Australia must recall its ambassador to Israel and condemn the horror of Gaza

Mar 20, 2024
Rafah, Gaza. 12th Dec, 2023. Palestinians gather following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza on Tuesday, December 12, 2023. At least 22 people have been reportedly killed, including seven children, in the bombing by Israel in Rafah on Tuesday. Global calls for a ceasefire have been ignored by Israel and the United States, as humanitarian aid operations have collapsed warning of starvation and disease amongst the Gaza population. Image: Alamy/ Ismael Mohamad/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News

We need much more than the “Gaza Pose”. We’ve seen the furrowed brows and sorrowful looks. We’ve heard the regretful tones, the exhortations, the warnings, the carefully studied words.

Often that’s all there’s been: words and more words. So the question for Anthony Albanese and his Minister for Steely Gazes, Penny Wong, is this. Have they said or done anything since 7 October that has saved a single life, Israeli or Palestinian? Does one Israeli hostage now owe their freedom, in part, to Australia? Is there one Palestinian child who is alive today, thanks in part to Australia? Are we one millimetre closer to easing, let alone ending, the horror that is Gaza because of an idea Australia put forward, a quiet warning to an ally, a shot across the bows of the protagonists?

Australia is a long way from the crime scene, its influence limited. Doing what is effective and humanitarian is complicated by domestic and international politics, by demography, geography and history. Yet look at Australia’s sharp and unrelenting criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this year Penny Wong noted that Australia had imposed more than 1,200 sanctions in response to that invasion which, according to the UN, killed 10,582 Ukrainian civilians in the two-year period to February 2024, including 587 children. Barely six months into the Gaza war 31,000 plus Palestinians have died at the hands of the IDF, well over half of them women and children.

Australia has made clear its disgust about Hamas’s actions. Should it not also publicly express disgust at Israel’s actions? Should it not sanction individual Israelis? Why does Australia doggedly support an Israeli government which includes avowed racists, whose views about Palestinians are a chilling reflection of Hamas extremist intolerance towards Israelis?

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich—a self-described “fascist homophobe” and “man of my word”—has declared that Palestinians are an invention. He has lamented the failure of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, to finish the job by evicting all of them from Israel. When Israeli settlers in the West Bank rampaged through the Palestinian town of Huwara in 2023, Smotrich urged that the town should be “erased”. Smotrich’s brother-in-bigotry is Israel’s National Security Minister Ben-Gvir. His assertion in 2023 that his rights in the West Bank were more important than those of Palestinians earned him a rebuke from the US State Department. The US also condemned recent suggestions by both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir that the Gaza war provides an opportunity to “encourage” the migration of Palestinians from that shattered territory.

Smotrich was allowed into the US in March 2023, though he did not meet administration officials. Whether he and Ben-Gvir have any thought of visiting Australia does not matter. The Australian government expressed concern about Smotrich’s utterances in 2023. It should now openly and publicly ban him and Ben-Gvir from visiting Australia. Not much of a sanction, perhaps, but a signal of Australia’s revulsion for the views and actions they advocate.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the most specific action Australia took after 7 October was directed at UNWRA, an organisation which former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans recently described as having a “critical, indispensable and irreplaceable” role in dealing with the “catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza”. The government responded quickly in late January after Israel claimed that 12 UNRWA staff (out of a total workforce of 13,000) were involved in the Hamas attack last October. Australian officials described the allegations as “grave” and $6 million of top-up funding for UNWRA was frozen. Six weeks later that funding was restored.

Australia’s knee-jerk response played Israel’s political game, as if one side in this appalling conflict has a monopoly on the truth. Israel has long campaigned against UNWRA, claiming that it perpetuates a Palestinian sense of victimhood from the time of Israel’s founding. Why should Palestinians not feel victims, why should they forget the past when Israelis determinedly will not? Israel points a finger at UNWRA’s contact with Hamas, particularly after 2007 when Hamas ruled Gaza. How could there not be contact if UNWRA was to do its work? And what of official Israeli contact and cooperation with Hamas going back to the 1980s, aimed at destabilising mainstream Palestinian organisations and thwarting what Israelis regard as a birthright—a state of their own?

Albanese recently joined his counterparts from NZ and Canada in warning Israel of the “devastating” and “catastrophic” consequences of the threatened ground offensive in Rafah. There, some 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge at the urging of Israeli authorities. Penny Wong said recently that Israel would continue to lose support internationally unless it changed course. Is it not time for Australia, preferably in concert with countries such as NZ and Canada, to back up such a warning by recalling its ambassador to Israel “for consultations”?

There is much to consult about: a ceasefire; relieving the nightmare in Gaza; the “day after” for Israel and Palestine. Recalling the ambassador would send a clear message that some of Israel’s friends have not signed a blank cheque for Netanyahu’s blood-lust, aimed in part at ensuring his own political survival. A working break for the ambassador in Canberra might help to develop ideas for a two-state solution, which Australia still champions. It would also signal to Israel and the US and, most importantly to Australians, that we are trying rediscover our moral compass.

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