Julie Bishop

Julie Bishop’s department has closely monitored the deaths of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli forces during protests in Gaza in the last month, even predicting causalities before they occurred, while the government has, until today, maintained a public silence on the escalating violence.

Diplomatic cables, obtained by Crikey under freedom of information laws, reveal that the Tel Aviv embassy briefed Canberra last month about the killing of dozens of Palestinian protesters at the Israel-Gaza border while anticipating further causalities.

The correspondence released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows that diplomats warned that more deaths were likely during upcoming demonstrations on April 6 after “Israeli countermeasures” had previously killed 20 Palestinian protesters on March 30.

Since March 30, some 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli Defence Force personnel who’ve used live ammunition against the “March of Return” demonstrations, which have demanded the right of return for refugees displaced during the establishment of Israel.

During the bloodiest round of protests yet on Monday, 58 Palestinian were killed and another 770 were injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

It prompted a press release from Julie Bishop’s office describing deep regret and sadness over the “loss of life” and called on Israel to be proportionate in its response.

But the statement comes six weeks into the border conflict, and is weak in contrast with Israeli allies such as Egypt who have condemned Israel for deadly use of force.

“Protests will be concentrated in several locations along the Gaza-Israel border with smaller and sporadic demonstrations also expected to take place in Jerusalem and the West Bank,” said the diplomatic briefing, which was sent hours before Israeli Defence Force personnel shot dead 10 Palestinians and injured at least 1000 others during demonstrations on April 6. “With large numbers expected along the Gaza-Israel border tomorrow, further escalation and casualties can be expected.”

The briefing also noted that various Israeli allies other than Australia had publicly voiced their concern about the violence. UK, France and Germany had expressed “serious concern and called for the proportionate use of force and respect for the right to protest,” the correspondence said, while the US and Canada had “expressed sadness at the violence and urged parties to lower tension and show restraint.”

Greens Leader Dr Richard Di Natale last month called on the government to “break its silence” on the issue, blasting Israel’s actions as “clearly disproportionate and very likely illegal”.

Other sections of the briefing titled “The first casualty — the battle for the narrative” and “Comment” were redacted before the document’s release to Crikey on the grounds their release would harm agency operations or divulge personal information.

When asked by Crikey why it had not issued any public statements on the situation in Gaza in April, DFAT indicated that it had privately raised the issue with the main parities involved.

“Australian officials have raised concerns about the situation on the Gaza perimeter directly with representatives of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” a DFAT spokesperson said.

Rights groups including Human Rights Watch have condemned Israel’s actions, while the UN Secretary General and the European Union have called for an independent investigation into the deaths.

Tel Aviv says it has only fired on protesters who’ve attempted to damage or breach the border fence dividing the territories and those killed include known Hamas operatives. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, responding to the controversy last month, dismissed calls for an inquiry into the killings, insisting the soldiers involved “did what had to be done” and “deserve a commendation”.

Peter Fray

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