The Palestinian catastrophe: Occupation, Illegality and ApartheidSep 7, 2023
It is time for us to use the words Occupation, Illegality and Apartheid. We are applying these words to an occupying power truculent and implacable in its determination its occupation will never end, committed to a creeping annexation to deliver it a permanent hold over Palestinian land and Palestinian people. … Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable that Australia’s oldest and largest political party would endorse Palestinian recognition. That’s now taken for granted as the very least we can do in the face of a cruel and continuing catastrophe.
This big meeting in support of Palestine is being held in the Great Hall at Sydney University. Twenty years ago when Professor Stuart Rees, chairing this meeting tonight, invited Hanan Ashrawi to receive a peace prize at this university the Israel lobby reacted with its predictable and characteristic bullying. Kathryn Greiner, chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Lucy Turnbull, of the City of Sydney Council, both cancelled their attendance. Also under pressure from the Israel lobby, the university administration banned Hanan Ashrawi from being received or speaking in this hall. It was in today’s language, a spectacular example of Cancel Culture. This university banned a leading Palestinian because the Israel lobby insisted on it.
As Premier of New South Wales, having accepted the invitation to present the peace prize, I stood firm- despite the pressure, despite the attempts at intimidation. The lessons I learnt were valuable. The Israel lobby relies on bullying, using its strength to intimidate critics. The Israel lobby is also wedded to the view that Palestinians can be blocked from putting their case. They don’t deserve a voice. Underlying this is a very offensive principle: namely, that Palestinians will never be accorded equality. The Israeli leadership and Jewish supporters of Israel in the west have made clear time and time again they simply don’t believe that Palestinians have an equal claim to humanity.
Today three key words represent the essence of the Israel-Palestine relationship. You cannot discuss the relationship without invoking them.
The first word is Occupation. One might say, a permanent military occupation enforced by the military and by settlers. The UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) records that in the last 50 years, 800,000 Palestinians including children as young as 12 have been arrested and detained by Israeli military. Gaza has two million people (half of whom are children) and is acknowledged to be an open-air prison. In the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Palestinians are hemmed in by blockades, walls, checkpoints and settlements. They are subject to an Israeli justice system which Gideon Levy of Haartez says is “rotten and racist.” They are subject to settler violence.
It’s not what one thinks of Israel. It’s what one thinks of its Occupation of Palestine.
Settlements – this is the other emblematic word. Congratulations to Penny Wong for saying all settlements will be described by the Australian government as illegal under international law. This is, however, no big step, even though it was passionately and wildly condemned by the Israeli lobby. It was the language I used as Foreign Minister, as did Gareth Evans and Kevin Rudd. It was the principle that we applied in votes in the General Assembly. Under the current Federal Labor government, it’s the way Australia voted in late 2022 in the General Assembly supporting resolutions that said all Israeli settlements are to be condemned and all Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.
Let me quote from the one-page briefing note I received from my department when I was Foreign Minister. I read it into the Senate Estimates on February 14, 2013. It stated: “Israeli settlement activity is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention (to which Israel is a party).” It quoted Article 49 (6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention (on the protection of civilians in time of war) which provides that the Occupying Power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” This has been reinforced by the Security Council repeatedly describing Israeli settlement as having “no legal validity.”
My briefing note from DFAT also pointed out that even prior to my recent statements to this effect, Australia had stated that Israeli settlement activity is illegal on two occasions before the Security Council. That was in January 2011 and October 2012, under the Gillard government. It is, by the way, the consensus position of Western countries although the United States has used the word “illegitimate” rather than “illegal.”
The settlements are a barrier to peace and represent a creeping annexation of the West Bank as confirmed by the relentless rise of settler numbers and the fact that settlements are administered now by an Israeli minister, not by the military authorities. That is, they have been given the status of Israeli domestic matters.
The other key word is Apartheid. There is a simple argument to be made here. In the 2018 nationality law Israel created two categories of citizenship based on race and religion. As Gideon Levy put it in Haaretz in June 2021, “We do not have to identify the characteristics of South African Apartheid in the civil rights discrimination in Israel in order to call Israel an Apartheid state. It is best that we not try to evade the truth: the Citizenship Law’s existence turns Israel into an Apartheid state.”
There is of course a wealth of other material about Apartheid in Israel. It includes both the conditions of Palestinians within Israel and the condition of Palestinians in the occupied territory. But there’s no need to elaborate. The argument about the nationality law makes the point entirely. What other of the world’s states says in its basic law that it has two categories of citizenship and race and religion are the basis?
The Australian Labor party at its national conference confirmed its commitment to recognition of Palestine. This policy has been fought by the Israel lobby at every stage- leading up to State ALP conference, among Labor MPs and in the national conferences- since I first elevated it to the agenda speaking as a delegate from the floor to the 2014 ALP conference after I had retired from the Senate and from the Foreign Ministry.
But I found promoting recognition was like pushing an open door. The shift in the attitude of the Australian Labor Party was clear at those State conference as it was in the Caucus room in 2012 when party opinion forced Julia Gillard to retreat from her insistence that Australia should vote No on a resolution of the General Assembly to lift the status of the Palestinian delegation. “The lobby” opposed recognition every step of the way and lost each time, confirming their basic underlying opposition to Palestinian people having any right to an independent existence.
It is time for us to use the words Occupation, Illegality (applied to settlements and, indeed, the occupation itself) and Apartheid. We are applying these words to an occupying power truculent and implacable in its determination its occupation will never end, committed to a creeping annexation to deliver it a permanent hold over Palestinian land and Palestinian people.
What better place to make a commitment to Palestinian justice than this gathering of Palestinians and their supporters, in a hall where access had been denied Hanan Ashrawi, as a result of bullying, 20 years ago? Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable that Australia’s oldest and largest political party would endorse Palestinian recognition. That’s now taken for granted as the very least we can do in the face of a cruel and continuing catastrophe.
Based on a speech delivered to ‘The Palestinian Catastrophe’ in collaboration with Conversation at the Crossroads, Tuesday September 6, 2023, in the Great Hall, Sydney University.