In a bitter diplomatic defeat for Israel, the upper house of Ireland’s parliament on Wednesday advanced legislation that would criminalize the import and trade of goods produced in the settlements.
The Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 passed a second reading by the Irish Senate, known as Seanad Éireann, with 25 “yes” votes, 20 “no” votes and 14 abstentions.
The bill still faces several hurdles before it becomes law.
The advancement of the legislation was denounced by Israel and hailed by Palestinian officials and Arab Israeli Knesset members.
“The Irish Senate has given its support to a populist, dangerous and extremist anti-Israel boycott initiative that hurts the chances of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians; it will have a negative impact on the diplomatic process in the Middle East,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“The absurd in the Irish Senate’s initiative is that it will harm the livelihoods of many Palestinians who work in the Israeli industrial zones affected by the boycott,” read the statement, issued by the ministry’s spokesperson, Emmanuel Nahshon.
“Israel will consider its response in accordance with developments regarding this legislation.”
The Palestinians, meanwhile, celebrated the vote.
“This courageous step builds on the historic ties between Ireland and Palestine, as well as it shows the way forward for the rest of the European Union,” top Palestine Liberation Organization official Saeb Erekat said in a statement issued before the vote was taken.
“Today the Irish Seanad has sent a clear message to the international community and particularly to the rest of the European Union: the mere talking about the two-state solution is not enough without taking concrete measures. Those trading with Israeli settlements are complicit in the systematic denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination.”
The Joint (Arab) List also welcomed the bill, saying it hoped it would “mark the beginning of a new stage in which Israel starts to pay an international political, economic and moral price for its actions.”
The bill’s passage would start “a new stage in treating the Zionist lobby as a danger the values that Europe claims to represent,” the Arab Israeli party said.
The government in Dublin — known to be one of the most pro-Palestinian governments in Europe — opposed the bill, arguing that it is not legally entitled to curtail trade with Israeli companies based in the settlements.
“On behalf of the government I am unable to agree that this bill is the way forward,” Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said during the discussion that preceded the vote.
While the foreign minister said he could “emotionally connect” with the bill, lamenting the “deep injustice” that Palestinians have suffered for decades, Coveney said there were important legal and political reasons to oppose the bill.
For one, as a member of the European Union, Ireland does not have the right to ban the import of goods that are available elsewhere in the union, he said.
In fact, he said, “passage of the bill would be a breach of European law,” adding that Ireland’s attorney general confirmed this view.
Perhaps even more importantly, Coveney added, advancing the bill would not only sideline Ireland as a party that both Israelis and Palestinians would take seriously but would also greatly diminish Dublin’s ability to influence EU policy on the Middle East.
Ireland would be “fanning the flames” of an already volatile Middle East if it passed the legislation, he said.
The sponsor of the bill, Independent Senator Frances Black, disagreed with Coveney’s legal assessment, citing two legal opinions that support her view. The proposed legislation does not constitute a boycott of Israel but only of the settlements, she stressed.
“We must be clear on this: Israeli settlements in the West Bank are war crimes,” she said.
The government’s policy of seeking to engage with Israel “isn’t working,” she added, lamenting that Dublin continues to condemn the settlements but fails to act.
“As long as we buy their stolen goods, nothing will change,” she said.
Ahead of the speech, Black said she was a bit a nervous because she had been told that “the whole of Palestine is listening.”
The proposed legislation — a private member bill — declares it an offense “for a person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.”
Likewise, those who “assist another person to import or attempt to import settlement goods” would be committing a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, if the bill were to become law.
“The bill seeks to prohibit the import and sale of goods, services and natural resources originating in illegal settlements in occupied territories,” Black said in a statement posted to her website on June 25.
“Such settlements are illegal under both international humanitarian law and domestic Irish law, and result in human rights violations on the ground. Despite this, Ireland provides continued economic support through trade in settlement goods.”
While the bill does not mention Israel and the Palestinian territories, critics have charged that it appears to have been written exclusively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mind.
Black, a former singer from Dublin who entered parliament in 2016, has long been supportive of the Palestinian cause and a fierce critic of Israel’s settlement enterprise.
“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,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Irish Times published earlier Wednesday.
“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 recognized borders, is a war crime. Is the moral response to condemn the illegality, but then ask how much for the eggs?”
Black also said that she invited two Palestinian farmers to Dublin who have been directly affected by Israel’s settlement policies.
“Mona and Fayez al-Taneeb have been living in the shadow of Israel’s illegal annexation wall since 2003, fighting against the demolition of their farm and the confiscation of their land by a commercial Israeli settlement,” she wrote.
“The very presence of this settlement is a gross violation of international law, but this offers little consolation to the people whose lives hang in the balance. Encroachment continues, land is seized, and more than 40 percent of the West Bank has now been taken, undermining the viability of a sustainable Palestinian state.”
The bill has at least half a dozen legislative obstacles to clear, including several readings in the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, known as Dáil Éireann, before it can be signed into law by President Michael Higgins.
On January 30, the Irish Senate surprisingly postponed voting on the bill, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sharply criticized the proposed legislation.
“The initiative gives backing to those who seek to boycott Israel and completely contravenes the guiding principles of free trade and justice,” Netanyahu said, hours before the planned vote.
Despite the vote being delayed, Netanyahu ordered the Foreign Ministry to summon the Irish ambassador in Israel, Alison Kelly.