An emotionally charged and ‘absolutely chaotic’ debate on Israel and Palestine at University College Dublin on Thursday night ended in an agitated man repeatedly shouting, “Allahu Akbar.”
People were seen collecting their coats and leaving after the man stood up and shouted the phrase a number of times.
The debate took place in the Fitzgerald Chamber of the UCD, and was being hosted by the university’s Literary and Historical Society. The motion being debated was entitled, ‘This House believes that the West has failed Palestine.’
The original plan for the debate was to have three speakers on both sides. The Palestinian Ambassador, along with People Before Profit TD, Richard Boyd Barrett, were scheduled to debate Natasha Hausdorff of UK Lawyers for Israel, along with political commentator and DCU lecturer Mark Humphrys. They were set to be joined by student speakers on both sides.
However, there was discord at the event from the start of the evening, as one scheduled speaker – The Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland – reportedly pulled out of the event without notice. Asad Abu Sharkh had replaced the Ambassador without prior notice being given to the pro-Israeli speakers, while former UCD student Ibrahim Halawa had also been added as a student speaker without notice.
Mr Halawa, whose father is Sheikh Hussein Halawa, Ireland’s most senior Muslim cleric, spent four years in prison in Egypt after himself and three of his sisters were caught up in a siege at a mosque in Cairo in 2013. He was exonerated by an Egyption court and released in October 2017.
It was supposed to be a three versus three debate, but speaking to Gript, Mr Humphrys said that on arriving at the venue and without prior notice, they found out that the Palestinian Ambassador was not attending, and instead, Asad Abu Sharkh would be speaking in place of the Ambassador, along with Ibrahim Halawa.
Mr Humphrys said himself and his debating partner did not agree to go ahead because they had not been informed of who they would be debating.
He told Gript that while he was happy to debate Mr Halawa and Mr Sharkh, his debating partner Ms Hausdorff, who had flown from the UK to attend the event, was not comfortable with the arrangement or that the change had not been communicated.
The L&H Auditor said that there had been a “miscommunication” with regards to the teams which would compete in the debate.
In a statement on X, Humphrys said to Mr Halawa; “I was willing to debate you. My partner Natasha was not, which I had to respect. A frustrating evening. Again, I was willing to debate anyone and everyone on your side.”
It was therefore agreed that Ms Hausdorff would debate People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett as a one-on-one debate as this was the “fairest” way forward.
Speaking to The Journal, Richard Boyd-Barrett said the debate was “a bit chaotic” and said that it ended in “verbal argy-bargy”.
“There was a delay for about an hour before the meeting because the speakers who were advocating for Israel weren’t willing to debate with someone on the other side,” he told the publication on Friday.
Mr Humphrys agreed that the debate, which started after a significant delay, was “totally chaotic” with “badly behaved” observers on both sides.
One man, who was supporting the Israeli side, which was arguing against the motion, was filmed heckling and interrupting, and ended up getting into an altercation.
The man, who is reported to have shouted, “I stand with Israel,” was escorted from the room by security. It is reported that he waved an Israeli flag, taken from his pocket, as he was being escorted out. The flag was grabbed by another audience member, who threw the flag on the ground – resulting in cheering from some in the crowd. In response, the man got into a scuffle with an audience member in the viewing balcony, with a video of the altercation circulating online:
video evidence of a member on her side physically assaulting a palestinian which she of course cut out from showing. stop trying to make us look like the aggressors when you are despicable, manipulative excuses for humans https://t.co/w1FOxZP5Ti pic.twitter.com/9oA4xv7784
— ayesha ♡ (@_ayeshaii) November 17, 2023
“I don’t know who that man is, but it was not good behaviour, and we were not impressed. There were also others who were shouting and interrupting, but the most threatening behaviour came from the young man shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.
‘HIS DEMEANOUR WAS VERY FRIGHTENING’
In footage posted online, a young man is filmed shouting the phrase repeatedly at a female student, an Islamic declaration of faith which means “Allah is the greatest / Allah is greater than all”:
Our speaker Natasha Hausdorff managed to give a very informative talk about Israel at a debate last night at @UCDLnH before it descended into chaos when a man in the the audience began to shake his fist and shout ‘Alahu Akbar’ at an Israeli student present 👇 pic.twitter.com/CdBWf0HdhT
— Ireland Israel Alliance (@irlisrAlliance) November 17, 2023
“His demeanour was very frightening. The phrase can of course be uttered by Muslims in happy celebration, or it can be used in quiet prayer, but it seemed to us that there was nothing friendly about the way he was screaming it,” Mr Humphrys said.
“You could see people getting up grabbing their coats and leaving the room very fast – people who were likely on either side of the debate,” he added.
“It’s a debating chamber,” he added. “It was really out of place. It would have been like if he had walked into a restaurant and started screaming it – people did not know where to move or what to do.”
Mr Humphrys says UCD must now establish if the man is a student.
He also told Gript that the manner in which the debate was handled signals a need to better facilitate open discourse in Ireland.
“I feel that Ireland does not do enough when it comes to debate, and there just are not enough debates being held with different people. This is an example of this. I myself have made some attempts to debate with Mr Halawa over the years, and nothing has come of it – I hope that now it will,” he said.
“The power of having a debate is that you get different opinions in the same room at the same time. While I might not agree with Richard Boyd Barrett, and he wouldn’t agree with me either, it is a matter of getting those opinions in the same room at the same time,” he added.
“Our side were not told who we would be debating, which is not fair when you have a speaker who has travelled from the UK to take part. I understand that it was not malicious at all, but when someone is travelling from another country, they need to know what they are coming to, and who they will be debating.”
He said those in attendance were “angry” at the way in which the debate worked out, with the event being so delayed.
“It was derailed from the start,” Mr Humphrys added. “However, I would like to think that we can have a proper debate about this issue in Ireland, and that it can happen. I’ve seen it happen and I know it’s possible. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t happen enough.”
“I think there are a combination of errors and problems which stopped us from having the debate. Perhaps if the Palestinian ambassador had not pulled out, we would have been able to have a balanced debate. There may have been some heckling, of course, but it may have passed off fine.”
Mr Halawa, meanwhile, has criticised Mr Humphreys for not going ahead with the debate on Thursday night, writing on X that the subject matter, and not the participants, were what was important:
After all those years Mark Humphry has been calling for a debate with me Today in UCD he & Natasha Hausdorff pull out after they agreed because they didn’t know they’d be speaking against me They needed to know prior to prepare
The debate was about Palestine and Israel Not me 🤷🏽♂️
— Ibrahim Halawa (@IbrahimHalawa13) November 16, 2023
Mr Humphrys insisted that he “is willing to debate” Mr Halawa, and that a debate “is well overdue.” He is now organising a debate between himself and Mr Halawa, and is organising a neutral party to host it. He says Mr Halawa will be contacted, and will need to agree to the debate.
Dear Ibrahim. Since we were unable to debate yesterday, much to my frustration as well as yours, I will do my best to now arrange a debate on neutral ground. You versus me. Nothing can disrupt it. An evening of conversation if you prefer that format. I presume you are on? Mark https://t.co/8zONUBGIeX
— Mark Humphrys (@markhumphrys) November 17, 2023
“Let’s get together and have our debate that was thwarted on Thursday,” he said, in a message to Mr Halawa.
I never refused to debate you. You think I wanted to sit out the debate? I was immensely frustrated.
Anyway, I have great news for you. A neutral venue is offering to host our debate (you and me). I will ask them to contact you and we can get it rolling.
— Mark Humphrys (@markhumphrys) November 18, 2023