“Give me the right to choose my dictator.” This surprisingly frank sentiment was uttered by the Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland, Ahmad Abdelrazek, last night at the UCD Philosophy Society’s debate on ‘The Right to Defend’ which featured discussion on the topic from both the Palestinian Ambassador and the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Boaz Modai. It was made in response to claims by the Israliei Ambassador that it seemed the Palestinian people would campaign for sovereignty, yet support the oppressive state groups like Hamas wish to create. Abdelrazek, who was no defender of Hamas, responded that the Palestinian people were entitled to choose that over Israeli occupation.
Given the ongoing tension in the region following this Summer’s conflict in Gaza, it was incredible to get these two figures in the same room. Security was tight, with each ambassador bringing their own security detail and Gardaí swarming throughout Newman. Students were not allowed bring bags, coats or water into the theatre and were searched upon entering by hand-held metal detectors. Yet, despite any concerns there may have been, the debate was peaceful, if often tense.
The event began with an introduction from the society’s Auditor, Dan Clifford, a second-year Philosophy student. Clifford explained the formatting of the event which was to be fifteen minutes of opening speech for each ambassador, followed by ten minutes for each ambassador to rebut and then a final ten minutes for each ambassador to close. Professor O’Rourke assures the audience that a “polite” discussion will be had.
Jimmy Yan, a 3rd Year History student affiliated with the Socialist Workers’ Students Society (SWSS), was asked to leave by the moderator, Professor Fran O’Rourke of the School of Philosophy, due to his re-occurring interruptions criticising Israel’s actions in Gaza. Speaking to the University Observer after the event, Yan criticised the Philosophy Society’s handling of the debate, calling it “stage-managed”. He additionally criticised the Garda presence on campus, saying it demonstrated the “extent to which the Israeli Ambassador has increasingly become the representative of a pariah state.”
Unlike traditional debate formats run by the main campus debating societies, the event did not allow questions to be raised from the floor at any point in the debate. Instead, questions were to be emailed to the Philosophy Society for selection, and were then addressed to the speakers by the moderator. It was an unusual feature of the debate that at no point did the two ambassadors directly exchange words. Their answers were demarcated, as were their speeches.
Bayan Alsubhi, a graduate student in UCD’s School of Law who was in attendance, was critical of the debate’s structure. “I would have preferred if the moderator had raised some points and let the ambassadors discuss them.” The two ambassadors were largely given free reign in what they discussed and often talked on diverging issues, with little or no chance to challenge the other directly. Alsubhi also cited the inability of students to directly ask questions as a problem, as it limited the ability to ask follow-ups, or to know what perspectives the questions asked represented.
The likelihood is that the format was chosen to keep control. Debates too often spill over into shouted disputes, and one on such a tense political issue was particularly vulnerable to this occuring.
The topics brought up by the two ambassadors varied widely. Both ambassadors focused heavily on the history of the conflicted area. His Excellecy Modai, in his opening speech, emphasised the fact that Jerusalem is mentioned over 800 times in both the Old and New Testament but stressed that it is not mentioned once in the Qur’an, said with the aim of validating Israel’s claim on the territory. He went on to blame Hamas for the “terrible images and sad images” that derive from Gaza and said that in Israel, everyone has the freedom to express their views but in Gaza, when views are different from that of the military, they are shot. The ambassador generated a sarcastic snigger from the audience when he said, with unfortunate phrasing, that “death doesn’t mean anything”. He tried to justifiy his point by explaining that more Germans died in World War Two than British or French, and that that didn’t mean that the Nazis were right in that conflict.
He finished his opening remarks by asking if it made sense that “Israel is the only state in the world that cannot defend itself?” and asks if it is because they are Jewish.
His Excellency Abdelrazek spoke then and criticised Israel by saying that Government cannot aggress people, that a religious war that creates dangers for people cannot be had. He took issue with Modai’s understanding of Jewish claims on Jerusalem, saying that the Caananites would be most entitled to it by Modai’s logic, adding that “God is not a real estate agent.” He stressed that the conflict is not a religious one but rather that it is political. He regularly referred to the horrors of daily life in Gaza, but also to the difficulties faced by those in the West Bank. The Palestinian people’s eagerness for peace was a recurring theme.
The moderator asked the ambassadors whether the Northern Ireland peace process could be a model for the region. Both ambassadors agree that the model is too different to be applicable. Modai garnered laughs for pointing out the improbability the two would find room for agreement. Yet the note Abdelrazek ended his speech on was a common sentiment in the debate, “two states for two people.”
The other important agreement was that “negotiations cannot continue forever” and that it would be a “recipe for civil war.”