In the Dáil on Wednesday, October 11, after the horrific Hamas attack a few days prior, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald put to the Taoiseach that the “question for Ireland and the Government is what part Ireland plays in all this”.
“It is critical the right to defend itself is done within the parameters of international humanitarian law, with a response that is proportionate, and protection of civilians and de-escalation must be a priority,” Leo Varadkar said.
“Israel has united itself in response to these attacks and is gaining a lot of solidarity from other parts of the world, but I believe that will evaporate very quickly if the Israeli response in Gaza and elsewhere is disproportionate. There must be restraint and there must be no attacks on civilian infrastructure.”
In calling for restraint and a proportionate response from the very outset, Ireland was sailing against the prevailing wind among many western countries at the time.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had said after the October 7 attacks by Hamas that Israel “has an absolute right to defend itself”, and said the UK was “poised” to help Israel militarily if it asked for assistance.
US President Joe Biden said his country would “continue to show the world that the American people are unwavering in our resolve to oppose terrorism in all forms”.
“The United States and the State of Israel are inseparable partners, and I affirmed to Prime Minister Netanyahu again when we spoke yesterday that the United States will continue to make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself and its people,” he said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, initially, was also very strong in her support. “In the face of this unspeakable tragedy, there is only one possible response: Europe stands with Israel,” she said on October 14.
“And Israel has a right to defend itself. In fact, it has the duty to defend its people. And we must call by their name the atrocities committed by Hamas. This is terrorism. This is an act of war. Nothing can justify what Hamas did. This is the time to stand in solidarity with Israel and its people.”
Back at home, the Taoiseach said her comments “lacked balance” while President Michael D Higgins said she was “not speaking for Ireland”, as critics said she failed to call for Israel’s actions in Gaza to comply with international law.
The support for Israel’s right to defend itself was re-iterated by France, Germany, and Canada, among others. While many responses were caveated with language such as Israel defending itself “in accordance with international law” and ensuring efforts to “protect civilian life”, the message was clear: Israel had the right to defend itself. And many western countries were initially backing their response.
All the while, behind the scenes, Ireland was speaking to like-minded countries in Europe as it sought to solidify support for calls for a proportionate response, and then a ceasefire once the violence escalated.
It has brought us to the point where, by mid-December, along with the almost 1,200 people killed by Hamas on October 7, nearly 20,000 have been killed in Gaza by Israeli military action since early October.
Even in the occupied West Bank, entirely separate from Gaza, 291 Palestinians have been killed since October 7. Most of them have been killed by Israeli forces, according to OCHA, the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs.
Each week of fighting brings with it a litany of grim, horrific new stories from the region. From the killing of two women who’d been taking refuge in a Christian church to the situation at Al-Shifa Hospital—OCHA said the UN team that reached the hospital last Saturday described the emergency department as a “bloodbath”—new horrors are constantly being revealed.
And it has been the scale of violence and bloodshed that has eventually led countries that had previously not backed a ceasefire in the region to change tack.
It’s understood that Ireland’s approach from the start has centred on listening to the different UN agencies on the ground in Gaza. Described as an “open air prison” of over two million people, the humanitarian situation there had already been dire prior to the latest round of hostilities.
Under the new right-wing coalition in power in Israel since last December, the much sought-after two-State solution to finally end hostilities had become ever more remote even before October 7.
The Irish State aimed for a response that was principled and based on the evidence on the ground, even if its stance flew in the face of many European allies at the start, and it soon became clear that the overwhelming evidence pointed to mass civilian casualties.
Niall Holohan, a retired Irish diplomat who was based in Ramallah in the West Bank as the Irish Government’s representative to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-2000s, said that Ireland had “done ourselves fairly proudly on the issue”.
“There’s no easy solution,” he told the. “Ireland has taken the right stance in the last two months. The Government has realised that violence is not the solution.”
The stance of Ireland certainly didn’t win it new friends from the Israeli Government.
In early November, Israeli heritage minister Amichai Eliyahu of the Otzma Yehudit party was quoted by the Times of Israel as saying that Palestinian people “can go to Ireland or deserts, the monsters in Gaza should find a solution by themselves”. Such a characterisation brought comparisons with the infamous “To Hell or to Connacht” phrase dating back to the Cromwellian plantation.
Israeli-Irish relations could hardly have been described as warm, but behind the scenes it’s understood the Government has been keen to stress to the Israelis that what appears in Irish discourse and news media doesn’t necessarily translate to that being the State’s position.
Reading Israeli media too, there are any number of articles criticising Ireland’s position on Israel.
After the release of Emily Hand, the Taoiseach drew the ire of Israel for tweeting “An innocent child who was lost has now been found”. An editorial in thesaid: “What is troubling is that the Irish premier’s post corresponds with his country’s longtime and highly problematic position.”
On a diplomatic level, the work done to help secure the release of Emily Hand and to aid the exit of Irish citizens in Gaza is seen as entirely separate from these geopolitical problems. Ireland’s bid to be consistent on upholding international law and calling out Israel doesn’t have to be at odds with working together in situations like this.
“[Ireland’s diplomats] did a great job in getting Emily Hand released and supporting Irish citizens out of Gaza,” Mr Holohan said.
“Leo Varadkar was lambasted for his ‘lost and found’ comment, and our ambassador in Tel Aviv had to defend his position.
“We’re an easy, soft target in this respect. But we’ve had worse in the past.”
Part of the efforts have been trying to secure unanimity across the EU in the ceasefire calls and, while some countries such as the UK have hardened their stance against Israel in recent weeks, it has proven tough to secure an agreement. All the while, more civilians are killed in Gaza and settler activity in the West Bank has ramped up.
Ireland’s position has been for some time that Israel was breaking international law through illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. Tánaiste Micheál Martin already floated the idea of a travel ban on extremist settlers as a potential effective sanction to be used, but the State wants to ensure that any sanction has the intended impact of dissuading such violence.
Last week, he said that sanctions against Israel must go further than a travel ban on settlers. “Yes, I think sanctions should go beyond travel bans if this persists,” the Tánaiste said. “Israel is saying it’s a small minority but the evidence is that the action of settlers has been backed up by the IDF on the ground with the Palestinians being attacked and various communities being displaced.
“The issue fundamentally is if we are to have any chance of a contiguous Palestinian state the action of the settlers has to stop, particularly with the far right, very religious fundamentalist settlers who almost believe that the biblical reality is this is all of their land and they can displace anybody in their way, that has to stop and the Israeli Government has a responsibility to stop that.”
Mr Martin has also said that Israel must pay for damage inflicted on EU-funded buildings such as schools and health facilities, many of which have been destroyed by violent settlers.
“We are part of the West Bank consortium which is endeavoring to put pressure on Israel to pay for damage to any EU-funded infrastructure and most recently there was a school that was funded by Irish Aid that was very badly damaged by Israeli forces,” Mr Martin said.
A key target for Ireland had been the UN Security Council vote in the week before Christmas. While the UN General Assembly had already voted overwhelmingly for a ceasefire, only a vote from the UN Security Council is binding in international law. But, ahead of Christmas, votes were delayed again and again amid squabbling around the exact wording of the ceasefire calls.
For any vote for a ceasefire to still be effective though, of course, Israel has to abide by that call. And a ceasefire may go against their Government’s stated goals of crushing Hamas, particularly as it has yet to get its main leaders. For Israel to cease hostilities having not achieved these aims may not play well for its Government at home.
However, looking ahead, Ireland appears to remain committed to the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, however remote it may seem at the moment.
To emphasise how difficult such a settlement would be—even if the political will to enter talks existed—an Israeli lawyer who previously advised British foreign secretary David Cameron estimated that 200,000 of the 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank would have to be re-located to Israel to create a viable Palestinian state.
“If it does not have the will, the two-state solution is dead,” Daniel Seidemann said. “The number might be better than most people think, but it is quite daunting. If you can annex incrementally, you can de-occupy incrementally.”
But, at the moment, Israel does not have the will to re-locate even one settler, he added. And, on the Palestinian side, the last elections took place in 2006 meaning the leadership there is operating with little democratic legitimacy.
Mr Holohan said: “It’s going to be very hard to implement the two-state solution. There’s a complete lack of trust between the two sides.
“Was there ever any real intention on the part of the right-wing members of the Israeli government to implement the two-state solution? A whole new set up would need concessions on both sides. I don’t see it happening. There is no way Netanyahu would get settlers to move out of their current State.”
But from an Irish perspective, it believes the status quo of before—with increasing settlement of Palestinian land and violence by settlers—cannot continue. And the EU needs to step up to try to stop it. Sanctions may play a role, but the carrots of better relations with regional neighbours such as the Saudis and UAE could act as effectively as the stick.
During his visit to the region in September, Mr Martin was urging more of an emphasis at EU level on the crisis in the Middle East at a time when eyes were elsewhere, such as Ukraine. And, at an EU leaders summit earlier in December, the Taoiseach said that this remained an Irish priority.
“What we have to do really is become more active and more interested in this issue as a European Union,” Mr Varadkar said. “For a long time now, we’ve talked the talk when it comes to building a two-state solution in the Middle East, but we haven’t really put our political or economic power behind that, and I think we should.
“The European Union should insist on a two-state solution, should work with the Palestinian Authority or a new Palestinian leadership perhaps to make that happen, but also really pressurise Israel and say that their failure to allow the Palestinians to have their own state is going to affect the relationship between Israel and the EU into the future.
“It’s not going to be back to the way it was before this war.”
Looking ahead, Ireland has signalled that it wants a proper political deal for the Palestinians that maybe goes as far as pointing the road towards a two-state solution. As remote as that may appear right now.
The Government should be rightly held to account for the litany of problems at home. But, as support for a ceasefire in Gaza began to swell in recent weeks this is an example where, aided by diligent work on the ground in the Middle East, it has gotten this one right, according to ex-diplomat Niall Holohan.
“The increased levels of violence going on are inevitably making things worse,” he said. “What we need is a negotiated solution. Irish representatives will continue to do their job.
“People just need to talk.”