Martin retains view of Israeli offensive after visit to Gaza


Ireland is pursuing an objective approach in the Middle East, Micheál Martin tells Foreign Affairs Correspondent Mary Fitzgerald

LAST MONTH Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin became the first European minister to visit Gaza in over a year.

Martin, who circumvented Israel’s ban on high-profile visitors to the territory by entering via Rafah on the Egyptian border, says what he saw there reinforced his view that the Israeli offensive last January was disproportionate.

“Having walked through Gaza, there is no way that one could say that you can bomb with precision without killing women and children,” he says.

Though Martin did not meet Hamas officials during his trip, he has mulled over the prickly question of bringing the organisation in from the cold.

“There will, at some stage, have to be engagement with Hamas,” he states. Acknowledging that certain conditions would have to be met first, he nevertheless cautions that “you can’t over-conditionalise either”.

Martin turns to the Northern Ireland peace process to bolster his argument.

“Sinn Féin, at the start of the process, was not forced to recognise the state of Northern Ireland. By the end of the process, they were in a position to agree a new framework . . . I think there are parallels here in terms of how one deals with Hamas,” he says. “Hamas has to renounce violence as a way of pursuing political objectives . . . If they were to enter any discussions it would be clear that one outcome of that involves the recognition of Israel but whether you put that as a condition upfront, I think is something one has to be realistic about.”

Discussing how the EU responded to Hamas winning the 2006 elections, Martin says: “In many ways was, one could argue, a mistake. I think there comes a time when we have to review all of that.”

The continuing blockade of Gaza is only strengthening the hand of more reactionary elements within Hamas, he believes.

“There is a window of opportunity that needs to be grasped and those within Hamas who would favour a more hard-line position could gain the ascendancy if the policies that are currently implemented continue.”

Relations between Israel and Europe have become strained over the past 15 months for several reasons, with the Gaza offensive in particular hardening popular opinion in several countries. In the context of how the EU engages with Israel, Martin talks of “uncomfortable realities” entering the agenda.

“There is no question that these issues have changed the dynamic in terms of the relationship . . . have slowed down, without question, the relationship in a general sense. One does pick up this sense of an anxiety – maybe anxiety is too strong a word – a concern, in Israel, of these events cumulatively having the impact of isolation.”

Suspicions that Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad orchestrated the murder of a senior Hamas official, allegedly killed by a team of assassins travelling on forged European passports, earlier this year have not helped. Martin rejects the suggestion that Europe was not robust in its response.

“I thought we took a strong enough position on it based on the facts as we know them at the moment,” he says.

“The file isn’t closed on this and we have made it very clear that we take the matter very seriously.”

Martin defends Ireland’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – “We believe that we are objective in our assessment” – and rejects Israeli criticism that it is hostile and antagonistic.

“We have no wish for relations with Israel to be poor . . . We would like to have a good harmonious relationship across all areas from economics to foreign policy. However there are times when you cannot be neutral on certain issues,” he says.

“There are certain messages wants articulated on its behalf all over the world. Anybody who upsets that apple cart, anyone who makes a genuinely objective statement, is categorised as unfriendly, hostile or opposed to Israel – which is not the case from our perspective. We have been very consistent in terms of the two-state solution, recognition of Israel, condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks and so on.

“If you don’t sing in accordance with the Israeli hymn sheet you are offside and that is why I think relations are not strong or why, from the Israeli perspective, they view us rather critically.”

Martin says the Ictu boycott is often raised when he meets Israeli officials.

“The Government is somehow blamed or there is a view that the Government should influence Ictu,” he says.

“We have also been criticised for not keeping our parliamentarians in tow.”

Martin rejects the suggestion that Israel might view Irish support as a lost cause.

“We want to explain our position to Israel,” he says. “Our position is borne out of experience of conflict. We know a thing or two about building peace . . . it’s a long process. We have no antagonism or antipathy towards Israel – we basically desire a resolution and peace.”