates are going on as we speak both in Brussels and in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and the Security Council in New York has already called in a Presidential Statement for an “impartial, credible and transparent investigation, conforming to international standards”, of what has happened – a call which I fully support and echo.

Finally, I reported to the House last week that I would soon be deciding what action to take in the issue of the use of forged Irish passports in the assassination of Mr. Mabouh in Dubai. I am anxious that this important matter be given the attention and focus it merits, and that it not become mixed up with the events we are now discussing. It remains my intention to very shortly propose to the Government the action I believe appropriate in this case.