Trade unionists are to launch a boycott of Israeli goods as part of a major campaign to secure a peaceful settlement in the Middle East, Stormont heard today.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) launched a report on Israel and Palestine compiled by senior members who visited the troubled region.
As controversy continues to rage over the death toll in Gaza caused by the recent Israeli military attacks, trade union leaders announced they are to hold a major conference this year to act as a springboard for their campaign.
While the DUP [Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party] dismissed the report as unbalanced and urged unions to concentrate on local economic issues, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams who hosted the report’s launch in Stormont’s Long Gallery commended the trade unionists.
ICTU President Patricia McKeown led the Middle East visit that involved 11 senior members of the umbrella group representing trade unions across Ireland, including 36 trade unions with 250,948 members in Northern Ireland.
The delegation met Israeli trade unionists and politicians, plus Hamas political leaders, but said they were shocked by the conditions they found in Palestinian areas.
“I was profoundly shocked by what we found,” said Ms McKeown.
“I didn’t expect the denial of human rights and the discrimination to be so evident and to be an obvious part of daily life.
“To see unemployment on the West Bank rising to 80%, to see people having to get up at three in the morning, and virtually sleep outside the the army controlled crossings in order to get into work – that’s something we didn’t expect to see.”
The ICTU trip took place more than a year ago, but its campaign will move up a gear this year with a major conference to highlight the Palestinian/Israeli situation, while research on a boycott of Israeli goods to press for a settlement will also be finalised.
The ICTU delegates urged an end to rocket attacks on Israel during their a face-to-face meeting with Hamas politicians.
But Ms McKeown said her colleagues were deeply shocked by the conditions they saw in the Palestinian areas they visited and felt compelled to push for international action, with talks already under way with trade unions in Britain and the United States.
But she said she was angry the debate split along unionist/nationalist lines in Northern Ireland.
“Nelson Mandela described this as the most important problem on this planet,” she said.
“To come back and find out that this is the way in which it is treated in certain quarters… I put that down to a couple of things, an absence of knowledge… but it is also, in some quarters, extreme fundamentalism responding to extreme fundamentalism.”
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams told today’s event: “Since the visit by the ICTU delegation, Gaza has been the target of an all-out military assault by Israeli forces. Over 1,300 people were killed, many of them children.
“Unless the international community and that includes the Irish government, the British government, the EU and the US government exercises its considerable influence and authority, any relaxation of the current assault on Gaza will only bring a short respite for citizens there.”
He said a sustained international effort was needed to secure a durable settlement and added: “If the conflict here taught us anything, that is that no conflict is intractable. There are solutions.”
The ICTU praised Ulster Unionist Fred Cobain for providing the necessary cross-party support to host the event in Stormont and the trade unionists insisted an open debate on the Middle East was vital.
But the DUP’s Robin Newton said the ICTU report was unbalanced and he warned sanctions would hurt innocent Israelis and Palestinians.
“I can only wonder about the attitude of the ordinary member of a trade union who witnesses the senior members of their union traipsing around the Middle East delving into complex problems when the employees of local firms are facing redundancy, cutbacks or at least very challenging times,” he said.
Mr Newton said: “The report takes no cognisance of the difficulties of Israeli men women and children, the daily deadly Hamas rockets launched into homes, shops and schools, the many suicide bombers and the need for innocent Israeli families to enjoy peace and security.
“ICTU would be better concentrating their efforts on behalf of the local TU members rather than delving into complicated international relationships that have perplexed the best minds in the UN, USA and Europe.”
The ICTU said it was in favour of a just settlement of the conflict, but Ms McKeown said it was a fact that Palestinians endured very difficult living conditions and needed the support of the outside world.
The SDLP’s Carmel Hanna told today’s event that the experience of the Troubles should inspire support for peace in the Middle East.
“We have learned from the conflict here that violence does not work and creates bitterness,” she said.