The DUP has robustly defended an ongoing trade and ‘peace’ mission to Israel from Sinn Fein criticism.
Lagan Valley DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the delegation of MPs and MLAs is encouraging commercial links with Northern Ireland and offering lessons from the local peace process.
However, Sinn Fein said that the DUP is giving credibility to an “apartheid” state which recently killed dozens of Palestinian protestors.
Israel said they had been trying to break through a Gaza border security barrier and posed a security threat to nearby Israeli settlements.
Sir Jeffrey told the BBC that “any deaths in this conflict are regrettable” but added that extremists fired 70 rockets at civilian targets in Israel on Tuesday.
“If we had 70 rockets fired at civilian targets in Belfast do we seriously think the Army and police would simply sit by and do nothing?” he said.
The trip aimed to build commerical links with Israel and share lessons from Northern Ireland’s peace process, he said.
Palestinian leaders they met had seen the DUP as even-handed, he said, but some of them were “concerned that Sinn Fein is more interested in talking to Hamas ... and hadn’t actually engaged with the Palestinians we met in the West bank”.
However, Sinn Fein’s Pat Sheehan responded that he had been in Israel with Sir Jeffrey 18 months ago where they both met “a wide range of Palestinian leaders” and leading Israeli figures, a point Sinn Fein said the DUP MP did not deny.
South Africa recently withdrew its ambassador to Israel over the killings, saying the situation was far worse than the apartheid regime, Mr Sheehan said.
The BBC suggested to Mr Sheehan that the DUP was merely meeting both sides, as Sinn Fein had done 18 months ago, but the MLA said the difference now was that Mr Donaldson was “giving credibility now to an Israeli regime that is killing Palestinians”.
He questioned whether The Causeway Institute (CI) of which Mr Donaldson is a member, was being remunerated for the trip and urged severing all commercial links with Israel.
But Mr Donaldson said that neither the CI nor any DUP members were being remunerated; party members contributed to their own travel costs, which were mainly being met by the NI Friends of Israel.
He also challenged Sinn Fein to explain why they refused to meet Israeli ambassador Mark Regev in Belfast recently and asked who is funding the leaflets they were planning to use to call for a boycott of Israeli goods.
As to apartheid claims, he said that Arab Israelis are represented in the Israeli parliament, judiciary and all levels of Israeli political and civil society. And he went on to challenge Sinn Fein “about the level of democracy operated by their friends in Hamas – I wonder what it’s like being a Jew in Gaza?”.