This past week, we hosted Irish Senator Frances Black in Washington. Black is the chair of the Irish Seanad’s (senate) Palestine Working Group and the lead sponsor of the legislation to ban the importation of products from illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian land into Ireland.
The “Control of Economic Activity [Occupied Territory] Bill of 2018” (CEA-OT) has passed the Seanad and successfully completed two rounds in the lower house (Dail) of the Irish parliament. In the Dail’s first vote, the bill passed by a wide margin of 78-45. All of Ireland’s major parties, except for the minority governing party, have endorsed Black’s legislation, and there is strong support for the bill and for Palestinian rights among the Irish public.
The CEA-OT has been carefully crafted and does not over reach. By limiting its purview to products from settlements, it is clearly not an effort to impose boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel. When this legislation was first brought up for a vote in the Seanad, Senator Black’s remarks in support included the following poignant observations:
“Though these settlements are repeatedly condemned as illegal by the European Union, the United Nations and the Irish government, they continue to extract valuable natural resources and agricultural produce.
“These goods are exported and sold on shelves around the world, including in Ireland… There is a clear hypocrisy here — how can we condemn the settlements as ‘unambiguously illegal’, as theft of land and resources, but happily buy the proceeds of this crime?
“I saw the impact of settlement expansion when I visited the West Bank this year: the restrictions on movement, the shrinking space for housing and healthcare, the lack of electricity. I witnessed the crushing indignity of a Palestinian community cut off from their water supply so that it could be diverted to an Israeli chicken farm. That commercial settlement, built on stolen land beyond internationally recognised borders, is a war crime. Is the moral response to condemn this illegality, but then ask, ‘How much for the eggs?’
“Ultimately, trade in settlement goods sustains injustice. We can criticise all we want, but years of empty rhetoric simply have not worked. As long as we buy their produce and they stay profitable, nothing will change.”
At this critical juncture, with just a few more steps before the legislation comes to a final vote in the Dail, a group of pro-Israel US members of Congress, led by Representatives Peter King (R-NY) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), have inserted themselves into the process with a letter to the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) and foreign minister threatening Ireland with “severe implications were this bill to become law”. The congressional letter falsely claims that the boycott of settlement products called for in the legislation would run counter to the US Export Administration Act (EAA), thereby making it difficult for US companies (like Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc.) to continue to do business in Ireland. The King-Engel letter more than suggests that what is at stake for Ireland is the 67 per cent of its foreign direct investment that comes from the US.
While it is disturbing that US members of Congress would attempt to blatantly interfere in the democratic processes of another country on behalf of Israel, even more troubling is their brazen mischaracterisation of the EAA. That law was passed in the 1970’s to prohibit US companies from submitting to pressures from the Arab League to boycott Israel. The Irish CEA-OT, however, has nothing to do with Ireland responding to the Arab League. It has everything to do with international law. And, in any case, the boycott does not apply to Israel. It only boycotts goods produced, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, in Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. The Geneva Conventions specifically prohibit an occupying power from transferring its people into the territories it has occupied, displacing the indigenous population and exploiting the resources from those territories for its own benefit. The United Nations and the International Court of Justice have repeatedly ruled that Israel’s behaviours in the occupied Palestinian territories are in violation of the conventions.
During her four day visit to Washington, Senator Black had one public event co-hosted by the Arab American Institute and the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a luncheon with a number of organisations working on issues related to Israeli-Palestinian peace, as well as meetings with a number of members of Congress. There was broad support for her efforts and a determination to help correct the record on the mischaracterisation of EAA.
As she repeatedly noted, should the CEA-OT become law, its economic impact on Israel will be minimal, the best estimates are that Irish imports from the settlements only amount to between 500,000 euros and 1,000,000 euros annually. The importance of the CEA-OT is, therefore, not in the economic impact it makes, but in the clear message it sends that Israel’s incessant drive to colonise the West Bank with continued settlement expansion will no longer be tolerated. Instead of wringing its hands in frustration with Israeli policy, the Irish government will send a clear message that “enough is enough”.
In this context, it is irritating that the King-Engel letter disingenuously claims to share “Ireland’s goal of a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and claims that the CEA-OT “undermines the prospect for a sustainable two-state solution”. In fact, it is the US Congress’ refusal to act in any way to help halt Israel’s aggressive expansion of settlements that have put the very possibility of a two-state solution at risk.
Ireland alone cannot change Israeli policy. But Ireland is determined to lead. The reason why the Israeli government and their US allies are responding so forcefully, with threats and more, is because they know that should Ireland lead, the EU may follow. And with more countries taking concrete measures to demonstrate their disapproval of Israel behaviour, only then will a “sustainable” peace based on justice and respect for international law become possible.
The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute