On Wednesday morning, I watched an amazing debate unfolding in the Irish Seanad (Senate), as members spoke for and against a bill to prohibit the importation of Israeli goods produced in colonies in occupied Palestinian lands. The legislation in question is the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territory) Bill 2018, which would “make it an offence for a person to import or sell goods or services originating in Occupied Territories or to extract resources from an Occupied Territories”.
The bill had been introduced by independent Senator Frances Black and a group of co-sponsors earlier in the year. At the request of the Irish government, the sponsors agreed to delay the debate and vote until this month. The delay proved fortuitous in that it allowed supporters to mobilise broad public support for the effort.
In the months leading up to the Senate debate, Black led a delegation to the Occupied Palestinian lands. On her return she criss-crossed the country holding town hall meetings in Dublin, Cork and Galway. The bill’s supporters also hosted Palestinian farmers from the West Bank who related to Irish audiences the horrors of the occupation.
Several town and county councils passed resolutions in support of the boycott initiative. As Irish public support grew, the main opposition party, Fianna Fail, joined Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats, and the Green Party as endorsers of the bill. By the time the legislation came to the floor, its passage was assured. The vote was 25 in favour, with 20 opposed.
As delighted as I was with the outcome, it was the debate, itself, that was so impressive. It was, in a word, lopsided. Not a single voice was raised in support of Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Even those who voted against the bill denounced Israeli colonies, America’s unilateral move to open an embassy in occupied Jerusalem, and more than one member compared the situation in the Occupied Territories to South Africa’s notorious “Apartheid regime”.
Despite the government’s opposition, they could only muster half-hearted arguments of concern and caution. Even the leading opponent, Foreign Minister Simon Covney, acknowledged that he could “emotionally connect” with the bill and recognised the “deep injustice” endured by the Palestinians. He, and others from his party, made it clear that their government’s policy recognised that colonies were illegal and that Palestinians had the rights that were denied to them by the occupation and the expansion of colonies. Their concerns were with Ireland taking a step ahead of the European Union (EU) and the possible repercussions that might follow.
Senator Black’s response was both forceful and eloquent. Speaking of the impact of colonies on Palestinian life and lamenting the hollow condemnation of Israeli practices by the EU, she said. “Though these settlements [colonies] 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 [colonies] as ‘unambiguously illegal’, as theft of land and resources, but happily buy the proceeds of this crime.
“I saw the impact of settlement [colony] expansion when I visited the West Bank this year: the restrictions on movement, the shrinking space for housing and health care, 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 [colony], 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 [colony] 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.”
Black and her colleagues also rebutted the charge that they were calling for a boycott of Israel, making it clear that their bill targeted only colony goods. And in response to the charge that the legislation would put Ireland at odds with the EU, the Irish senators presented expert legal opinion to the contrary. They also reminded the government that when similar arguments were made cautioning against banning products from South Africa, “Ireland demonstrated leadership” and the rest of Europe eventually followed.
The debate was remarkable and the final vote was historic. At the same time, the reactions from Israel and its supporters were predictable and hysterical. True to form, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently rushing through the Knesset a bill that would formally legislate Jewish-only communities, played the victim hypocritical condemning the Irish legislation as “violating free trade and justice”. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he would not speak to Ireland’s ambassador saying: “We will not engage with Israel’s oppressors. Israel should close immediately its embassy in Dublin.” And some American supporters warned that the Irish effort would run afoul of proposed US legislation that calls on the US to boycott any businesses that support boycotts of Israeli colony products.
Undeterred, the legislation now moves to Ireland’s Lower House for consideration. Opposition will be steep, but the resolve of Senator Black and the bill’s supporters are determined to see it through. Because of the commitment to the principle demonstrated by the courageous people of Ireland, the struggle for justice and the implementation of international law has now entered a new phase. Once again, Ireland leads. Those of us who have long supported Palestinian rights and lamented the failure of the West to act decisively to defend this long suffering people can only say “thank you, Ireland”.
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.