16. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on whether the current UNDOF mission, in the context of the deployment of Irish troops to the Golan Heights, has now moved away from the original task of the 1974 mandate. (Question 15482/17 asked on 29 Mar 2017)

Deputy Clare Daly: I have raised this issue previously with the Minister. It concerns the imminent deployment of a further contingent of Irish troops to the Golan Heights. As the Minister is aware, Israel, in violation of international law, has established an Israeli administration using Israeli as the official administrative language. It has enforced the implementation of Israeli curricula in schools and has enacted a slew of other measures aimed at permanently annexing that region. It is reprehensible that Irish Defence Forces would be used as a pawn in that attempt.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I propose to take Question Nos. 7 and 16 together. Does Deputy Wallace wish to introduce his question as well?

Deputy Mick Wallace: The Minister has the question. He could do with the extra half a minute.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 16 together.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was established on 31 May 1974 by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 350, 1974, following the agreed disengagement of the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights in May 1974. UNDOF was established to: maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria; supervise the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces; and supervise the areas of separation and limitation, as provided in the May 1974 agreement on disengagement. Since 1974, the mandate of UNDOF has been renewed every six months, most recently in December 2016.

A contingent of the Permanent Defence Force has been deployed to UNDOF on the Golan Heights since 2013. The contingent operates as a quick-reaction force. Irish personnel are rotated on a six-monthly basis. The next contingent, the 55th Infantry Group, will deploy to UNDOF in early April 2017. I attended their review in the Curragh last Friday.

I had the great privilege of visiting Irish personnel based in the Middle East earlier this month. The main purpose of my visit was to meet with members of the Permanent Defence Force serving with UNDOF, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, UNTSO, missions and to attend St. Patrick’s Day events in the region as part of Ireland’s overall economic, political and security engagement in the region. During my visit to UNDOF, I met head of mission and force commander, Major General Shanker Menon of India. He briefed me on the situation and the challenges facing the mission area.

Arising from events in the area of separation, in September 2014 UNDOF relocated temporarily from a number of positions. Pending the full return of UNDOF to the area of separation, UNDOF has continued to maintain credible presence in the Golan in line with its mandate. On 14 November 2016, UNDOF completed the initial phase of the incremental return of the mission to Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the area of separation, where Fijian and Nepalese troops are now based. In this context, UNDOF continues to engage with the parties on practical arrangements to allow the force to continue to maintain the ceasefire, monitor, verify and report on violations of the disengagement of forces agreement and exercise its critical liaison functions with the parties in order to implement its mandate.

In a recent report on UNDOF, the UN Secretary-General has stated that the continued presence of the force in the area remains essential. Both Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic have stated their continued commitment to the disengagement of forces agreement and the presence of UNDOF. The presence of the UNDOF mission remains an important element in ensuring the continuing ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

Deputy Clare Daly: With every passing day, Israel is tightening its illegal stranglehold on this piece of Syrian land. Our concern is that Irish troops are being used as pawns in yet another Israeli land-grabbing exercise. The Minister is aware that a huge oilfield was discovered in the Golan Heights in recent years. In 2013, the Israeli Government gave a concession to exploit this oilfield to Genie Oil and Gas.

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It had no right to do that in other people’s lands. Not only did it give it to that company, which is run by a retired Israeli general who said famously that Palestinians were creatures who came out of the depths of darkness and that all of them should be killed, at that time Israel also began building fortifications which sealed off the illegally occupied Golan Heights from Syria, increasing the border by 45 km. We know also of Israel giving material aid to ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in the Golan Heights. That is incredibly serious for our troops and in terms of furthering illegal activity in the region, and we should not have any part of it.

Deputy Mick Wallace: This is a situation where we are giving legitimacy to an illegal occupation. The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, said recently that the Golan Heights will remain in the hands of Israel forever. The problems are increasing in the region. There is increased conflict and increasing illegal activities by the Israelis in the Golan Heights. Recently, in the town of Majdal Shams, the Israelis started demolishing houses in the Golan Heights for the first time since Israel occupied the Syrian territory following its capture in 1967. Aside from drilling for oil by Afek Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Genie Energy mentioned by Deputy Clare Daly, Israeli winemakers and water companies are exploiting Syrian natural resources.

In October, Israel approved the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Katzrin, the largest settlement in the Golan, which was built over Syrian villages destroyed during the illegal occupation in 1967. This is looking more like Palestine every day. The notion that our troops are being used as cover for Israel’s illegal activities is not good enough.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I do not accept that our troops are being used as pawns or cover for what is going on in the Golan Heights. I am not going to get into the rights and wrongs of what is happening but this is a United Nations-mandated mission set up since 1974. I have been assured by the Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces that all security measures are in place for our troops. Our troops are in the region on a mandated peacekeeping mission. I visited them recently. They are doing a very fine job on the mission that has been assigned to them by Government. We can get into the rights and wrongs of the issue but I want to reiterate that the participation of members of the Irish Defence Forces is for peacekeeping duties. That is the role assigned to them by the UN and by Government.

Deputy Clare Daly: It is precisely the rights and wrongs of what is happening that we should be getting into before we take any stance on international relations. The Minister of State is aware that the UN General Assembly has called on Israel to desist from changing the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure and legal status of the occupied Syrian Golan, and in particular to desist from the establishment of settlements, imposing Israeli citizenship and Israeli identity cards on the Syrian citizens of the occupied Syrian Golan and from its repressive measures against the population of the occupied Syrian Golan. Yet we have evidence that this is precisely what is being done in that region as Irish Defence Forces personnel stand by, in essence helping Israeli oil companies to illegally expropriate the natural resources of another country. That is not just wrong; it is dangerous and action needs to be taken to stop it.

Deputy Mick Wallace: This month alone, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia published a report which concluded that Israel is guilty of the international crime of apartheid against the Palestinians. Many of the report’s findings could apply equally to Israel’s policy in the Golan and be consistent with apartheid. At present, 23,000 Israeli settlers control 95% of the land of the Golan, whereas 25,000 Syrians are confined to five separate severely overcrowded villages.

We agree that we have powerful Defence Forces that have played some great roles over the years but the UN peacekeeper, Ed Horgan, has pointed out that it would be much more sensible and worthwhile for our excellent forces to engage in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, rather than being involved in this area where we are only giving legitimacy to Israel’s illegal activity.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel in 1967 and purportedly annexed in 1981. Ireland does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the area nor does any other Government apart from Israel, although Israel would seek to encourage such recognition. The question of sovereignty over the area is not relevant to the mission of UNDOF, which as I stated is a UN-mandated mission to supervise the ceasefire between Israel and the Syrian armies along the line of disengagement.

I would not accept that UNDOF is effectively facilitating the occupation of the Golan Heights. I have stated previously that UNDOF was established by the Security Council in 1974, seven years after the occupation of the areas by Israel following two wars over the terrain. It is a specific mission to supervise a ceasefire between the two sides. Both the Syrian and Israeli Governments have supported it and, where relevant, voted for the continuation of this mission. This issue has received more attention in recent months with the election of the new President of the United States.