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In Palestine, a question for Australia: are we on ‘the right or wrong side of history’?

Australia has decided to stop referring to Palestinian territories in East Jerusalem as “occupied”, which has won it friends in the Israeli government but has outraged Palestinians. Freelance writer Nigel O’Connor reports from Ramallah.

Oh, you’re from Australia?” The question came in a heavy New Jersey accent from a lady holding a large poster labelling United States Secretary of State John Kerry a war criminal. “Congratulations, you finally have a good government again!”

In February, she joined thousands of Israeli settlers and their supporters in Ma’ale Adumim, one the largest settlements in the West Bank, to protest against freezes in settlement construction during ongoing negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Negotiations broke down again, and new housing units in Israel’s West Bank and East Jerusalem colonies are again being regularly announced.

Under fire domestically and lampooned abroad, one promise Prime Minister Tony Abbott is making good on is his pledge to work at “restoring” relations between Australia and Israel. Last Thursday’s announcement by Attorney-General George Brandis that the government would no longer refer to internationally recognised Palestinian territories in East Jerusalem as “occupied” was another step towards fulfilling that pledge.

Israel has held the Palestinian territories and parts of the Syrian Golan Heights since the 1967 Six-Day War. More than 500,000 settlers now live behind the heavily fortified gates of hilltop enclaves of suburbia and in the fraught climate of Jerusalem’s Old City and the suburbs comprising East Jerusalem. Jerusalem is central to both national narratives and, in recent years, settlement expansion proved a continual stumbling block in negotiations as encroaching colonies choke any notion of a functioning Palestinian state before it’s born. The city, known as Al-Quds (the Holy) in Arabic, is also a sensitive concern for Muslims in the region and internationally.

While paying homage to the international community’s desire for a negotiated two-state solution, Australian prime ministers are traditionally vocal supporters of Israel. The analysis of Abbott and the demonstrator in Ma’ale Adumim — that Australia-Israel relations required restoration — stems from the 2012 vote in the United Nations General Assembly recognising Palestinian statehood, when Julia Gillard’s government adopted a modicum of impartiality in the ongoing conflict by abstaining. The decision was not hers but forced by a Labor caucus determined not to vote against a mostly symbolic upgrade in the Palestinians’ status. Gillard was promptly rounded on by the Liberal opposition and Rupert Murdoch’s press.

Since taking power, the Abbott government has defied international orthodoxy by sending its ambassador to meet the Israeli Housing Minister in Jerusalem — a diplomatic statement that angered the Palestinians — and, in January, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asked whether settlements were “illegal” during a trip to Israel.

Thursday’s announcement continues the trend, taking Australia’s position beyond that of the United States. At a cabinet meeting on Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended the “courage” of the Australian government to “challenge the sanctification of lies” in its new determination. Critics have invoked the Fourth Geneva Convention, which provides protections for civilians in war zones, and point to the International Criminal Court’s 2004 designation of settlements as illegal.

For Palestinians, the reaction has ranged from official outrage to public confusion. On Sunday, Australia’s representative in the Palestinian territories was called to the Palestinian foreign ministry for a rebuke.

Saeb Erakat, senior negotiator for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, told Crikey Australia’s position was “shameful” and promised the Arab League would take “concrete action” at economic, political and diplomatic levels. “This will simply reaffirm the will of the Israeli government to continue its colonisation and forced displacement policies in occupied East Jerusalem, which is one of the main obstacles for peace to prevail,” he said.

With more than $6 billion in exports to the Middle East in 2010, Erakat hopes international bodies such as the Arab League and Islamic Conference can exert some influence on Canberra. Meetings are set to be held later in June; on Tuesday, Australia’s charges d’affairs in Amman was called to hear Jordanian foreign ministry concerns.

Australia should decide whether it wants to be on the right or wrong side of history,” he said. “There are seven United Nations Security Council resolutions reaffirming the fact East Jerusalem is under occupation.”

Issa Amro, a Palestinian from Hebron and activist with Youth Against Settlements, says he cannot understand the determination. “We see the occupation every day in checkpoints, closed shops and children having trouble to go to school. As Palestinians suffering human rights violations we see this decision as helping the oppressor and continuing the occupation,” he said.

He says he expected more from a country supposedly promoting democracy and human rights. “As Palestinians we love Australian people, and it won’t change the image of the Australians we know are working for peace.”

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  • 1
    gerry meehan
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    abbotts as bad as gillard when it comes to sucking up to the right wing israel lobby.

    funny how left wingers who are usually feral about humanitarian issues go all scared and quiet when you mention aparteid in palestine.

    wheres Bob Carr when you need him?

  • 2
    MarilynJS
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    It makes me sick that the world ignores the Palestinians and makes them pay for the crimes of Europe against Jews.

    The settlers are invading terrorists and with the brutality of this country towards refugees one wonders why we cheer for Israeli criminal regimes.

  • 3
    bushby jane
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Australian Jews must be confused however (along with the rest of us), with this decision vs the Racial Discrimination Act changes mooted by this govt.

  • 4
    Scott
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I think the PLO are on the wrong side of history. They had their chance for an independent state in 2000 and muffed it.

  • 5
    Dianne Longson
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    This makes me so angry. The Palistinian occupation has been recognised at an international level. Nothing Abbot and his lot can say will change that simple fact, although it figures that Abbott thinks he knows more about it than anyone else. He is just so arrogant. The acts of Israelis towards Palestinians are disgraceful and considering their experience of the holocaust they should know better. And before anyone ridicules what I just said, I have seen it with my own eyes. Before I went to Israel and Palestine, and on the basis of what I had read in the media and heard from other sources, I was strongly pro-Israel on this question. While there, I was horrified by Israeli actions and regretful that I had supported a country whose government and people perpetrate such inhumanity against others.

  • 6
    MarilynJS
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Trouble is Dianne, most of the jews in Israel have no personal experience of the holocaust at all but then use the holocaust as an excuse to steal Palestine.

  • 7
    Liamj
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    How sad, that the West is still fooling Israel into thinking they have their back. The day the Arab dictators stop exporting oil to the west will be the day the xtians forget about Israel their unsinkable aircraft carrier, and the day Israel reaps as it has sown.

  • 8
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    As a ‘leftie’ I have become increasingly uncomfortable with Israel and I no longer vote for my local member who is very much in support of Israel. The greens have a more nuanced stance in my opinion. I also hate the way any discussion of the issue raises howls of ‘antisemitism’, it’s not. I support the right of Jewish people to live safely wherever they are, here or in Israel, but that doesn’t mean they can take land away from others to do it or impose their own form of apartheid. The attempt to create states based on a religion or ethnicity has caused harm all over the world from the wars in the Balkans to the persecution of Muslims in Cambodia. It’s an idea that has failed again and again.

  • 9
    old greybeard
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I don’t want a relationship with Israel. I grew up admiring the feats of the Jewish people, but the present lot are nothing but thieves. How can there ever be peace when the US alliance is an exceedingly dishonest broker. Why does the fact that this country’s people came from immense suffering excuse their constant bastardry? I have always supported Israel’s right to exist, but I am beginning to wonder if they deserve it.

  • 10
    old greybeard
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Dianne is right I fear. The PLO were short circuited by Israel who backed Hammas to destabilise them. There was no chance of such a state. I’ve always found it interesting that Israel has secret weapons trading with old South Africa in the apartheid days. One would have thought that the old Afrikaner and their pseudo-Nazis were Israel’s natural enemies, but money apparently was money.

  • 11
    Mosh Munken
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    My parents have a home in Jerusalem’s Old City, in the Jewish Quarter. From the roof we look across the valley to the Mount of Olives cemetery. There my great grandmother Minna, and her mother are buried. That cemetery has been in continuous use by the Jewish people — every decade and century for 3,000 years (come and read the dates on the graves if you like), during periods we had sovereignty here and the periods we were a persecuted minority. But both places — the Mount of Olives in the east, and the Jewish Quarter — were overrun by Arab armies in 1948 and held by them til 1967; the Jewish population ethnically cleansed, every last synagogue dynamited, these tombstones used as latrines and paving-stones. And now somebody has the cheek to say these areas are “occupied” and should be handed over to the very people who tried and still want to erase us and our history. To the nice lefty talkbackers above I say: talk all you want, if you expect me to budge you better come with a gun.

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