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Topical Issue Debate on House of Contention in Hebron Tuesday 1st April

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for allowing Deputy Nolan and me to bring this very important issue to the attention of the House. Having visited Hebron six months ago, I have seen first-hand the plight of the Palestinians within the city. I saw the Rajabi house itself – the site of the proposed settlement – when I was there. There was a doubt about the legality of the purchase of the house, but the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that it was legally purchased. The final decision will be with the Minister of Defence in Israel.
The significance of the matter is the impact it will have on the Palestinians who are living there. I have seen myself that the whole centre of the city of Hebron has been sterilised. No Palestinian can engage in business, live within the centre or walk through the city. If I were settler in the city of Hebron and wanted to reach the Minister of State, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, I could simply cross the floor. If I were a Palestinian, I would have to take a circuitous route around the building and come back to meet with him. That is the life of the Palestinians living there. The proposed settlement will split the communities within the city of Hebron and increase tensions which are already rising.
This is part of a wider issue. Negotiations are ongoing within a sham peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is split at the moment. Within the West Bank area, the Israelis have a policy of not forcibly but gradually removing farmers from land and householders from their properties. I hope that in his response, the Minister of State will offer strong support for the Palestinians, particularly those in the Hebron area. Within the location of the house which has been purchased, there will be sterilisation. Businesses will close and Palestinians in the locality will have to generate their activity elsewhere.

Deputy Derek Nolan: I had the privilege of visiting the West Bank, Gaza and Israel last year. Of all the situations of complete abnormality that were evident between Israel and Palestine and their two peoples, the most toxic was the one which obtained in Hebron. We are talking about a large Palestinian city which is solidly in the West Bank and nowhere near the state of Israel. Settlements have been cropping up all around over recent years. In the historic centre of Hebron, where the markets once flourished and shops once existed, settlements have grown up. They have expanded and caused a complete collapse. I often say to people in Galway when I recount my trip that it is like walking down Shop Street if all the shops were closed, the Galwegians were told to keep away and the only people permitted to be there were a few settlers. That is how appallingly the native Palestinian residents of Hebron are treated.
These little settlements are gradually extending into each other. The expansion into this new area called “the house of contention” has been signalled for some time since it was illegally purchased in March 2007 with forged documentation, a matter which has been going through the courts over recent years. It is another symbol of just how powerless, helpless and destructive matters are in Hebron. Hebron is the centre which demonstrates the hatred, viciousness and lack of trust on both sides. If the settlement goes ahead, we must lose hope that there is a genuine attempt to create a two state solution. Ultimately, this will be a political decision in Israel. It must go through the Israeli Minister of Defence. Regardless of the European Union and international positions, I would like the Irish position to be articulated to the effect that we are against the expansion of the settlements and to have it communicated to the Israeli Government.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Paschal Donohoe): I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, has consistently made clear the Government’s strong criticism of and opposition to Israeli settlements and settlement expansion, which are illegal under international law and constitute a major obstacle to peace. Settlements and related policies in area C seem designed to drive Palestinians off the bulk of the land they occupy and to crowd them into the cities under Palestinian Authority control. Settlements establishment and the policies implemented to support them inherently involve continual injustices, hardships and humiliations for Palestinians. They are perhaps the main source of tension between the two communities on the ground. The Deputies, through the analogies they have used, have made very clear the injustices involved in these arrangements. Deputy Lawlor spoke about the difficulties in someone coming to approach me.

Deputy Nolan’s use of the analogy of Galway made clear the injustices involved in these arrangements.
The Israeli Government and Israeli public opinion are in no doubt about the Irish Government’s views on this issue. The city of Hebron presents a showcase or microcosm of these issues in action. Hebron is the largest city fully in the West Bank, with 170,000 Palestinian inhabitants and an additional 7,000 Israeli settlers in a large settlement on its outskirts. In the centre of this ancient city some 850 settlers have established a number of small scattered settlements around the old town. In many cases, settlers simply occupied buildings and the new settlement was subsequently recognised by the Israeli authorities.
To protect the settlers and their rights a large force of Israeli soldiers is also based in the centre of Hebron. Palestinian residents have been subject to extensive movement controls, as the Deputies noted, and are excluded entirely from the main street and other areas in the interests of the small minority of settlers in their midst. As a result, many Palestinian businesses in the old city have closed down.
In March, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a ruling, anticipated for several months, on the purchase by Israeli settlers of a house in Hebron known as al-Rajabi house or the house of contention. The ruling upheld a 2012 decision by the Jerusalem District Court that the purchase of the house was legal and settlers should be allowed to resume living there. This house, which is a large apartment building, would constitute the nucleus for a new settlement in Hebron and become the first settlement established in the city since the 1980s. It would inevitably be accompanied by new security checkpoints and closures and developing pressure on Palestinian residents. There is a strong possibility that its occupation would lead to further tension and violence in the area. When clashes occur the response is always to further restrict and exclude Palestinian residents.
As the Deputies noted, the next stage in the process is for the Israeli defence Minister to authorise and permit the transaction. Until then, the settlers continue to be prohibited from entering the building. The Deputies asked me to elaborate on the Irish position on this matter. Ireland calls on the Israeli defence Minister not to grant the purchase permit for the building given the very sensitive political nature of the settlement.
Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in direct negotiations, which are intended to decide within months all questions about the future of settlements. Ongoing settlement announcements such as this have clearly been damaging to confidence in the peace process. Israel has regularly announced new settlement units since the talks began, including significant plans for more than 2,300 new housing units in six West Bank settlements announced in March.
On the European Union position, in a statement on 21 March, High Representative Ashton strongly condemned the latest settlement announcement on behalf of the EU. She stated that such actions undermine the current negotiations and, as a consequence, the two-state solution and urged the Israeli authorities to reconsider their plans and reverse their decision. Ireland fully supports this position.
More broadly, the Tánaiste has also called for the international community to be more forceful in its response to continued settlement expansion. Ireland has supported all measures by the European Union to increase pressure on the Israeli Government on the issue of settlements and the Government will continue to be active on this issue.

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I welcome the strong views expressed by the Minister of State, which strengthen the position held by many people here and throughout the European Union on developments on the ground in the West Bank. Unfortunately, words do not have much effect on Israeli policy on settlement expansion in the West Bank. Strong measures such as a boycott of goods produced in settlements and sold in the European Union are required. I hope the Government will take this matter further because strong condemnation by the Oireachtas and European Union do not have an effect on Israeli policy on settlement expansion. A boycott of goods produced on settlements would indicate we have a serious policy on the ongoing peace process, which I believe is a sham. Talks may be taking place but nothing is being done on the ground.

Deputy Derek Nolan: I thank the Minister of State for his clear, concise and powerful statement in response to the issue Deputy Lawlor and I raise. We are discussing a conflict that is complex, detailed, historical and ingrained. It involves many stakeholders, specifically the Arab states bordering Israel and Palestine and the Israelis and Palestinians. The respective positions of Palestine and Israel are characterised by a power imbalance. While we should give the latest round of negotiations a shot, that should not prevent us from pointing out that nothing is improving for Palestinians despite many years of peace negotiations. On the contrary, the position in the West Bank is deteriorating and Gaza is in crisis. We must prepare options and inform the Israelis and Palestinians that this is their final chance to arrive at a solution together and on their terms as we will otherwise enforce the principles of international law and stop the import of products from illegal settlements. We must indicate that this is the last chance and we will move to enforcement if the talks fail.

Deputy Paschal Donohoe: I thank Deputies Lawlor and Nolan again for their contributions. I agree with Deputy Nolan’s analysis regarding the inherent complexity of the situation, the weight of history and the dilemmas and challenges facing the countries and communities in the region. Amid this complexity, the view of the Government, one which is clearly shared by the Deputies, is that we strongly support a two-state solution and the creation of a peaceful and secure future for the communities in the region. We strongly believe the current negotiations are vital in this regard.
It is within this framework that the continued expansion of settlements is destabilising and difficult. The negotiations are challenging, subtle and fraught and will have a major impact on the region and beyond. The expansion of settlements presents a major challenge to the success and continuation of the negotiations. For this reason, I emphasise our overall view on settlement expansion, with reference to the specific building in Hebron and the decision to be made by the Israeli Minister for defence. There are people of good sense and courage involved on both sides of the current negotiations. The Tánaiste and I sincerely hope that courage and common sense will prevail when the Minister takes his decision and an atmosphere will be created that is conducive to a successful conclusion of the negotiations.

ENDS