Victoria's ties with Israel’s defence industry protested

February 13, 2024
Protesting arms dealers' meeting in Gadigal/Sydney last November. Photo: @pestoriusm

Last month, word got out that the Victorian government had inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Israeli Defence Ministry in December 2022.

“As Australia’s advanced manufacturing capital, we are always exploring economic and trade opportunities for our state – especially those that create local jobs,” a government spokesperson stated in January.

In other words, it’s just business.

No evidence of the MoU exists on Victorian government websites (although it is listed on the Australian government’s Foreign Arrangements Scheme register).

But Israel’s Ministry of Defense had trumpeted it, stating that its International Defense Cooperation Directorate (SIBAT) and the Victorian statement government had “signed an industrial defense cooperation statement” that December.

Present at the signing ceremony were retired General Yair Kulas, who heads SIBAT, and Penelope McKay, acting secretary for Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.

That an MoU should grow from this was a logical outcome of Victoria’s approach to entering into agreements with foreign entities.

Coalition PM Scott Morrison terminated four agreements made by Victoria with Iran, Syria and China in April 2021.

The agreements with Iran and Syria, signed in November 2004 and March 1999 respectively, were intended as educational, scientific and training ventures.

The two agreements with China came in the form of an MoU and framework agreement with the National Development and Reform Commission of the PRC, both part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The Israeli arms industry has taken something of a shine to Victoria. One of its most enterprising representatives has been Elbit Systems, Israel’s prolific drone manufacturing company.

Through Elbit Systems of Australia (ELSA), it established a Centre of Excellence in Human-Machine Teaming and Artificial Intelligence in Port Melbourne, after announcing a plan in February 2021.

One of its main co-sponsors is the government’s Invest Victoria branch.

The body is tasked with, in the words of the government, “leading new entrant Foreign Direct Investment and investment opportunities of significance as well as enhancing the business investment environment, developing and providing whole-of-government levers and strengthening the governance of investment attraction activities”.

RMIT University’s Centre for Industrial AI Research and Innovation also did its bit alongside Victoria’s support.

The two-year partnership with ELSA’s Centre of Excellence had rosy goals.

The company’s then managing director and retired Major General Paul McLachlan wanted to impress with innocent reasons behind developing drone technology.

It entailed counting any “number of people in designated evacuation zones, then to co-ordinate and communicate the most efficient evacuation routes to everyone in the zone, as well as monitoring the area to ensure that everyone has been accounted for”.

McLachlan, in focusing on “the complex problems that emergency management organisations face during natural disasters” skipped around the obvious fact that the technology’s antecedents have been lethal.

They had been used to account for the killing and monitoring of Palestinians in Gaza, with its star performer being Elbit’s Hermes drone.

This grisly fact is from the summer of July 2014 when the IDF was making much use of Elbit’s murderous products in Gaza: company profits increased by 6.1%.

This record did not worry Michael Shoebridge, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defence, strategy and national security program.

As he told the ABC in January, the MoU “would have been entirely uncontroversial before the Israel-Hamas war. But now, of course, there’s a live domestic debate about the war, and … most people are concerned about civilian casualties.”

It is the reasoning that gives these think-tankers a bad name.

It means that Israel’s predatory policies towards Palestinians since 1948 can be dismissed as peripheral and inconsequential to the current bloodbath.

The racial-administrative policies of the Jewish state in terms of controlling and dispossessing Palestinians in the West Bank and the trampling, sealing and suffocating of Gaza, can be put down to footnotes of varying, uncontroversial relevance.

The Victorian Greens disagree, promising on February 7 to introduce a motion calling on the government “to end its secretive relationship with the Israeli Ministry of Defence”. They also demanded the government “sever any ties with companies arming Israel’s Defence Force, which has killed 27,500 Palestinians in less than four months”.

Given the Coalition government’s termination of previous agreements entered into by Victoria with purportedly undesirable entities, the Anthony Albanese government has a useful precedent.

With legal proceedings underway in the International Court of Justice in The Hague seeking to determine whether genocide is taking place in Gaza, along with an interim order warning Israel to abide by the UN Genocide Convention, a sound justification has presented itself.

Complicity with genocide — actual, potential or as yet unassessed by a court — can hardly be in Canberra’s interest.

Over to you Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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