Go back

Australia's Position on Palestine – incongruence and internal division

Published 13 Jul 2018

On May 14, Palestinian protestors clashed with Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border, resulting in the death of over 60 Palestinians and over 1000 injured. The protest marked the end of a six-week Palestinian campaign which organisers have called the “March of Return”, with the U.S. embassy move being one of its catalysts.

When the United Nations Human Rights Council voted on a resolution to investigate the Israeli use of force which, since March 30, has left over 100 Palestinians dead and 12, 000 injured, Australia was one of two countries to oppose it. The other was the United States. Australian officials repeated U.S. and Israeli accusations of the resolution’s bias in its chastising of Israel without recognising the role played by Hamas, who have admitted that their own agents were counted among the dead, in inciting the protests. Despite this, the concerns raised by UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Israel’s “wholly disproportionate response” should not be so readily dismissed.

As Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary of statehood, a long history of violence and oppression is a familiar tale for the rest of the world. The most poignant example of which is the everyday violence that occurs in the occupied territories. Tensions between the Israeli and Palestinians frequently arise, resulting in frequent bloodshed. Without diminishing instances of Palestinian-fuelled violence, Israel’s power and military capacity via support from the US government provides it with an overwhelming advantage which is reflected in the disproportionate distribution of casualties on the Palestinian side.

This pattern of subjugation of the Palestinian peoples and their human rights has been largely dismissed by Australia on the international stage. Such opposition demonstrates an incongruity between Australia’s supposed support for human rights and its foreign policy actions.

Sadly, the opposition to the May UNHRC resolution is not the first time Australia has failed to support human rights resolutions in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last year, Prime Minister Turnbull condemned the UN resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling”.

Australia’s policy position in the conflict has historically been a bipartisan support for Israeli interests, and leaders on both sides have staunchly supported a two-state solution – a position favoured by much of the world. However, alongside the U.S., Australia is among a minority of countries that fail to recognise Palestinian statehood. This appears incongruous with Australia’s policy platform. How can we supposedly support a two-state solution by recognising the sovereignty of only one of the two states?

Conversely, Labor may be headed in the other direction. Despite their traditional stance, and the continuation of the status quo under the Gillard government, the 2015 National Labor Conference offers some hope. The resolution that came out of the conference indicated that the next Labor government would consider officially recognising the Palestinian state. Moreover, recent statements from former prominent Labor members Gareth Evans, Bob Carr and Kevin Rudd indicate that the Labor policy for the Arab-Israeli conflict will be a hot topic in July. Bill Shorten, however, is a staunch supporter of Israel, and is unlikely to take kindly to any challenge posed to the status quo.

Fidelity to humanitarian principles, however, need not be ideologically bound. Australia is a current signatory to many international human rights conventions and agreements, signed and ratified by governments of both political affiliations. Only last year, the government campaigned hard to earn its current position on the UNHRC. Leading human rights groups have chastised the government for defying the obligations it took on when joining the Council, with President Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch calling the opposition to these crucial resolutions as “shameful”.

Australia recently contributed over $30 million in Aid to both the Palestinian territories, as well as refugees. The $10 million devoted to the Palestinian Authority as well as the diplomatic envoys stationed in Ramallah are indicative of some level of faith that the government retains in the future of Palestine. However this may be changing with the government’s recent decision to end direct funding to the Palestinian Authority, following the U.S. passage of the Taylor Force Act which discontinued aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Without recognising the East Jerusalem territories for Palestine, it would be similarly dangerous for Australia to follow America’s inflammatory lead by moving the embassy to West Jerusalem. Bishop has subsequently confirmed that the embassy would remain in Tel Aviv, however the passage of a motion supporting the embassy move at the Liberal Party’s most recent Federal Council suggests party may move in a totally divergent direction to Labor going forward.

Far from being irrelevant, Australia’s actions in the conflict receive considerable attention. When Australia voted against the UNHRC resolution, the world noticed. Australia’s role on the Council elevates its human rights profile, and shines a spotlight on its values, actions, and policy position in the conflict. By refusing to recognise Palestine, or acknowledge the violence perpetrated by the Israelis whilst continually chastising Hamas, Australia ultimately acts as another impediment denying justice for Palestinians.


Diana Lambert

AIIA NSW Intern Semester 1, 2018