By George Browning
To understand Australia’s isolated position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is necessary to understand the weaponised nature of Israel’s settlements
Last December, in an urgent bid to save the two-state solution, the UN Security Council passed a resolution declaring that Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories were a “flagrant violation of international law” and calling upon Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities.”
The vote was passed unanimously with the United States (which Israel counts on to veto such resolutions) abstaining to signal its frustration over over Israeli intransigence.
Apart from Israel, the only country to oppose the resolution was Australia. Speaking at Sydney’s Central Synagogue, Malcolm Turnbull denounced it as “deeply unsettling to our community” and declared that “Australia supports a two-state solution just as the government of Israel does.”
To understand how isolated Australia’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict has become, it is necessary to understand the exact nature of Israel’s settlement enterprise.
Israel’s settlements are a weapon, the purpose of which is to preclude the possibility of a two-state solution by destroying the territorial basis of Palestinian statehood.
Like all modern weapons, they are precisely targeted. The settlement of Elon Moreh was built to the east of Nablus with the intention, according to the authors Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, of stabbing a “knife into the heart of Palestinianism”. The building of Ma’ale Adumim separated the northern and southern halves of the West Bank. To separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem, Har Homa (mountain wall) was built on a densely wooded hilltop that the Palestinians had cultivated for centuries on the edge of the Judaean Desert.
Other settlements are built on the outskirts of Palestinian towns to block their development. The settlements in Hebron were built in its commercial centre. Today the few remaining Palestinian families in the area are banned from using the city’s main streets, while their children brave the violence of Israeli soldiers and settlers as they navigate backstreets and alleyways on their way to school.
To connect the settlers to Israel, the government has built a web of Israeli-only “bypass roads” throughout the West Bank. To supply them with water, it diverts water from Palestinian communities. According to Amnesty International, the daily allocation for Jewish settlers in the West Bank is 300 litres. Palestinians are forced to survive on as little as 20 litres a day.
Thus every act of civil engineering associated with the settlements constitutes an act of war: new houses cause overcrowding, laying down water pipes causes water shortages, new roads separate people from their farms, jobs and schools. Even the settlers’ sewage is weaponised. According to the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, 5.5m cubic metres of untreated settlement wastewater is dumped into Palestinian valleys and streams each year.
“I think it’s an issue but I don’t think it’s the issue,” replied prime minister Netanyahu last week when questioned on the settlements by MSNBC’s Greta van Susteren, “because the core of this conflict between us and the Palestinians is not this or that settlement or this or that community. It’s the persistent and enduring Palestinian refusal to recognise a Jewish state in any boundary.”
The refrain is a familiar one. For Israel’s apologists the core of the conflict has never been its settlements but a moving feast of Palestinian obligations that has been constantly evolving over the past 50 years. For 20 years they insisted that peace was impossible until the Palestinians unconditionally recognised Israel’s right to exist. Since the PLO’s recognition of this right in 1988, they have cited Palestinian violence, Palestinian incitement, Palestinian text books, Arafat, Hamas and even the war in Syria as excuses for putting off a peace agreement.
In 2007, they decided that recognition is not enough and that there can be no peace until the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state, thereby waiving the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and undercutting the struggle of Palestinians in Israel for equality.
In the meantime, Israel’s settler population has expanded to over half a million. In his interview with van Susteren, Netanyahu stated that (apart from Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state) peace also requires “that Israel retain security control of the area west of the Jordan River.” In other words, Israel’s occupation must continue forever.
According to the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid is defined as inhuman acts “committed in the context of an institutional regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
This year marks the 50th year of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Two years ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on occupied Palestine, Richard Falk, said it had the legally unacceptable characteristics of “colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”
Apartheid is no longer a worst-case scenario of what might happen but the on-the-ground reality in Palestine today.
Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel cancelled her meeting with Netanyahu following his legalisation of 54 settlement outposts containing 4,000 housing units built on private Palestinian land.
It is against this backdrop that Netanyahu has become the first serving Israeli prime minister to visit Australia.
While the rest of the world is demanding that Israel cease settlement construction (even President Trump has asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements”) The Turnbull government has clearly signalled which side it is on – Australia stands alone in refusing even to acknowledge their illegality.
• This article was amended on 1 March 2017. An earlier version said a visit by Benjamin Netanyahu to New Zealand had been cancelled after it co-sponsored a UN resolution last December. New Zealand was not on Netanyahu’s itinerary.