CONCERN is mounting for the wellbeing of two West Belfast men being held by Israeli forces and denied contact with their worried families.
Whiterock’s John Mallon and Andersonstown grandfather Phil McCullough are among 14 Irish citizens being held in Givon Prison in the city of Ramla after the aid ship MV Saoirse was intercepted by Israeli troops last week as it attempted to break a blockade and reach Gaza on a humanitarian mission.
However, the Andersonstown News has learned that while awaiting deportation from Israel, the prisoners were subjected to harsh conditions, with John getting word through to his family that he has been kept in “shackles” while under guard, while women passengers have undergone forced strip searches.
Bar one initial phone call shortly after the crew were seized along with the crew of Canadian sister ship Tahri, there has been no word from Phil or John and their families are growing worried about their condition – and when they will be released. The Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, has come under fire for his “weak” handling of the tense stand-off.
Phil’s partner Ann Boyle told the Andersonstown News: “They are refusing to let them speak to us, and all I want is to know Phil is safe.
“The information is coming out in bits and pieces, and knowing they have been shackled inside Givon Prison is adding to our worry.”
A 72-hour period of “detention” for the 14, who also include former Fianna Fáil TD Chris Andrews, ended in the early hours of Tuesday morning and it was expected they would be released soon after. However, at the time of going to press last night, no release moves had been made.
“We are being told through the embassy that they are still ‘OK’ but why can’t they allow a phone call so we can hear it for ourselves?” asked Ann. “This was a humanitarian mission for the people living in Gaza, yet the Israelis are treating them like criminals.”
Philomena Flood of the Friends of Palestine movement said: “Because they had refused to sign the voluntary deportation papers, they were held, but since the detention period ran out, nobody has heard anything concrete. It could be they want to stagger the releases so they don’t all come home together, in order to minimise the media impact.
“However, I’m actually sickened by the attitude of Eamon Gilmore, whose best response in this crisis has been to say he is ‘monitoring’ the situation. Irish citizens are being illegally detained after a humanitarian mission.
“He has shown weak leadership on this, and should have been demanding their release from the start.”
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey and local MLA Pat Sheehan also criticised the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their handling of the affair.
“Mr Gilmore needs to do more to ensure the safe return of these Irish citizens illegally seized in international waters and held against their will,” Mr Maskey said, while his Sinn Féin colleague Mr Sheehan added: “Israel seem intent on playing games regarding their repatriation. Israel was wrong in the first place and the Irish government must impress this upon them.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Andersonstown News that Irish Embassy officials in Israel were in touch with the 14 MV Saoirse prisoners “on a daily basis”.
He said: “The Israelis have agreed to pay for the travel arrangements in returning those held in Ramla. The details of this are currently being worked out.”