Labor must take a stand on Palestine

Protesting for justice for Palestine, Sydney, in August 2022. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

What is the new Labor government’s record on Palestine? Some small positive steps were taken last year but the Anthony Albanese government still has a long way to go.

Its reversal of Scott Morrison’ commitment to move the Australian embassy to (West) Jerusalem was a positive step. Australia’s contribution to the major Palestinian aid organisation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), was raised to $10 million (after being cut by the Coalition) bringing Australia’s support for Palestinians to $27 million over 2022–23.

Last June, Canberra declined to support a United States-led attack on an interim report on Israel to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Australia remains deeply concerned about the ongoing conflict, loss of life and human rights abuses, and the lack of progress towards a just and enduring two-state solution,” Australia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva told the Council.

While we support these moves, they are disappointingly few for Albanese who, across many years, spoke out for Palestinian’s freedom, referencing Israeli security forces’ atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank and pushing for greater UN involvement in restoring Palestinian rights.

And the other side of the ledger? Why aren’t Palestinian Australians cheering for Labor? What has Labor maintained from the Morrison era?

Albanese remains opposed to the Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, despite Australia’s strong support for such action against apartheid South Africa.

He supports a “two-state solution”, neglecting the imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine at any negotiating table. He has publicly endorsed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, ignoring the way it has been weaponised to silence legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its unjust treatment of Palestinians.

Albanese has done nothing to change the Coalition’s formal declaration, shortly before losing office, of Hamas being a terrorist organisation, neglecting that it has been elected in Gaza.

Shamefully, Australia has maintained its block on aid to Gaza after Israel controversially convicted World Vision’s Gaza manager Mohammed el Halabi of diverting US$50 million of aid money to armed groups. Albanese must be aware Australia’s two independent audits found that no money was missing: World Vision did likewise.

Australia joined a minority of UN member states to vote in November against requesting the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences of Israel’s prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967”.

Penny Wong, as shadow foreign affairs minister, moved an amendment at Labor’s national conference in 2021 saying recognition of Palestinian statehood must be “an important priority” for the next Labor government. It was already a party objective. Why has this not happened?

Labor has made it a priority to appease the Zionist lobby and not recognise Palestine as a state despite most of the world doing so: 139 countries or 72%.

Labor’s foot-dragging does not adequately capture the gross inconsistency or the sheer studied indifference to last year’s cascade of shocking reports from Palestine.

Silence, it seems, is Labor’s standard response to careful research or graphic media covering Israel’s relentless colonial project, especially in lands that are recognised, internationally, as occupied by Israel.

Labor is far more concerned about the “rules-based international order” than vigorous calls to halt Israel’s brutal treatment of its subject Palestinians.

Apartheid Israel

The UN Human Rights Council, Israel’s Human Rights group B’tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all produced credible reports in recent years concluding that particular crime now characterizes the Zionist state.

Wong does not agree. “Labor does not agree with the use of the term ‘apartheid’. It’s not a term that’s been found to apply by any international court and is not helpful in progressing the meaningful dialogue and negotiation necessary to achieve a just and enduring peace,” she said last February, adding: “Labor is a strong friend of Israel.”

Israel’s structural oppression of Palestine that Albanese is wilfully ignoring includes the 15-year siege of Gaza, a collective punishment that violates International Human Rights Law and forces nearly 2 million people to lead a stultifying life within the largest open-air prison in the world.

In response to attempts by human rights groups for redress for paralysed victims, Israel’s High Court ruled last year in favour of sweeping immunity for the state for war crimes perpetrated in Gaza.

The court stated that its decision is consistent with international law and that in any case, Israel’s parliament “has the power to override the rules of international law”.

There is the also illegal, but facilitated, ever-expanding Jewish settlement blocs on Palestinian land, including land reserved for agriculture and grazing – by settlers — while Palestinian villages are denied access.

The Israeli High Court greenlighted the mass expulsion orders of more than 1300 Palestinians eight communities in Masafer Yatta in the south of the occupied West Bank last May.

Demolitions had already started, paving the way for further Israeli land theft. These orders amount to the single largest expulsion operation carried out by Israel since 1967. The Australian Foreign Minister described the decades-long land grab as “unhelpful”.

There is also the soul-destroying military administration of the West Bank, with its overriding “security” powers only targeting Palestinians and their court-endorsed imprisonment without trial, including for children, and renewable on application. Each year the Israeli military detains and prosecutes around 700 Palestinian children.

Or consider collective punishment, such as the destruction of so-called terrorist families’ homes by Israeli forces in Nablus in the West Bank in early January.

Permit rules even separate Palestinian mothers in East Jerusalem from newborns needing special care. In Jerusalem, there is the Kafkaesque legal obfuscation around Palestinian home demolitions, this year being violently expanding to mixed cities in Israel.

Meanwhile Palestinian access to schools and jobs or medical aid is still arbitrarily denied or delayed at the ubiquitous, dehumanising “checkpoints”.

Israeli maintenance of “order” threatens the rights of individual Palestinians too.

The killing of another journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, last May brought a storm of international outrage. Israeli police violence towards her mourners — and to worshippers at the Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem — was clearly calculated.

UN-recorded violence by settlers towards Palestinians has steadily risen since 2020.

Organisations attempting to stop this oppression — or just maintain Palestinian community life — are now being persecuted. This extends from trivial bureaucratic requirements to the ongoing international case of Israel’s declaration a year ago of six human rights groups as “aiding terrorists” on “secret evidence”, of course. UN and US probes have turned up nothing.

Do these seem dangerous? Addameer offers legal aid to prisoners and acts to end torture. Al-Haq documents violations of Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories. Defense for Children International monitors the killing and the wellbeing of children imprisoned in Israel. The Union of Agricultural Work Committees aids Palestinian farmers.

Even harsher measures against human rights defence organisations are being touted by the new Netanyahu government.

The point, of course, as with the el Halabi case, is to besmirch the reputations of these organisations in the eyes of the donor world.

Labor’s silence

Why is Labor usually silent, only occasionally cautiously expressing concern about all this?

It is not as though Israel’s earlier annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan heights are everyday events. Or that Israel’s de facto annexation of large swathes of Palestinian territory (settlements and Jordan Valley lands) is common fare. Both the ICJ and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have ruled them all illegal.

Wong says Australia does not have a stated position on the legality of Israel’s 55 year occupation of the West Bank, stating: “We understand there are different views on this issue.”

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the United Nations Security Council in 2021: “When powerful states flout the rules of international law, it sends the message that others can break those rules with impunity”.

Of course, he wasn’t talking about Israel. Labor is not either.

Israel abides the international community’s widespread mouthing of support for a “two-state solution” for Palestine because it perpetuates the illusion that such a future is still possible while its settlement enterprise (which long ago strangled it) continues apace.

Israeli journalist Gideon Levy recently observed that real anti-Semitism is being made more respectable as there seems to be some rational basis for it — the wages, indeed, of the Jewish state’s atrocities.

Another Israeli journalist Amira Haas has described the “planned shredding of [occupied] Palestinian space”, both geographic and demographic, as “violent mutilation, akin to rape”.

But none of this excites Albanese’s anger or Wong’s moral discomfort because Israel’s behaviour has become normalised.

Is this sufficient to explain why, at no point, has Israel been effectively held to account for its human rights and Geneva Convention abuses?

The grim twist is that the state claiming to represent a people so shockingly and tragically victimised by the Nazis has emerged as the arrogant, racist and often brutal oppressor of another people.

Wong claimed at a New Israel Fund event in 2021 that you can be a “steadfast friend of Israel” and “also be principled about the issues that you raise concerns about”. She even mentioned “annexation and the expansion of settlements” as examples of the latter.

How can we prevail on Labor, now in government, to admit that realpolitik is obscene as a frame for its Israel relations? How can we force Labor to tear the scales from its eyes and see the Israeli colonising project as unacceptable in today’s world? Can Australia take a lead in recognising that an international reset in Israeli relations is needed to enable a fair Palestinian future?