By Bassam Dally
“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Nelson Mandela declared on his release from prison.
Mandela understood the similarities between the settler-colonial enterprise in South Africa and in Israel. Having been jailed as a terrorist, he was told that he could be released only if he renounced armed struggle. He refused because he understood that no oppressed people can renounce the right to resist their oppressors.
Mandela understood that negotiating with one’s enemy was not a sign of weakness, but that first those doing the negotiating had to be enfranchised. While he supported Palestinians’ rights and opposed the occupation, he foresaw Israel’s trajectory towards ethnocracy and believed peace could ensure Israeli democracy. In 1990, when Mandela first spoke about Palestinian self-determination, the news bulletins were filled with images of Israeli soldiers beating up children and youths, having been instructed by Yitzhak Rabin to “break their bones”.
Daniel Pipes (“All-out Israeli victory vital for peace”, Inquirer, March 24-25) would have us believe Israelis opted for the Oslo peace process in 1993 because they were “frustrated with the slow-moving and passive nature of deterrence”. Some of us remember it differently: what Israel learned then was that no amount of bone-breaking and torture in jails and invasions of neighbouring states would change the way Palestinians felt about occupation and dispossession. As an exercise in blaming the victims, Pipes’s recent piece failed the test of coherence. Having promised us “fresh thinking”, he then rolled out the ideas of a Zionist leader who died nearly 80 years ago; he tells Western powers to “reject the Palestinians’ claim to Jerusalem” so that at some unspecified future point it can be “fruitfully discussed”; and he tells us the “civilised” approach to this conflict is one that rests on breaking, crushing, “deprivation, destruction and despair” for a recalcitrant enemy.
His talk of the need for “victory” attempts to distract the West from Israel’s activities in Palestine by focusing on labelling Palestinians as enemies incompatible with Western civilisation and hence undeserving of those rights and freedoms that Jewish Israelis take for granted. One hopes Australian politicians can learn enough Middle East history to know of the many crimes he seeks to obscure by saying “deterrence” was “imperfectly applied”.
So what Israeli actions are Australians being asked to support or turn a blind eye to today? Children in detention is one. According to reports well documented in this newspaper by Military Court Watch, a not-for-profit organisation run by Australian lawyer Gerard Horton and local Palestinian lawyer Salwa Duaibis, Israel imprisons on average more than 270 Palestinian children every year, 20 per cent of whom are younger than 15. The reports also document the illegal transfer of children to the territory of Israel, the occupying power, in 83 per cent of cases, the torture and psychological abuse and the 99 per cent conviction rate handed down in the military court, often after the child, without the presence of an adult or a lawyer, signs a statement admitting guilt in Hebrew — a language they cannot read.
In the past few weeks one such case has been that of Ahed Tamimi, the 16-year-old Palestinian girl detained and imprisoned for eight months for slapping a fully armed Israeli soldier trying to enter her home in the village of Nabi Saleh. Her mother, Nariman Tamimi, also was jailed for eight months for filming the encounter and posting it on Facebook.
Last year more than 50 Australian MPs signed a statement calling on our government to exert pressure on Israel to protect these vulnerable children. Are Australians being asked to support the Israeli government and its army in the continued abuse of the children of Palestine?
Another Israeli violation of law and conventions is the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank. The latest report by Israeli NGO Peace Now indicates that Israel’s settlement construction has increased by 17 per cent since the election of US President Donald Trump, with construction starting on 2783 Jewish settlers’ homes last year.
The vast majority of these new homes, 78 per cent, were in settlements that would likely have to be evacuated if a Palestinian state were established, and 8 per cent were in outposts that were not authorised by the state. Last year, Israel’s parliament approved the Judea and Samaria Settlement Regulation Law, which aims to legalise retroactively Israeli settlements in occupied territory. It is meant to “regulate” the status of about 2000 to 4000 residences in 16 settlements built on land privately owned by Palestinians.
All settlements are illegal under international law, as the fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the transfer of citizens of an occupying power to the land it occupies. But these settlements are illegal even according to Israeli law as it stands.
These facts alone make a mockery of Pipes’s attempted analogy with postwar Germany; for if Soviet, British and US citizens had settled in German territory, seizing privately owned land to build homes and extracting resources at will, how does Pipes or anyone else think sentiment towards the occupiers would have developed?
Australia respects international law and has resorted to the International Court of Justice to resolve disputes. So why should Australian leaders support the building and maintenance of these settlements? Are we being asked to exempt Israel from its obligations?
Then there is Jerusalem and the call for Australia to move its embassy. The Israeli government’s first act following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was to expand Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to include many Arab villages and towns surrounding it. At the same time, Israel built multiple Jewish-only settlements to encircle the Arab population and restricted permits to build for Arab inhabitants of the municipality.
The importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinians goes beyond the crucial cultural question of access to holy sites in the Old City. The city’s estimated 240,000 Arab inhabitants are key contributors to the Palestinian economy but are isolated from their compatriots in the West Bank and Gaza. The US decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem is provocative and has diminished Washington’s ability to broker a lasting solution to the conflict. As a respected middle power, Australia should not risk its international standing and ignore our obligations under international law by following suit. So far the government has shown that it understands this well.
Pipes and his Australian sponsors know very well that there was not a single occupation in the world that lasted forever. The experience of the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, the Indonesians in East Timor — they all show that oppression and military power will not succeed in maintaining control over a population that rightfully seeks freedom. More oppression and abuse of Palestinian rights is not a road we should endorse or follow.
Australia was one of the first to recognise Israel in 1947 but a resolution of the rest of the mandated obligations towards the people of Palestine is long overdue.
Bassam Dally is a professor at the University of Adelaide and an executive member of Australian Friends of Palestine Association.