Senator Lee Rhiannon – speech regarding Australia’s military trade with Israel

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
December 3, 2013

Are we and our government turning a blind eye to a state acting in contravention of international law, according to the United Nations, with impunity?…Together with increasing numbers of civil society organisations, it is time more of us raised our voices in support of the growing call for peace and justice in Palestine . A small but significant step towards peace and justice for Palestine is for Australia to cease military cooperation and trade with Israel.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:37): Breaking the Silence is an organisation of former Israeli soldiers, courageous men and women, who speak openly about their duties in the Israeli Defence Forces. Many of the testimonies of these former soldiers provide further evidence of why Australia should not engage in military trade or any form of military cooperation with Israel. Our Harsh Logic, one of the books produced by Breaking the Silence, is a compilation of testimonies from Israeli soldiers, disturbing events they witnessed and performed on duty. One story sticks out as particularly illustrative of the ongoing injustices perpetrated against the people of Palestine.

A first sergeant in the Lavi Battalion in 2003 describes his experience:

… my deputy company commander was a terrorist. He was a settler, an Arab-hater, and they used to scare the Arabs. There was one arrest mission where I was with him and he slapped some Palestinian right in front of his children … Instead of taking the guy out, I dunno, so at least they wouldn’t witness it, because at that moment you produced another—there were three kids there?—three brand new terrorists.

The interviewer then asks, ‘Is that what you thought at the time?’ and the sergeant responds:

No, I was in the swing of things. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t have so much time to think about it.

‘In the swing of things’—when I read those words I thought of Australia’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Are we and our government turning a blind eye to a state acting in contravention of international law, according to the United Nations, with impunity? Earlier this year I spoke in this Senate about the destruction of aid and development projects, some funded by the Australian public. I have visited Palestinian villages where aid projects are being destroyed. The Israeli Defence Forces often cause the destruction.

In October this year Israeli bulldozers backed by military jeeps entered a Palestinian village of Makhool, north of the Jordan Valley. They evacuated the residents before destroying the village. All the very real and very pressing problems here at home do not make those abroad any less so. In fact, it makes it more important that we take a step back and think about the plight of our fellow global citizens.

In 2010 shortly after the Israeli offensive on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead, the Greens passed a resolution calling on the Australian government to halt military cooperation and military trade with the Israeli government. The situation in the Palestinian occupied territories, driven by the aggressive policies of the Israeli government, has further deteriorated since then. During the same period, Australia’s military cooperation and trade with the Israeli government has strengthened. When I think of what our military cooperation with Israel is perpetrating, I reflect on the comments of the young Israeli who was an IDF sergeant in the Lavi Battalion in 2003 and other members of Breaking the Silence I met in January this year. I thank them for the insights they gave me into the crimes the IDF is committing against Palestinians.

There is a strongly growing case for the Australian government to adopt the Greens policy of no military cooperation and trade with Israel. This policy change is needed to ensure that Australia no longer supports crimes committed by the Israeli government. Two common objections are often voiced against the call to end military cooperation with Israel. It is stated that such a position is anti-Semitic and arbitrarily targets Israel. These assertions are wrong and are a deliberate distraction. Calling for an end to military trade and cooperation is not anti-Semitic. It is not based on race, ethnicity or religion; it is a stand against lawlessness and militarism, regardless of these other factors. The Greens are against military cooperation and trade with any government acting illegally and has spoken up against human rights abuses in West Papua, Tibet, Sri Lanka and other countries.

Jake Lynch, Director of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, has pointed out that Israel is the only country which is guilty of the following four major transgressions. The first transgression is that it is illegally occupying foreign territory. The evidence for this is UN Security Council resolution 242 which calls on Israel to reinstate the 1967 borders. This violation is now in its 46th year. The second transgression is that Israel is the subject of well-founded allegations of war crimes, most recently the 2009 UN Goldstone Report into Operation Cast Lead. A third transgression is that it is a nuclear armed state yet has refused to admit this or join the nonproliferation treaty. This is surely one of the biggest obstacles to a peaceful and stable Middle East. The fourth transgression is that it is the subject of well founded allegations of apartheid crimes, violating the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, identified a number of examples of apartheid actions the Israeli government subject Palestinians to. Apartheid is an official government policy of racial segregation involving political, legal and economic discrimination. The 2004 B’Tselem report, The forbidden road regime in the West Bank—an apartheid practice, found that Israel restricts Palestinian travel on 41 roads and sections of roads through the West Bank totalling more than 700 kilometres of roadway. In the West Bank Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law, not domestic, and this provides very few protections for minors. Another B’Tselem investigation found a 100 per cent conviction rate for minors charged with stone throwing, with 93 per cent serving jail time. Among those jailed were 19 children under the age of 14. If they had been tried under domestic Israeli law these Palestinian minors could not have been held in detention. Different laws for different groups of people living in the same locality is apartheid.

The one constant in these injustices is the Israeli military and the associated arms trade. In tandem with an increasing conflict is an increase in the size and the profits of the Israeli weapons sector. Last year, Israel became the fourth largest arms dealer in the world, with the sector almost quadrupling in the past decade. Weapons systems now make up one-fifth of its export market, meaning Israel now makes more money through arms trading per capita than the United States. The influence of this industry is growing at a rapid pace and it can only mean more conflict and suffering for the people of Israel and Palestine.

Neve Gordon, a politics professor at the Ben-Gurion University, argues that this is not some conspiracy theory. To demonstrate this you only need to look at the public marketing by the Israeli arms industry. Professor Gordon states:

It’s all in there. What they are selling is Israel’s “experience” and expertise gained from the occupation and its conflicts with its neighbours

Comments by the former Israeli defence minister turned industry minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, back up this analysis. He argues that Israel’s successful arms trade is due to other military organisations wanting proven results. In his own words he states, ‘People like to buy things that have been tested.’

Dr Jeff Halper, the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, also argues that the economic incentives of the arms trade will make Israel increasingly reluctant to return the occupied territories to Palestine in any peace agreement. Dr Halper states:

The Occupied Territories are crucial as a laboratory not just in terms of Israel’s internal security but because they have allowed Israel to become pivotal to the global homeland security industry. Other states need Israel’s expertise … in turn … states exert no real pressure on Israel to give up the Occupied Territories because of their mutually reinforcing interests.

Of course, any trade needs buyers and here we find Australia’s complicity. Elbit Systems is just one of the Israeli companies Australia deals with. Being the largest Israeli arms company by sales, Elbit is deeply involved in Israeli military activity. One of Elbit’s more obvious crimes is its involvement in the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier, also called the ‘apartheid wall’. In 2004 this giant barrier was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice. Despite this, Australia continues to sign deals with Elbit Systems, a company complicit in international crimes.

In 2008 the Australian Department of Defence signed a contract for Elbit to supply mini robotic aerial vehicles. In 2010 the department purchased a $350 million battle group management system from Elbit. In August, the Australian Federal Police awarded Elbit the contract for part of its $145 million core operational system upgrade, on top of the $35 million worth of contracts already signed. A search of the AusTender website reveals Elbit gained an additional $38 million in government contracts in 2013 alone. This excludes classified contracts.

Ceasing military cooperation and trade with Israel is not a radical policy. Cutting military ties has proved to be an effective tactic to raise awareness and put pressure on the Israeli government to comply with international law. In March 2010, the National Council of the Australian Greens passed the following resolution:

Given the continuing disregard by Israel of calls to halt settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, the Australian Greens:

Call upon the Australian government to halt military cooperation and military trade with Israel;

Reiterate our call for the immediate freezing of all Israeli settlement activity in the Palestinian Occupied Territories;

Call for the removal of existing Israeli settlers and Israeli security and military forces from the Palestinian territories;

Continue to condemn the use of violence in the Middle East in all its forms;

Reject violence and its promotion, particularly against civilians, whether perpetrated by a state organisation or individuals;

Support the promotion of a culture of justice, dialogue and peace between the peoples of Palestine and Israel.

A growing number of organisations and companies have ceased engaging with Elbit Systems and, in some cases, have divested their funds in response to Elbit’s ongoing ethical violations. In 2009 Norway’s Minister of Finance, Kristin Halvorsen, announced that the Norwegian state pension fund had sold its shares in Elbit, worth $5.4 million. The pension fund’s council on ethics assessed that investments in Elbit constituted an unacceptable risk of contributing to serious violations of fundamental ethical norms because of the company’s involvement in the construction of Israel’s wall surrounding much of the occupied West Bank. Minister Halvorsen said at the time:

We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law.

In 2010 similar action was taken by the Danske Bank, the PKA pension fund, the Dutch ABP pension fund and Deutsche Bank, and in 2011 by Sweden’s state pension fund. In 2012 the New Zealand Superannuation Fund sold its Elbit shares.

Returning to the brave former Israeli soldiers who have told the world what is happening in Palestine, I would like to reflect on comments by one of Breaking the Silence’s founders, Yehuda Shaul. Mr Shaul said:

… every soldier who has served in the Occupied Territories has these images of breaking into a house in the middle of the night; little children are crying; you wake up the family. That is constant. You have patrols that bump into random houses and disrupt the life of people—that is the idea. It is what we call in the military “to create the feeling of being chased”. This is what our society is made of, you cannot ignore it, you cannot just run away from it—this is who we are … this is something we should face.’

I stood in the streets of Hebron with other members of Breaking the Silence who told me similar stories about how they had raided houses in the early hours of the morning and perpetrated similar acts. We need to face up to the fact that by continuing to trade arms with Israel Australia is not only ignoring the injustices being perpetrated but also indirectly aiding them.

Every dollar we pay to Elbit is another dollar it uses to develop weapons and security systems that are being used to illegally remove Palestinians from their land and destroy their homes. The time for the usual diplomacy, based on negotiations in good faith, has passed. US Secretary of State John Kerry, frustrated with the current negotiations, said in an interview on 7 November this year with Udi Segal of Israeli Channel 2 and Maher Shalabi of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation:

Let me ask you something: How, if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace and a Palestine that is a whole, Palestinian that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine? It sends a message that somehow perhaps you’re not really serious.

US Secretary of State Kerry is right. The Israeli government cannot be serious about peace when it uses war as a testing ground for its arms exports. And Australia cannot be serious about peace when we continue to buy those arms, and cooperate with the aggressor.

The work of a courageous Australian woman in Gaza, Dr Jean Calder, is a stark reminder of why Australian policy towards Israel and Palestine needs to change. During December 2008 and January 2009, the Israeli government launched Operation Cast Lead on Gaza. Over 100 schools were partially or completely destroyed in these attacks. With over half the population in Gaza under the age of 18, this destruction increased suffering and hardship and denied education to many of these young Gazans. Unsurprisingly, a recent investigation by UNICEF found that 70 per cent of children report constant nightmares and trembling, with depression, social isolation and aggression being endemic. When I was in Gaza in January this year many parents told me how their children still suffer with this fear.

Dr Calder is now in her 18th year in this war-torn region. She runs a rehabilitation centre for children with disabilities, a task made both more necessary and more difficult by the Israeli government. Describing her experience in January 2013 she said:

Everything has been restricted by the occupation and now by the siege on Gaza. You are dealing with it all the time, you are seeing people’s lives basically being destroyed. I think it is very difficult for people outside to really understand what is happening. Gazans are tired, they have been through so much—people cannot leave, students lose scholarships. People die a little inside every time.

Disturbingly, the Abbott government recently gave tacit approval in the UN for Israel to continue its illegal occupation and expand its settlements when 158 countries voted to support the UN call for Israel to stop ‘all settlement activities in all the occupied territories’. Despite our obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Australia was not one of these 158 nations. A Roy Morgan poll of November 2011 showed that 64 per cent of Australians polled opposed the building of settlements on occupied Palestinian territories. Despite this level of concern, the Abbott government refused to represent these views and condemn the Israeli government’s aggression and lawlessness.

Late last year, Australia abstained from a UN General Assembly vote to grant the Palestinian Authority non-member state status. The vote was carried by 138 votes to nine, with fierce opposition from the US and Israel. Forty-one countries, including Australia, abstained. The resolution lifted the Palestinian Authority’s UN observer status from ‘entity’ to ’non-member state’. While Australia failed to vote yes, our stance in abstaining was still widely recognised as progress because Australia broke from the Israel-US voting bloc. The UN General Assembly has proclaimed 2014 the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. This should stand as a call to action for Australia and our commitment to human rights, justice and international law.

Together with increasing numbers of civil society organisations, it is time more of us raised our voices in support of the growing call for peace and justice in Palestine. A small but significant step towards peace and justice for Palestine is for Australia to cease military cooperation and trade with Israel.

Link to parliamentary Hansard