MICHAEL EASSON. Israel, Gaza and Australia.

May 30, 2018

There is neither joy nor bright prospects from any of the recent violence and suffering in Gaza. The tragic loss of life in May naturally focuses attention on Australia’s policy concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict.  

There are two main criticisms of current Australian policy. First, using the emotive language of detractors, Australian policy is shamefully subservient to a foreign power, Israel; and second, recent Israeli actions appear wantonly trigger-happy in the face of ostensibly peaceful protests on the border.

I dissent from both claims.

Is it true, as Crikey writer Bernard Keane wrote last week, that “Turnbull’s protection of Israel [is] the exemplar of foreign influence”?

In fact, for many years under both Coalition and Labor governments, Australia has not been locked in tandem with the Israeli government on all major issues. This is evident in statements, from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister down, noting Australia’s continued, more robust, support for a two-State solution, ruling out any move of our Embassy to West Jerusalem until after peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, the non-attendance by our ambassador at the opening of the new US Embassy in West Jerusalem, the issuing of public statements by successive Australian Foreign Ministers criticising Israeli settlement construction, and calling on Israel to show “restraint” when its citizens are physically attacked, and our consistent, nuanced voting that rejects one-sided United Nations General Assembly and subordinate-organ resolutions.

Last November, when the UN General Assembly declared Israel’s Actions in East Jerusalem to be ‘Null and Void’, Australia abstained, because of the egregiously one-sided wording of the motion. Canada voted ‘No’. On a resolution about “the Syrian Golan”, Australia abstained. Both Canada and the UK voted ‘no’

A few weeks ago there was a UN Human Rights Council resolution to investigate only Israel’s role in Gaza protest deaths. Australia, with the United States, was on the losing side of a 47-nation vote. But the vote, based on a flawed resolution presented by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, returned 29 votes in favour, 14 abstentions, 2 not voting and 2 against for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, the Council resolved to set up its own investigation in a statement which condemned “the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by the Israeli occupying forces against Palestinian civilians, including in the context of peaceful protests.” Such loaded language blatantly pre-judges matters, not least in misquoting what the principles of discrimination and proportionality actually mean in international law.

At the heart of truly fixing the Israel-Palestine issue is a generally agreed model. The best way to resolve the causes of Gaza conflicts is a lasting peace through a two-State solution that is both verifiable and truly accountable on both sides.

This was noted on 15 May by Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong who stated: “The deaths and injuries of Palestinian protesters in Gaza overnight are both shocking and tragic. Labor urges Israel to show restraint. We support the right for peaceful protest and call on both sides to de-escalate tensions.” She went on to say: “We believe the leadership of both sides should examine what more they can do to work towards a viable two-state solution and deliver a peaceful future for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

In 2017, the NSW ALP Conference resolved to:

  • Note previous resolutions on Israel/Palestine carried at the 2015 ALP National Conference and the 2016 NSW Labor Annual Conference; and
  • Support the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist within secure and recognised borders; and
  • Urge the next Labor Government to recognise Palestine.

To be achieved, the last point surely has to be read in the context of “secure and recognised borders”. Such borders will not be achieved by difficult and complex negotiations alone. They require resolute leadership on both sides prepared to tell hard truths to their respective peoples, accede to a truly lasting agreement, and exert the will and means to enforce it against their respective irredentist and other extremist elements.

For all its real and perceived faults, past or present, few seriously question Israel’s capacity for the necessary accountability in such circumstances. Israel’s Military Advocate General is subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the Attorney General, which in turn is subject to rulings by Israel’s Supreme Court, one of the most accessible peak courts in the world.  Similarly, the killing of Afghan civilians or unarmed insurgents by Australian troops was investigated by the Australian Defence Force, not the UN.

The position of the Palestinian leadership, on the other hand, remains beset by deficits in unity, accountability and democracy that are crucial obstacles to resolving the human rights crisis in the two Palestinian territories.

In February this year UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the Gaza Strip, in particular, as a “constant humanitarian emergency”. He noted, without dwelling on the riven internal political and security situation, that “two million Palestinians are struggling everyday with crumbling infrastructure, an electricity crisis, a lack of basic services, chronic unemployment and a paralysed economy. All of this is taking place amid an unfolding environmental disaster.”

This makes the need for a real and enduring peace an urgent priority. Yet the Hamas leadership continue to deny Israel’s right to be a country, encourages or turns a blind eye to terrorist attacks and maintains educational and public information systems that advocate hatred of Jews as Jews (not just Israelis). With an ailing Palestinian President still in office some eight years after his elected term ended, Fatah, Hamas and the nominal PLO interim statelet remain a mishmash of personal, political, religious, and indeed criminal, rivalries. Hamas are said to be confident that with their leading role in the conflict, they can defeat Fatah in any new poll, but have never allowed one in Gaza since they forced Fatah out in 2007.

The recent loss of life at the Gaza-Israel security barrier, including some children, is intolerable. Israel has long insisted that Israeli commanders and soldiers are guided by international law in their actions. Indeed, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) maintains a robust, multi-layered investigations system, with numerous checks and balances to ensure impartiality. Indeed, right now, the IDF is conducting investigations on any credible accusation or reasonable suspicion of alleged wrongdoing.

You would expect nothing less but much superficial commentary ignores or glosses over that this accountability is totally absent from Hamas intentions and actions.

Proportionate Action

What of recent clashes?

The commentary in The Times of Israel by army reservist Kinley (Moshe) Tur-Paz, a founder and CEO of the Kibbutz HaDati Educational Network, who was called up for the Gaza demonstrations is persuasive and speaks to Israeli’s culture of accountability. See: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/i-was-at-the-gaza-border-we-did-all-we-could-to-avoid-killing/?utm_source=Start-Up+Daily&utm_campaign=6835fe55e1-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_05_17_SUI&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fb879fad58-6835fe55e1-55745717.

He wrote “I can understand and identify with all of those good and moral Zionists who fear that the many Palestinian victims may be our fault, the result of mistakes made by our side…

I want to testify that what I saw and heard was a tremendous, supreme effort from our side to prevent, in every possible way, Palestinian deaths and injuries.

“Of course, the primary mission was to prevent hundreds of thousands of Gazans from infiltrating into our territory. That kind of invasion would be perilous, mortally dangerous, to the nearby communities; would permit terrorists disguised as civilians to enter our kibbutz and moshav communities, and would leave us with no choice but to target every single infiltrator. That’s why our soldiers were directed to prevent infiltration, in a variety of ways, using live ammunition only as a last resort.

The IDF says it attempted to avoid civilian casualties. The IDF has said that terrorists were sections of the mob that sought to cross the border. Hamas wanted them on the front line as human shields, hiding terrorists, and endangering their lives. Before the protests, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said: “Let them wait for our big push… We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies.” (The Algemeiner, May 15, https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/05/15/hamas-co-founder-calling-gaza-riots-peaceful-resistance-is-deceiving-the-public).

Hamas Political Bureau Member Salah Al-Bardawil speaking on May 16 on Baladna TV, which broadcasts from Gaza, admitted that of the 62 people killed in clashes along the Gaza border on May 14, 50 were Hamas personnel. (See: https://www.memri.org/tv/hamas-politburo-member-bardawil-fifty-martyrs-were-hamas-members).

The right of the Palestinian people to peaceful protest in Gaza and the West Bank deserves support—as does Israel’s right to defend its borders and determine that only those entering legally, properly and peacefully can do so. Especially when Israeli population centres are in such close proximity such that they are minutes away, just by running. There is no justification in any circumstances for protesters to employ violent measures and it is incumbent on security forces to ensure that their responses to violent attempts at infiltration are appropriate and proportionate to the risk.

Last week in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, foreign policy commentator, Pulitzer Prize winner, and critic of Israeli Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu, wrote about the disgraceful Hamas leadership. He lamented: “What if all two million Palestinians of Gaza marched to the Israeli border fence with an olive branch in one hand and a sign in Hebrew and Arabic in the other, saying… ‘We, the Palestinian people of Gaza, want to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish people…’.” But Hamas never thinks like that. For them, perpetuating the conflict on their religious and ideological terms is everything.

There is thus much hypocrisy in international fora on human rights. You wish there was a place to dispassionately assess the truth — like the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the UN. But there are a stack of judges appointed by dictatorships that dominate the judges that might be appointed, just as there is a majority of dictatorships and semi-dictatorships currently on the UN Human Rights Council. So we need to be realistic. And hence the need re-energise the peace process.

Israelis know there is a world of woe ahead. Jews know from the Talmud, with the biblical Exodus from Egypt, that Yahweh prevented the angels from singing and rejoicing when the Egyptian chariots pursuing the Israelites were drowned in the Red Sea, scolding them with the words: “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b). The Talmud also teaches that personal elation should never allow forgetting the misfortunes afflicting others (Berachot 31a). The cup of deliverance cannot be full when others suffer.

The tragedy of Israel and Palestine is that everyone’s humanity is diminished if peace remains a forlorn prospect and hostage to deliberately propagated hatred. Especially this is so when people are regarded as merely political tools to be expended – not as men, women and children all with rights, prospects, and intrinsic worth as individuals.

* Dr Michael Easson for the past 40 years has written on Australian policy on Israel and the Middle East for various publications including The Guardian, The Spectator, The Australian Jewish News, and Labor Leader. He is President of the Australia Defence Association, but has written this piece in his private capacity.

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