Labor for Palestine: It's About Time


Earlier this week a meeting in was held in western Sydney to discuss whether the Federal Labor Party should support Palestinians’ rights to self-determination.

In response to the unspeakable suffering of all Palestinians – Gazans, West Bankers, Arab citizens of Israel, and the 5 million refugees still served by the UN Refugee Works Association (UNRWA) – why would the ALP not take a stand for Palestine?    

But change from adherence to the Israeli narrative to fearless support for the Palestinian cause may not be easy. Questions to ALP members, which relate to the identity of a party which claims to promote social justice, might do the trick. Here are the questions. 

Key Questions

How can you retain self-respect if you appear to collude with Israeli Government’s occupation of Palestinian lands? Do you have any sense of disbelief at the displacement and replacement polices which have been occurring since 1948, or at the blood bath of Operation Cast Lead which began on December 27, 2008? 

Surely the disproportionate use of force in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza would affect your attitude?In that operation, over 2000 Palestinians were killed and 11,000 wounded. The non-combatant ratio of Palestinians to Israelis who lost their lives was approximately 600:1.

Eighteen thousand housing units were destroyed, 24 medical facilities damaged and at least 16 health workers killed. Twenty-six schools were destroyed, 228 were damaged and another 31 schools left to serve as shelters for displaced people.

Will you acknowledge the unnecessary Israeli deaths but also the massive imbalance in Israeli/Palestinian casualties, property destroyed and the means of livelihood lost?

Since 2007, within Israel, at least 402 civilians and 58 security forces have died as a result of suicide bombing. UN figures also indicate that in Operation Protective Edge, the number of Palestinian children killed – approximately 500 – exceeds the total number of Israelis, civilians and soldiers, killed by Palestinians in rocket attacks and all other attacks over the past decade.

Far away from the Middle East, Australians may become blasé about body counts, but how could you not protest the cruelty involved  in control of the most precious life force – water?

UN figures indicate that Israeli citizens receive 300 cubic meters of water per year, Palestinians 35-85 cubic metres. Israeli settlers on the West Bank are allotted 1,500 cubic metres and enjoy green lawns and swimming pools while Palestinians often get no water at all. Haaretz journalist Amira Hass warns there’s little point in arguing whether Israelis’ water consumption is four or only three times that of Palestinians. Instead she requests, “Open your eyes: the thick pipes of the Mekorot (Israel’s national water provider) are heading to the Jordan valley settlements, and a Palestinian tractor next to them transports a rusty tank of water from afar.”

“In the summer, the faucets run dry in Hebron and never stop flowing in (settlements) Kiryat Arba and Beit Hadassah.”

On 9 February 2014, B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reported that “over 90 per cent of water in the Gaza Strip is unfit for drinking. Wastewater treatment facilities have been damaged, sewage seeps into ground water and fills the sea.”

Following massive floods across the Gaza Strip in early November 2014, the head of Gaza’s water authority admitted, “The recent war destroyed everything in Gaza. Many sewage pipes and water networks are still buried under the rubble.”

East Jerusalem Violence

The record of suffering grows. How would ALP members respond if they observed the hopelessness which Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem feel when faced with attacks from armed settlers?

Admittedly there have been awful tit for tat killings, as in the recent fatal stabbings in a synagogue. This violence occurs in the context of incitement from settlement leaders, Jerusalem being cut off from the West Bank, more evictions, more house demolitions and excessive police brutality.

Israeli author and human rights activist Jeff Halper calls the collective punishment involved in the demolition of people’s homes, ‘atavistic revenge.’ He emphasizes that the targeting and punishing of family members innocent of any crime constitutes a violation of Article 33 of the Geneva Convention relative to the ‘Protection Of Civilian Persons In Time Of War.’

What do party members know of the civil rights of Palestinians living on the West Bank and in an East Jerusalem almost completely surrounded by large Israeli settlements?

Israeli leaders encourage Jews to attempt to worship in Moslem holy places and have given a green light to settlers to attack Palestinians and their property. Gershon Baskin writes, “The only real services that Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem receive are those of Border Police arresting suspects, closing neighbourhoods as well as house demolitions and taxation.”

He reminds us that 80 per cent of East Jerusalem Palestinians live under the poverty line.

Hate speech in Israel and from leading members of the Knesset is an almost daily occurrence.  A right wing settlers’ slogan reads, “A Jew is a blessed soul, an Arab is a son of a whore.”

In response to the current discrimination, hate speech and violence in East Jerusalem, distinguished Palestinian lawyer Dianna Buttu comments, “This has been the most dehumanizing ordeal in my experience. All you hear about is the idea that Palestinians don’t value human life, ‘They have a culture of martyrdom’.”

To add to these cruelties a Jewish Nation State Bill is in legal preparation as the right wing’s one-state solution which would include the annexation of the territories and the establishment of a Jewish apartheid State. Israeli journalist Gideon Levy writes that in the proposed new law, Palestinians will become formally, legally second class citizens. The architects of this new Israeli state must make sure at any price that it will not be democratic and egalitarian.

Not Standing Alone

In recognising Palestine as a state, Australian Labor is not being asked to go it alone, though there would be every reason for taking a leadership role irrespective of the attitude of other nations.

Several European countries have already taken this stand. The Swedish Government proposes to extend full diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine. By large majorities the Irish Parliament, the British House of Commons, the Spanish Parliament and the French National Assembly have voted to recognise the state of Parliament. The motion in the French Assembly invited “the French Government to recognise the state of Palestine in order to obtain a definitive settlement of the conflict.”

Australian state Labor parties have also moved on this issue. A South Australian Labor resolution mirrors similar statements passed in Tasmania, NSW and Queensland. The South Australian resolution recognises peace in the Middle East will only be assured by the foundation of a Palestinian State based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps and security guarantees for itself and Israel.

“SA Labor welcomes the decision of the Palestinian Authority to commit to a demilitarised Palestine with the presence of international Peace keepers including US forces,” it says.

Will the Labor Party leadership also heed the cues being given by significant Israeli citizens?

In September 2014, 660 Israeli public figures called on the Danish Parliament to recognise the State of Palestine. “This would be no anti-Israel act,” they wrote, “it would help Israel’s future.”

In November 2014, 106 ex-Israeli generals, senior police, and former heads of Mossad urged Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to negotiate with “moderate Arab states and with Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”.

Their letter refers to the Saudi backed peace proposal that was adopted unanimously by the Arab league in 2002. It offered full peace, diplomatic recognition, and “normal relations” between Arab states and Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to borders based on the pre-1967 armistice lines, with negotiated land swaps and a ‘just’ and mutually ‘agreed’ compromise solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.  

If Labor supports Palestine, will political leaders be sufficiently resilient to not bend in the face of the torrent of derision which always follows anyone who dares to criticise Israeli government policies?  

In response to an article of mine explaining why the world wide Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement was neither racist nor anti-Semitic, one threatening letter read, “Go hide in a tunnel… or stick a grenade up your arse like ur crocodile buddies”.

One of those crocodile buddies was presumably Bob Carr who had identified and condemned the small group of largely Melbourne businessmen who supported Israel’s fundamentalist position on illegal colonies and who sought to veto any change in an Australian government’s attitude towards Israeli policies.

Carr’s criticism prompted the usual howls of derision from the Israel right or wrong lobby. Melissa Parke MP received similar vitriol when she spoke in the House of Representatives about the merits of the BDS campaign.

Labor politicians who have spoken in support of the rights of Palestinians know that the criticism they receive is nothing compared to the violence and humiliation meted out to Palestinians. They should know that some Israeli leaders are also dismayed by reactions to any criticism of the policies of their government.

Quoted in The New Yorker, the current President of Israel Reuven Rivlin said, “It is time to honestly admit that Israel is sick, and it is our duty to treat this illness.”

He also commented, “I must say that I’ve been horrified by this thuggishness that has permeated the national dialogue…I’m not asking if we’ve forgotten how to be Jewish but if we’ve forgotten how to be human.”

From Change of Attitude to Policy?

Beyond the symbolic importance of Labor recognising the state of Palestine, how might such a gesture be converted into a policy?

Although one state already exists in Israel/Palestine, and is about to be consolidated in the Jewish Nation State Bill, the ALP policy still envisages a two state solution. In which case a diplomatically sound elaboration of ‘Labor for Palestine’ could be to return to UN Resolution 242 adopted unanimously in 1967.

Commitment to the terms of that resolution would require all the parties to cease military activities and return to borders existing before the 1967 war.

The ALP needs to recognise that if they want to remain a friend of a democratic Israel, let alone find enough vestiges of humanity to support the Palestinians, they should be urging negotiations under UN auspices regarding the goals of Resolution 242. Those goals have much in common with the Arab Peace Plan and with ALP state branch resolutions.

In the process of moving from a change of attitude to the crafting of a new policy, emotions will come into play. But it should not take much courage for Federal Labor to at last say, ‘We’ve had enough of cruelty as a government’s policy. We’ve had enough of indifference to international law. We object to violence from all sides but we have not forgotten about justice; and we will not be intimidated by the Israel lobby.’

In relation to a change of policy towards all Palestinians we want to re-craft Gough Whitlam’s unforgettable slogan: ‘It’s about time!’’

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.