STUART REES. Cowardice as a principle of foreign policy, what on earth are they thinking?

In relation to Israel’s decades of military occupation of Palestinian lands, a cowardice spreading pandemic has infected Australian politicians and public servants. Recent symptoms are evident in the Australian government’s submission to the International Criminal Court (ICC) that an investigation of Israeli war crimes in Palestine should not take place.

Credit: Unsplash

Before pursuing the argument that legal casuistry and cowardice characterise an Australian government’s attitude towards the plight of Palestinian people, it is important to remember that the cowardice pandemic has also affected ICC deliberations.

ICC Deliberations and Canberra’s Response

In his recent book I Accuse, the forensically brilliant US author Norman Finkelstein examines the ICC Chief Prosecutor’s refusal to investigate the killing by Israeli forces in May 2010 of nine people on the humanitarian flagship the Mavi Marmora, bound for Gaza. Finkelstein records that the eventual death of ten people and injuries to scores of others was judged by the Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as of not sufficient gravity to warrant an official investigation. Finkelstein shows beyond reasonable doubt that the ICC Chief Prosecutor whitewashed Israel.

Pushback within the ICC then obliged Bensouda to reopen the investigation into the Mavi Marmora murders and the carnage in Gaza in 2014, yet take five years to do so. An inquiry, which covered Israel’s building of settlements and its military operation in Gaza, concluded that Bensouda was ‘satisfied that there was a reasonable basis to proceed.’

At that point the Australian government informed the ICC that ‘on jurisdictional grounds Palestine is not a state’, therefore there should be no investigation of alleged war crimes in Palestine.

Legal contortions over the notion ‘jurisdiction’ must have been made in closed door conversations as to how to protect Israel, how to comply with what Israel and the US want. At that point a public servant, presumably, was instructed to give a shameful explanation to parliament.

Appearing before Senate Estimates Committee, James Larsen, chief legal officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that ‘Israel has encouraged us (Australia) to make observations to the court regarding the investigation into war crimes.’

Prior to Larsen’s appearance, the Australian Ambassador to the Netherlands Mathew Neuhaus is reported to have given Australia’s objections to the ICC investigation. When Ambassador in Zimbabwe, and in relation to the brutalities of the Mugabe regime, my meetings with Ambassador Neuhaus showed him to be a principled, brave, consistent defender of human rights. But in the context of demands from Israel, principle and courage are stifled by the usual gutless, amoral pragmatism that passes for Australian policy making. This principled man must have squirmed at the demands placed upon him?

In response to Australia’s objections to the ICC, Bensouda, no doubt affected by Professor Finkelstein’s devastating critique, has informed Canberra, ‘There are no substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.’

Yet the ICC’s ‘substantial reasons’ have been water off a duck’s back to Canberra. What on earth were they thinking?

Brutality and the Obscenity of ‘Balance’

Let’s be clear as to the ICC’s objectives and what Australia is keen to prevent. The investigation was to unearth possible war crimes committed by the Israeli blockade of Gaza, their responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza plus the consequences of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. That proposed investigation would also address possible atrocities committed by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups.

The investigation would examine evidence that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) used internationally banned weapons such as Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) which cause loss of limbs and wounds that do not respond to treatment. The investigation could consider the possible use of the banned white phosphorus in the air over densely populated areas.

In that 2014 invasion, over 2,200 Palestinians were killed most of them civilians, including 550 children. Over 10,000 were injured including 3,374 children of whom 1000 were left permanently disabled. Eighteen thousand homes in Gaza were destroyed.

Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians lost their lives. One Israeli child was killed and one home destroyed.

To describe these events, the operative word in political and media circles is balance. Palestinians’ perspectives, often ignored, have to be balanced by a plethora of Israeli government claims. In the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, balance conceals truths and is an obscene notion. When will the media and politicians learn? What on earth are they thinking?

The Hamas government in Gaza has welcomed the proposed ICC investigation even though it would pursue charges that Palestinian civilians were used as human shields by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed forces.

Israel has opposed the ICC. Prime Minister Netanyahu has given his usual Humpty Dumpty ‘things mean what I say they mean’ explanation. He calls the possible ICC investigation ‘a black day for truth and justice.’

Preventing the Cowardice Pandemic

Regarding Australia’s consistent, cowardly responses to calls from Israel and the US, who makes these policy recommendations? Were they ever taught about ethics and courage in public life, or is diplomacy reduced to inhuman game playing?

In government circles, who will have the courage to say that cruelty towards Palestinians and cowardice as the hallmark of Australian policy to support Israel are wrong? Who might concede that refusal to unmask possible war crimes implies collusion with indiscriminate destruction and killing?

It looks as though a vaccine is needed to inject courageous anti bodies into political and diplomatic bloodstreams? Without that vaccine, Palestinians will continue to be betrayed and the question, ‘what on earth are Australian politicians and public servants thinking?’, will have to be repeated.

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Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”, Bristol: Policy Press. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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