Hezbollah’s dogged resistance to Israeli assault, and its continued ability to fire rockets
deep into Israeli territory, seem to be winning it added respect in the
Arab world. But it’s not cutting any ice with John Howard.

Faced yesterday with the possibility that his own Muslim Community Reference Group might call
for a change to the designation of Hezbollah’s military wing as a
“terrorist organisation”, the prime minister was blunt: “No chance,
full stop. No chance at all”.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock
preferred to leave open the possibility that the designation might
change with changing circumstances, but he also offered the curious
view that decisions about such matters are “not decisions which are
political”.

Evidently the government wants to maintain that who
counts as a terrorist is a matter of objective fact, to be decided by
careful, detached enquiry. But this is simply not true. We know that
from the government’s own website, where it assesses
that Hezbollah “is continuing to prepare, plan and foster the
commission of acts involving threats to human life … with the
intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”.

The
same could be said of numerous governments with which Australia
maintains friendly relations – not just Israel, but the United States,
China, Indonesia and more. Deciding that Hezbollah’s militants are
terrorists but Indonesian militants in West Papua are not may be the
correct decision, but it is not politically neutral.

The problem is that the terminology has consequences. Professor George Williams warned
yesterday that people giving money to Lebanese charities may
unwittingly fall foul of the anti-terrorism laws. “[W]hen you deal with
Hezbollah you have to exercise extreme caution,” he said: something of
an understatement.

Speech appears to be safe for the moment. The Age last week printed an opinion piece
on behalf of Hezbollah (alongside a contrasting one from Israel). But
if the Attorney-General gets his way on new book-banning rules,
newspapers might decide not to take a risk on unpopular opinions in the
future.

And if Australia ends up contributing even token troops
to a Lebanese peace-keeping force, that could be enough to bring debate
on the Middle East within the wide net of our new sedition laws.

Peter Fray

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