Palestinian leader urges Irish lead on Mideast peace process

Barghouti says he is inspired by Irish struggle for independence

Mustafa Barghouti emerges from Kilmainham Gaol vowing to read more on Robert Emmett, executed for his failed rising in 1803.

The leader of the non-violent Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) already draws inspiration from hunger striker Bobby Sands and his prison campaign for special category status in the H Blocks in 1981.

“I find great similarity between the struggle of Irish people and the Palestinian struggle for independence and freedom.”

“We were also colonised by the British colonial system. My grandfather and uncle were imprisoned in similar prisons.” Now, his country is occupied by a new power, he says.

“Today it is the Israeli occupation which has been there for longer than any other occupation in modern history. Now there is almost no Palestinian family that did not have someone in jail. More than 44 per cent of Palestinian adults have been to jail in one way or another. The similarity in terms of imprisonment, suffering and oppression is huge. I learned so many beautiful stories today about the brilliant Irish insistence on achieving freedom.”

He says the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike of 2012 illustrates “what I have been advocating for 10 years and which is succeeding very much in Palestine – popular non-violent resistance”.

Barghouti leads the PNI which is severely critical of both Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. As a medical doctor, he also heads the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a large organisation that helps those in need in the Palestinian territories.

However his mission to Ireland is political, not charitable.

“Basically I am here to tell people about the Palestinian struggle for freedom about our insistence on using non-violence as a form of struggle and about the need for strong international solidarity. Without it, we cannot succeed.”

Ireland crucial
Ireland is crucial to that mission, he believes. Barghouti met Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore this week to thank Ireland for support at the UN but also to press for more action. "We are hoping there will be more [support] in the future. Recognition of the Palestinian state could become a very important step that Ireland can take without having to wait for others. This would be a strong contribution to the peace process if the goal is a two-state solution."

He wants more from Ireland. "We want a clear mechanism of banning settlement products in Europe in general – not just labelling them, but banning them. These products represent a violation of international law."

But is Ireland willing to take a unilateral stand or will the Government act in concert with EU partners?

“It’s not about Ireland becoming isolated as Ireland becoming the avant-garde. Many other countries would follow.”

Time is pressing, he insists.“Saving the [Palestine- Israel] two-state solution – it is clear that the window is closing very rapidly.” On the construction of new Israeli settlements he accuses the Netanyahu government of “bulldozing the two-state solution and the possibility of a Palestinian state”.

“Unless there is strong international pressure to stop that we could lose that option. If there is any intention of saving the two-state option then this is the time to act.”

The problem now, he alleges is that "Israel is trying to "substitute the two-state solution with a system of apartheid, a system of racial discrimination and long-term occupation. Israel is destroying that option and strong action has to be taken as there is a severe imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians. It is important that there is international pressure to improve that balance."

Status of Jerusalem
Without that balance, the current peace process would not differ from anything else attempted in the past 20 years, he believes, "and the peace process becomes a substitute to peace and a cover for Israeli expansionist policy".

The current Israeli government is the “most extreme” with some of the “most racist ministers ever.”

The status of Jerusalem remains a key issue. “Netanyahu says Jerusalem will remain the unified capital of Israel as long as I am prime minister. This is a very serious statement [as is] the construction of settlements which are really changing facts on the grounds and the oppression of Palestinians. In light of that we need strong international action.”

But does it really matter what Ireland, or even the EU says, while the US remains a key ally of Israel?

"Of course American pressure is important, but Europe cannot just wait for America to do it. We know the US has very special ties with Israel. Maybe [US secretary of state] John Kerry needs help. Maybe he needs pressure from Europe if there is a chance to move forward."

'Apartheid system'
Barghouti does not extend his criticism to ordinary Israelis. They vote for the Netanyahu government because "they don't believe there is a cost of occupation [and] of the system of apartheid". He draws comparisons with South Africa and the creation of "Bantustans" or enclaves for Palestinians.

“I don’t feel we are struggling only for Palestinians but also for Israelis because they themselves will not be free as long as we are not free. There is nothing to be proud about having an apartheid system in the 21st century.”