RON WITTON. Zionism and Terra Nullius: a haunting parallel between Israel and Australia

When I was growing up in Sydney in the 1950s, I knew that I came from a Jewish family and I was aware of the little blue and white Jewish National Fund money boxes collecting funds for Israel. Recently I have remembered a phrase from my childhood, “A land without a people for a people without a land” which I had unquestioningly accepted as justification for the establishment of Israel.  

It is only now that I have realized that the phrase bears a haunting resemblance to the notion of terra nullius (“nobody’s land”), the principle that posited that Australia was “a land of no people” and that legally justified British colonisation. This false and destructive principle was, thankfully, overthrown in 1992 by the High Court Mabo case.

There has been no Mabo case for Israel. Palestine, rather than becoming a country where Jews, Christians and Muslims could live together sharing the land as they had in the past, was renamed “Israel” and “given” by the Western imperial powers to the Jews of the world to be their exclusive “homeland”.

The land now referred to as “Palestinian territory” is split between Gaza and the West Bank. The size of Israel is some three times the size of the Palestinian territory, although their populations are approximately the same, about 5 million each.

The Palestinians live under Israeli control with few rights. Moreover, their land is being further colonized through Israel’s illegal “settlements” on the West Bank. Indeed, the more rabid Zionists of Israel continue to dispute the very existence of Palestine by maintaining that the boundaries of Israel should be that of the biblical land of Judea and should extend from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. Further, it is noticeable that the term “Palestinian” is avoided in Israel where Palestinians are referred to as “Arabs”. This terminology has contributed to the Israeli argument that Palestinians do not “deserve” their own land because, as Arabs, they can live anywhere in Israel’s neighboring countries. Disturbingly, this discriminatory terminology was recently adopted by the Australian press when they reported on the recent tragic death in Melbourne of the student, Aiia Maasarwe, who was described as an “Arab-Israeli” rather than as a “Palestinian Israeli”.

It took some time for me to no longer believe in Judaism or indeed in any religion. However, it took quite a bit longer for me to learn of the fundamental injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians by the establishment of Israel.

Jews of the world, including me, continue to have a right to emigrate to Israel, but the over 7 million displaced Palestinian refugees do not have a similar “right of return”. The reason there are so many Palestinian refugees is that of the 900,000 Palestinians resident in Palestine upon the establishment of Israel, over 700,000 fled or were expelled in a process which can only be described as ethnic cleansing. Palestinians were violently removed from their villages and from their land and forced to flee to neighbouring countries where they and their descendants continue to live as stateless refugees. Indeed, many of the funds collected in the Jewish National Fund boxes of my childhood went towards planting forests over the land of former Palestinian villages and farms.

Palestinians have never had a Mabo moment whereby their historical occupancy of the land of Israel has been recognised by Israel and its courts. Of course, Zionists contend that such a judgement is not needed as the Palestinians have been “given” their land, the occupied territories. However, such an argument masks the grim reality of Zionism and the cycle of misinformation and further appropriation continues.

It is time for Australia to take the lead in recognising the only way that peace can come to that part of the world is through the creation of a united or federated land of Israel/Palestine where all people have equal rights. That this is possible was shown by the inspiring cooperation of Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk when they resolved what seemed the insoluble situation of apartheid in South Africa and for which they were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Ron Witton has taught social sciences in universities in Australia, Fiji and Indonesia. He now works as an Indonesian and Malay translator and interpreter. He has travelled widely overseas including the middle east.


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7 Responses to RON WITTON. Zionism and Terra Nullius: a haunting parallel between Israel and Australia

  1. Anthony Taylor says:

    Before Hadrian created it Palestine was known as Judea with its capital Jerusalem. The word Palestine is the name Greek writers of the time used to describe the land of Philistia.

    Hadrian has a lot to answer for.

  2. Kien Choong says:

    Chris Patton goes around complaining that Britain had let down the people of Hong Kong by handing them over to China without giving them any say. It’s hard to understand why he doesn’t reflect on British responsibilities to the Palestinians.

    The fact is that the people of Hong Kong today enjoy far greater freedoms than the Palestinians. So it is hard to understand why Lord Patton pays so little attention to the rights of the Palestinians.

    At the very least, I feel that the European Union ought to recognise Palestine as a State, and invite the Palestinian State to join the EU as a full member, or at least give Palestinians the right to live anywhere in Europe. After all, Israel exists today substantially because of European Anti-Semitism. Making life a little more bearable for Palestinians is a small way that Europe can try to redress the injustices of the past (including their consequences).

  3. roma guerin says:

    This article explains the Palestine situation in the way I have always understood it. I would like to think that Australia would see the issue in this way, but I fear that our continued denial of anything tangible for the benefit of our First Nations would make a mockery of any Australian attempt to go into bat for the Palestinians. Shame on both counts.

  4. Harold Zwier says:

    Israel hasn’t had a Mabo type case because the existing ownership of land persisted beyond the declaration of the Israeli state. Mabo was to do with native title rights that had not been previously recognised. It does not “apply” to the entire Aboriginal community as a collective. ie. there is not an Aboriginal collective that seeks separate statehood as the Palestinians do. The analogy is therefore of limited value, but the phrase “A land without a people for a people without a land” certainly has a resonance with the “terra nullius” comments by one of the Judges in Mabo.

    Although Arab land ownership persisted beyond the declaration, Arab owners who had left or fled from their place of residence when Israel was declared were effectively dispossessed. That injustice needs to be addressed in any resolution of the longstanding conflict, probably through compensation – since no Israeli government is likely to accede to a Palestinian “right of return”.

  5. Al Harris says:

    This has been one of my insights into the two settler-colonial states of Australia and Israel, first pointed out to me when the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass responded to an Australian audience member who suggested that she and all Israeli Jews should leave Israel. She reminded the (white) Australian that he too lived in a settler colonial society on land stolen from Indigenous people and in a country that regularly buries and/or denies the real history. Israel and Australia are in so many ways “peas-in-a-pod” and as Australian supporters of Palestine we need to be very careful to remember this, lest we become like the anti-Apartheid protesters of the past who fought racism in South Africa and too-often ignored it here. Many thanks.

  6. John Collins says:

    A lot to like in what you write there, Ron, but I must register my disappointment that you invoke “the notion of terra nullius (“nobody’s land”), the principle that posited that Australia was “a land of no people”.
    This has been a shocker to me these last thirty years.
    the notion of “terra nullius” is inherited from European law-speak and means “land that is not part of any nation or empire”.
    In other words, the notion is not about “people” but “legal status” within European legal understanding: so if the Brits got to Australia and raised the flag before the French, the French had no case in European law to claim it for their own.
    To use the phrase as meaning “land where no people live” makes the Brits either greater liars or more stupid than some may like to infer.

  7. David Brown says:

    thank you for your insight and conclusions
    greedy, selfish right wingers seem so much the ascendent at the moment
    lets hope Australia turns left and is able to unwind some of the greed and lack of vision shortenly….
    and begin to influence similar more rational restructure of the world

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