Some of the NSW Greens are peeling away, as leaves from a lettuce, from support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the people’s campaign launched in response to Israel’s serial violations of international law, and the quiescence of governments.

What should they do instead? Reframe the issue. Appearing to ditch principles for expediency would rob the Greens of their USP: the equivalent, in political communication, of Dutch elm disease. They have been labelled, in media and political discourse, as “extremists”. So, turn the tables: put the focus on “mainstream” debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict, here in Australia, and ask just how reasonable and representative it is.

How did BDS arise in the first place? There’s a clue in the exhaustive coverage by the Murdoch press over this past week. Of all the thousands of words shovelled over the NSW Greens, one is conspicuous by its absence: “occupation”. Israel’s ongoing, illegal occupation of Palestinian territory is the most salient single fact about the conflict. To succeed in making out BDS advocates to be “the problem” requires readers and audiences (in other words, voters) to be bamboozled into ignoring the elephant in the room.

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That’s only the start of a long list, of course: there’s the ongoing siege of Gaza, which violates the Geneva Conventions forbidding collective punishments; the building of Israel’s illegal “apartheid wall”, which bit off yet more Palestinian land, and the well-attested allegations of war crimes in “Operation Cast Lead”, the attack on Gaza in 2008-9.

Pro-Israel lobbies have predictably crowed over Judge Richard Goldstone’s conciliatory gesture in accepting that one particular incident in which civilians were killed in “Cast Lead” arose out of a mistake rather than an explicit order to target them. But the substantive elements of his report still stand, along with its key findings, that both Hamas and Israel were guilty of indiscriminate fire: “…the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons”.

Then foreign minister Stephen Smith criticised the Goldstone Report for paying “insufficient attention to Hamas’ actions prior to the conflict, especially rocket attacks”. The report itself disposed of this canard, clearly identifying a cross-border raid by Israeli commandoes as ending a six-month-old ceasefire, but Smith’s response then is typical of the Canberra line, and it has placed Australia at the extreme pro-Israeli fringe of world political opinion.

On November 30, 2010, it was one of a “hard core” of seven countries to oppose a motion at the UN General Assembly, which:

“Reaffirmed the illegality of Israeli actions intended to change the status of Jerusalem …  [and] Reaffirmed [the GA’s] commitment to the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security within recognized borders, the Assembly also stressed the need for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

The only other countries to have voted against this motion were Israel itself, the US and four Pacific micro-states whose votes have, essentially, been bought — the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. Given that President Obama, on behalf of the United States, has called for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted, and identified Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian territory as obstacles to peace, Australia arguably takes a more one-sided view of this question than any other major country.

This stance by the Australian government is also out of step with Australian public opinion. We are being very poorly represented on this question. An online survey by Research Now of 1021 Australians last year, by Griffith University researchers Eulalia Han and Halim Rane, showed: “The majority (55%) understand the Israel-Palestine conflict to be about ‘Palestinians trying to end Israel’s occupation and form their own state’.”

The UN General Assembly motion precisely reflects this view — but Australia opposed it.

Earlier, the present prime minister (then deputy PM) Julia Gillard characterised “Operation Cast Lead” as no more than Israel exercising its “right to defend itself”. But a separate opinion poll, conducted by the Roy Morgan organisation for the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, found that more Australians rejected this view, then supported it.

BDS is a non-violent campaign, launched in response to appeals from Palestinian civil society, which has seen decades of internationally sponsored “peace initiatives” fail to stem the systematic dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinian people. Opponents should say what they would do instead, to bring about the two-state solution everyone claims to support, on internationally recognised borders.

As a peace researcher, I hold no brief for the Greens, or any other political party. But prospects for peace, in general terms, depend on public figures being prepared to act on principle, and stand up to bullying. When people have a chance to understand the issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, they are more likely to agree that action is needed to oppose Israeli oppression and lawlessness.

Where governments refuse to act, the onus passes to a responsible citizenry, to continue to explain the issues, and to take our own action where appropriate, including through local councils and political parties.

*Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney — the views expressed are his own

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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