Fifteen years ago this month, I led a Sinn Féin delegation on a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories. Our visit took place seven weeks after Israel’s assault on Gaza between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009. In that attack Israeli forces killed 1400 Palestinians, including more than 400 children and injured thousands more. Schools and hospitals and infrastructure were also targeted. 

Our delegation was impressed by the resilience of those we met and especially by the medical staff who were working hard to provide a health service, despite Israeli restrictions on medicines and spare parts for radiation and other medical equipment.

Fifteen years later and all of those places we visited then, from the Islamic University, to the Al Quds hospital, to the Al Shifa hospital, to the local Council offices, to schools, factories and homes have been obliterated by Israeli forces in the last six months. On Monday, after two weeks of bombarding and besieging Al Shifa hospital, Israeli forces withdrew. They left behind a scene of utter devastation. Hundreds dead and the hospital, the largest in the Gaza Strip, is in ruins.

The wards full of patients that I visited - the radiation centre where those with cancer were treated - are all gone. They have been smashed into rubble. The Gazan Health Ministry said: "Dozens of bodies, some of them decomposed, have been recovered from in and around the Al-Shifa medical complex which is now completely out of service." 

The scale of devastation in Gaza is beyond anything witnessed in war in recent decades. Over 30,000 killed. Almost 15,000 children dead. Most of Gaza destroyed beyond repair.  And the deliberate starvation of the Gazan population is now part of the Israeli state’s war strategy. 

Last week, in a scathing report - Anatomy of a Genocide – United Nations Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese examined the crime of genocide as perpetrated by the State of Israel. In the conclusion to her lengthy and detailed report Albanese states that the “overwhelming nature and scale of Israel's assault on Gaza and the destructive conditions of life” it has imposed on the Palestinian people “reveal an intent to physically destroy Palestinians as a group.”

The UN Special Rapporteur concludes that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the following acts of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza has been met.”

She identifies these grounds as “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to groups’ members; and deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. Genocidal acts were approved and given effect following statements of genocidal intent issued by senior military and government officials.”

The Special Rapporteur also condemns Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups for 7 October and calls for the release of all hostages.

As Israel continues to claim that it is abiding by international human rights law the Special Rapporteur accuses it of distorting that law to treat Palestinians and their infrastructure as ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist-supporting.’ This allows Israel and its allies to justify its actions on the basis that everyone living in Gaza is “either a target or collateral damage, hence killable or destroyable. In this way, no Palestinian in Gaza is safe by definition.”

FLASHBACK: Gerry Adams visiting the Al Quds hospital in 2009 after it had been shelled by Israeli forces

FLASHBACK: Gerry Adams visiting the Al Quds hospital in 2009 after it had been shelled by Israeli forces

On a visit to the University of Galway just before the publication of her report Francesca Albanese was critical of the Irish government’s stance on Gaza. She said: “There’s this tendency to be very supportive with rhetoric, as Ireland has, but when it comes to taking concrete actions, there is zero. Not a little. Zero. The countries that have been most outspoken, like Ireland, what have they done in practice? Nothing. And this is shameful. It is disgraceful.”

The subsequent decision by the Irish government to intervene in the case initiated by South Africa against Israel under the Genocide Convention at the International Court of Justice is a welcome step but it will take months to come to a conclusion. In the meantime the genocide continues. The government needs to do more. It should immediately: 

• Enact the Illegal Israeli settlements divestment bill 
• Enact the Occupied Territories Bill.
• Use every possible sanction available domestically and step up efforts to suspend the EU-Israel association agreement.
• Recognise the state of Palestine.

In addition the government should implement the recommendations in the Anatomy of a Genocide Report including:

·         Support for an arms embargo on Israel.

·         Ensure a thorough, independent and transparent investigation of all violations of international law committed by all actors, including those amounting to war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide, including:

·         Refer the situation in Palestine to the ICC immediately, in support of its ongoing investigation; 

·         Ensure that Israel, as well as States who have been complicit in the Gaza genocide, acknowledge the colossal harm done, commit to non-repetition, with measures for prevention, full reparations, including the full cost of the reconstruction of Gaza, for which the establishment of a register of damage with an accompanying verification and mass claims process is recommended. 

Across Ireland and internationally Easter time is an occasion when Irish people celebrate the courage and determination of those women and men who over many generations fought for Irish freedom and self-determination. This year solidarity with the Palestinian people was a major part of every commemoration. We are confident in and grateful for, but not complacent about the progress made by our struggle.

We have a lot more to do to win our freedom but win it we will. When we do we will continue to keep  faith with the struggle in Palestine because we know that Ireland’s freedom will be incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.

Lá Breithe Áras Uí Chonghaile

Áras Uí Chonghaile, the James Connolly Visitor Centre, on the Falls Road celebrated its fifth birthday at Easter.  Located in the very heart of West Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter it was opened five years ago by Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D Higgins and Labour and Trade Union leaders from Ireland, the USA, Canada, England, Wales and Scotland.

I frequently visit the Áras, as it is affectionately known. It celebrates the life and times of Labour leader James Connolly who was executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. It commemorates the key role he played in the struggle for workers rights, the Labour movement and Irish freedom.

It is also a world-class visitor centre exploring the life of Connolly through a unique interactive exhibition, a library of writings by and about Connolly, historical objects relating to Connolly and that period of our history and it hosts a year round of engagements with communities schools and visitors. It also has a café which provides a really nice cup of coffee. In the last five years Áras Uí Chonghaile has welcomed eighty thousand visitors from all parts of the world and thousands more have attended its debates, discussion, music and film events.

Visitors include former President Mary McAleese; First Minister Michelle O’Neill; actor, Adrian Dunbar; journalist, Michael Portillo; historian, David Olusogai and trade union leader, Mick Lynch.

Trade union support has come from even further afield as well, as Director of Fáilte FeirsteThiar, Harry Connolly, noted: "Without our brothers and sisters in the North American Trade Union movement, Áras Uí Chonghaile | The James Connolly Visitor Centre, simply wouldn’t exist. Our long standing advocates and friends, General President Emeritus of Liuna, Terry O’Sullivan and John Samuelsen, General President of the Transport Workers Union, provided support from the very beginning. Connolly’s legacy of internationalism and workers’ solidarity, on both sides of the Atlantic, is still felt today. 

DRIVE FOR FIVE: Guests and workers at Áras Uí Chonghaile gathered for its fifth birthday party last Friday

DRIVE FOR FIVE: Guests and workers at Áras Uí Chonghaile gathered for its fifth birthday party last Friday

"We are extremely grateful for this support and will continue to preserve Connolly’s legacy! This September Brent Booker General President LIUNA will lead a delegation made up of US Trade Union leaders to Ireland that will build on existing links and partnerships."

Northern Minister for the Economy Conor Murphy formally launched ‘An Scéal go Dtí Seo – The Story so Far', a report by Áras detailing its first five successful years. He said: “The Centre is a shining beacon of what neighbourhood tourism and community wealth building can be.”

Comhgairdheas to all of the team on this important milestone.