Last month, the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland was prevented from giving a speech at Trinity College Dublin due to protests from Palestinian solidarity groups. Some said the protests were an attack on free-speech. Pro-Palestinian campaigners responded by saying that a representative of an apartheid state shouldn’t be invited to speak at one of Ireland’s leading academic institutions.
Joe is secretary of the Galway-Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He remembers a time when these roles were reversed, when the Israeli Embassy was interested in silencing societies in NUI Galway. “When we were in the university, when we tried to campaign for the Students’ Union to adopt motions on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, we did run into some problems with the Israeli Embassy,” he says. “The Israeli Embassy had people down in the college trying to disrupt our meetings.”
He appears, unsurprisingly, to support the actions of his fellow activists in TCD. “I suppose the main message they would push is if we’re going to support the boycott of the Israeli state, then the last thing we need to be doing is giving a platform to the Israeli ambassador. We’ve seen over the last number of years the kinds of outrageous statements he has made about Palestine and about Israel.”
Joe, who is now 30, began his pro-Palestinian activism in the Palestine Solidarity Society in NUIG. “Once I graduated, we formed a branch of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Galway City. We’d have an active group of volunteers who we can call on when the time comes, when there are demonstrations being organised or public meetings,” he says.
There are around forty active members and they work closely with other activist groups. “The main organisation in Galway would be the Galway Alliance Against War,” Joe explains. “Through other activities we work with the Galway Anti-Racism Network and student societies in the college like Amnesty and also with small radical left-wing parties.”
With the various ongoing crises in the Middle East, the plight of the Palestinians has taken a back-seat in the media. There are much larger conflicts taking place in the region, and the coverage that was seen during the summer of 2014 hasn’t been seen since. The Galway Palestine Solidarity Campaign, however, tries not to respond to the media. Instead, it holds events even when the conflict is not at the top of the news agenda.
“Often one of the main criticisms of Palestine solidarity activity is that they only really do something when there’s some attacks happening in Palestine,” he tells me. “So, what we try to do to combat that is to hold events when there’s nothing happening.”
Joe swiftly clarifies his point. “Obviously, there’s always something happening there, all the time. There’s always people dying or settlements getting built but what we felt was: rather than being dictated to by the news, we could hold cultural events celebrating different aspects of Palestinian life.”
Holding these events shows that they are not only interested in the Palestinians when Gaza is under siege or when settlements are being built. “People obviously want to see how people live their lives rather than just seeing them in times of need,” he says.
But why are people here interested in Palestinian life? Joe feels that the Irish are generally more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than other nationalities. “I suppose it links back to the fact that the Palestinian struggle has always been linked to the struggle up north,” he tells me. “If people can see past the religious divide, you do see that it is just a land issue.”
He proudly mentions that Kinvara, in south Galway, was the first town in Ireland to support the boycott of Israel. The port-village’s business community agreed to boycott Israeli goods in 2014. “There is a clear mandate amongst Galway people and I think it comes from a knowledge and awareness of struggles here.”
Our struggles have been largely resolved, but in Palestine and Israel, there are still huge problems. Just this week, the UN has branded Israel as ‘an apartheid state’. “The main issue in Israe—in Palestine,” Joe says, almost forgetting his allegiances, “is the building of illegal settlements by the Israeli state. There is not a day that goes by in Palestine where somebody isn’t shot or arrested or something awful or atrocious happening to them.”
“And that’s why the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is never really dormant. We are always kind of there, in the background, waiting to mobilise people in support of the Palestinians.”