We Cannot be Neutral on Israel-Palestine

By Sharara Attai

Australia must stop its equivocation on the rights of Palestinians and address the illegal occupation and apartheid system perpetuated by Israel.

The world has breathed a collective sigh of relief upon the news of the ceasefire reached between Israel and Hamas. However, the illegal occupation of Palestine and the daily injustices faced by Palestinians have not gone away and if not addressed the carnage we have witnessed over recent weeks will inevitably continue. 

The Australian Government has been able to avoid addressing the inequality at the heart of recent violence by deflecting to Hamas. The incessant focus on Hamas and the rockets they have fired is a distraction from Israel’s grave wrongdoings. Any criticism levelled at Israel is immediately met with a response about Israel’s security, such as the oft-repeated mantra ‘Israel has a right to defend itself.’

But what does Israel forcibly evicting Palestinians from their homes – the triggering factor of the latest flare-up of violence – have to do with Israel’s security? Similarly, Israel’s continued illegal occupation and other serious international crimes bear no relevance to Israel’s claim of defending itself and must be addressed.

In a report published last month, Human Rights Watch declared that Israel was committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution. Israel’s largest human rights organisation B’Tselem has also reported that Israel is committing apartheid, pointing to a range of Israeli policies that are designed to advance and perpetuate the supremacy of one group (Jews) over another (Palestinians), including Israel’s discriminatory allocation and denial of political rights, their engineering of land control and restriction of Palestinians’ movement. 

The apartheid may not be as blatant as in South Africa, but it is well documented. Nelson Mandela himself famously stated:

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

In a similar vein, Israel’s discriminatory policies leading to Jewish settlement expansions in Occupied Palestine have been described as ethnic cleansing. Richard Falk, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, highlighted this in 2011and again in 2014 when he stated that Israeli policies bore “unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”

When asked about the ethnic cleansing accusation, Falk responded that over 11,000 Palestinians had lost their right to live in Jerusalem since 1996 because of Israel imposing residency laws favouring Jews and revoking Palestinian residence permits, and pointed out that many more Palestinians were faced with possible challenges to their residency rights. This has indeed eventuated since Falk made those findings in 2014, as we have recently seen in Sheikh Jarrah.

It is not just apartheid and ethnic cleansing, but the occupation itself is at the heart of the issue. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law and the region will never see peace if the occupation itself does not end. Additionally, daily life under Israel’s illegal occupation is brutal. Amnesty International stated that:

”Israel’s military rule disrupts every aspect of daily life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It continues to affect whether, when and how Palestinians can travel to work or school, go abroad, visit their relatives, earn a living, attend a protest, access their farmland, or even access electricity or a clean water supply. It means daily humiliation, fear and oppression. People’s entire lives are effectively held hostage by Israel.”

This has not changed with the ceasefire and Israel maintains an illegal land, sea and air blockade of Gaza that has crippled its economy.

The 5 million ordinary Palestinians who live in the Occupied Territories deserve for their plight under occupation to be heard and addressed, notwithstanding the ceasefire and irrespective of what Hamas does. They do not deserve to become casualties, at the hands of a State actor. 

While Israeli civilians also deserve safety, Israeli civilians do not live under a brutal occupation nor are they the losers in Israel’s apartheid system. ‘Business as usual’ for Israelis looks starkly different than it does for Palestinians. Moreover, as with previous bouts of violence, the Palestinian death toll in the recent crisis far outnumbered the Israeli one – most recently at a ratio of around 19:1. It is always ordinary Palestinians that pay a much heftier price when tensions escalate, and this is yet another example of the difference in power between the two sides.

Israel is committing these international crimes with impunity. Foreign governments are failing to hold Israel to account for its actions and in many cases are supporting Israel either implicitly or explicitly. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said of the recent events:

“We’d urge all those involved to exercise restraint …  That said, Israel unquestionably has the right to defend itself and its people. Unquestionably. And, equally, Palestinians need to be able to live safely. ” 

Morrison did not speak of an equal right of Palestinians to defend themselves, nor did he condemn Israel’s excessive use of force, resulting in over 240 deaths, 66 of whom have been children. Nor did he say anything about the illegal occupation or underlying causes of tension. As global citizens, we must demand our own governments not turn a blind eye to Israel’s crimes. 

We often hear, in relation to the Israel-Palestine issue, that we must consider ‘both sides’ or that it’s ‘complicated’. But the reality is that there is no legitimate alternative position to that of rebuking Israel. It is akin to saying that we need to look at both sides in considering South Africa’s apartheid system or be ‘balanced’ in considering the civil rights movement in America that saw Black people fighting to be treated the same as white folk. 

Like those historical struggles, the question of Palestine is simple and we ought to be emphatic in our demands for justice – there is an occupier and an occupied, a nuclear power and a people whose power has been stripped, a perpetrator of ethnic cleansing and those being ethnically cleansed. These realities have not disappeared with the ceasefire and must be addressed by the global community, including Australia.

We cannot be neutral on the Israel-Palestine issue because there is no neutrality when it comes to apartheid, illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing. There is either resistance or complicity.

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