Senator Averil Power:

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd. Last year I visited the occupied Palestinian territories with Christian Aid and saw, at first hand, the impact of the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and how Israel is using illegal settlements to undermine any real prospect of a two-state solution. We visited the South Jordan Valley, the land in which is both very fertile and valuable and which runs between the West Bank and Jordan. One one side of the road was an Israeli settlement incorporating lush green plantations which stretch away as far as the eye can see and which outdo anything I have seen in this country or elsewhere. Those plantations were made possible by the installation of expensive irrigation systems. On the other side of the road, the land inhabited by Palestinian families consists of barren red soil in which almost nothing grows. When we met the farmers who live on the Palestinian side of the road land and inquired how it is possible that these two extremes exist literally within ten feet of each other, they explained that their natural water source, which used to run down out of the nearby hills, had been cut off and diverted away from their land and on to that on which the illegal Israeli settlement is located. As a result, they are not only unable to maintain their livelihood from farming but they also lack access to clean water.

This story is repeated throughout the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel has stolen land and natural resources from the Palestinian people and planted 500,000 Israeli citizens in illegal settlements there. Those settlements are surrounded by a huge security apparatus that includes closed roads, buffer zones and checkpoints. All of this means that Palestinians are obliged to drive for 30 minutes or an hour in order to access hospitals and other public service facilities which they could previously reach in five minutes by car. This sometimes results in people not being able to obtain the medical treatment they need. All of these actions are designed to make life as difficult as possible for Palestinians and undermine any prospect of a two-state solution. The settlements in question are completely illegal under international law – even Israel’s closest ally, the US, recognises this – but they continue to grow in number. Earlier this month the Israel housing ministry outlined plans for a further 1,500 settlement housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The reasons the settlements are viable is because they are able to export millions of euro worth of agricultural and other produce cultivated on land confiscated from Palestinians using the latter’s natural resources. The value of the produce the EU imports from the settlements is estimated at $300 million. By purchasing settlement goods, consumers, often unwittingly, are supporting Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and its human rights violations there. Both the EU and Ireland have criticised the illegal Israeli settlements. However, we continue to accept goods that are produced there. I am of the view that the EU should ban all goods emanating from the settlements, particularly if we really believe what is happening is wrong. If we want to stop incentivising Israel in the context of stealing Palestinian land and resources, then we should not accept goods from those settlements and making them economically viable as a result. At the very least, we must ensure that those goods are correctly labelled as Israeli produce from the occupied Palestinian territories. Consumers would then be in a position to make their own decision – as they did in the past in respect of goods imported from apartheid South Africa – with regard to whether they want to buy them.

The EU has considered this issue and in December 2012 it agreed to take action in respect of settlement products. Ireland was one of 13 EU states to write to the EU foreign policy chief in the aftermath of that decision requesting that the Union introduce guidelines on the correct labelling of settlement goods. However, this has still not happened. We are still waiting for developments in this regard whereas the UK and Dutch Governments have taken action on their own initiative. I wish, therefore, to call on the Minister of State to encourage the Government to use its influence at EU level to ensure, preferably, that a complete ban on goods from the settlements is introduced or, at the very least, that they are properly labelled. I am of the view that the Government should follow the example of its UK counterpart by offering formal advice to Irish private sector companies regarding the Israeli settlements and explaining to them the reputational damage that can result from being involved with companies which are based there. In addition, the Government should exclude settlement products and companies from public procurement. It came as news to me that Veolia, the company which runs the Luas, is a French multinational that provides infrastructure to the illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. The Government should take account of such considerations when making decisions in respect of public procurement. If we are serious about human rights, then we should be prepared – as was the case in the past – to stand on our principles and use the economic power we possess to ensure that Israel rethinks its policy.

What I witnessed in Gaza and in East Jerusalem in the West Bank leads me to conclude that the Israelis are playing a long-term game by negotiating, on the one hand, while doing everything possible on a weekly basis, on the other, to make life more and more difficult for Palestinians by expanding the number of settlements. The purpose of this policy is to ensure that when it ultimately comes – if it does – to reaching agreement on a two-state solution, such an agreement will be virtually impossible to conclude. We should not be facilitating Israel’s policy, we should be doing everything in our power to stop it.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:

I am replying to this matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs who is unavoidably absent.

The Government’s position on Israeli settlements has been clearly articulated on many occasions. Such settlements are illegal and, as the Senator outlined, in many cases they involve the seizure of Palestinian land and resources. They are the cause of the great majority of movement and other restrictions which infringe on the lives and freedoms of Palestinians. Settlements are seriously undermining – as is the intention – the possibility of achieving a peace agreement. Ireland has, therefore, consistently argued for a stronger international approach to the issues surrounding settlements.

The business-related aspects of settlements have also been discussed on many occasions in the Oireachtas in recent years. Settlement products are an important issue but they are a small aspect of the overall problem and not central to the viability or progress of the project as a whole. Most settlements are dormitory communities for people who work in Israel and do not produce anything. Most settlement produce consists of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs, is largely consumed in Israel and could be entirely absorbed by the Israeli market, if necessary. Similarly, the amount of settlement produce entering the EU market is very small and this bears on the degree of regulation warranted to control it. The UN’s guiding principles on business and human rights, adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011, constitute the key international standard in this area. The Government encourages all Irish businesses to be familiar with and apply these principles in their international activities. This week the Government has decided to prepare a national plan on the implementation of the guiding principles. The plan will be co-ordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In the specific case of the occupied Palestinian territory, the EU has taken a number of actions in relation to settlements, strongly supported by Ireland and Irish Governments past and present. First, and most importantly, the EU has excluded goods produced in settlements from the lower tariffs which applies to Israeli goods. Work continues on an ongoing basis to make this distinction more effective and, as with any such tariff, to close any loopholes found. Second, the EU has issued rules to ensure that no EU research grants to Israeli entities are spent in the settlements. Third, the EU recently ruled that it does not recognise the competence of Israeli authorities to issue health certificates for chickens produced in the occupied territory and thus that these may not be imported into the EU.

The EU has been working on two further measures, namely, guidelines on the labelling of settlement goods and advice to business and individuals on investment in settlements. These measures were not progressed further during the past year while direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were in progress because it was felt they might not help the political context of the talks. Ireland has consistently supported both of these measures and since the suspension of the negotiations in May we have actively raised at EU level the need to resume progress on them. There is now general agreement among member states to issue guidance on investments. This will be along lines agreed at EU level but will appear as national advice of the member states.

A number of partners have already issued this advice, and Ireland will do so very shortly.

The guidelines on labelling may take a little longer to agree, as this involves many more departments in both member states and the European Commission. However, in any case the essential point, that produce from settlements should not be labelled as coming from Israel, is already provided for in EU consumer law. The Tánaiste has stated that if the labelling guidelines are unduly delayed at EU level, Ireland will move ahead with national guidelines.

There is therefore a considerable overlap between what the Government has been doing and the actions recommended in the Trócaire report mentioned by the Senator. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is in regular contact with Trócaire and other interested parties on this broad range of issues. However, the report also blurs important distinctions, for instance, by treating as equivalent an investment specifically in a settlement enterprise, and commercial links with other companies which themselves may have commercial links with settlements. This is not helpful, and it would seriously undermine our own influence on the issue if we were to follow this logic in discussions at EU level. This point has been made to Trócaire.

Ireland has strongly supported a range of actions at EU level to make effective our opposition to illegal settlements and we will continue to do so.

Senator Averil Power

I thank the Minister of State for his reply on behalf of the Tánaiste. I welcome the signal from the Tánaiste that Ireland will move to introduce guidelines if it is not done at EU level. I appreciate that. I am concerned about that as that has been said since 2012 and it has not happened yet. I urge that it would be done as soon as possible. The reply from the Department refers to the fact that the reason the EU has not been pursuing this issue more vigorously is because negotiations are in progress. Negotiations in regard to the Israeli occupation of Palestine have been in progress in different formats for a long time. My view on the current negotiations is that I do not believe Israel is acting in good faith. I do not believe it could possibly claim to be doing so when it continues to expand more and more settlements all the time, as it did earlier this month. If anything, it is using the negotiations as a cover for increasing advancement into Palestinian areas and undermining any realistic prospect for a two-state solution in the future. We should not play into that game by putting off taking measures ourselves simply because negotiations are taking place. We would all hope that the negotiations will turn out well but unfortunately we have grounds for suspicion.

The reply also refers to the fact that on labelling guidelines the EU law already requires that products from the settlements should not be referred to as coming from Israel. A label for Israeli produce does not state “produce of Israel”, rather it states produce of such and such a settlement or area. A consumer reading such a label does not know if that settlement or area is in Israel or if it is in the occupied Palestinian territories. We need to have absolute clarity on this. The only way to have that is if labels state “Israeli produce from the occupied Palestinian territories”. In that way consumers will have absolute clarity about the produce; they cannot be expected to know the geography of the area.

The issue of public procurement and Irish State contracts going to companies that are actively involved in the occupied Palestinian is not dealt with in the reply and the Minister of State might ask the Tánaiste to respond to me directly on that matter.

Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:

I assure the Senator that I will bring her comments, particularly the points she has just made, to the attention of the Tánaiste for direct reply to her good self.



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