My column in the Guardian:
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird recently visited Israel and Palestine, the first for a sitting leader of the Australian state. After travelling to the occupied West Bank and seeing the Aida refugee camp, Baird wrote on Facebook that the situation was “heartbreaking.” He continued:
“I don’t know where the cycle of thousands of years of violence ends. But I do know that all kids should be able to dream. That they should have hope of a better future.”
Baird’s motherhood statements, pushing the human angle of the conflict, diluted the politics. He didn’t mention the Israeli occupation, its nearly 50-year existence and effects on Palestinian children. Human Rights Watch recently stated that, “Israeli security forces are abusing Palestinian children detained in the West Bank. The number of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces has more than doubled since October 2015.” Amnesty issued a report this month telling Israel to protect human rights defenders and activists from Israeli military and settler violence.
Baird also briefly went to Bethlehem and met its first female mayor. He wrote that Vera Baboun was a teacher and “fierce advocate for her community as she seeks to solve some very complex problems.”
Channel 9 News and Sky News covered Baird’s time in the West Bank, at least the word “occupation” was briefly uttered by one report, yet they both grossly exaggerated the journey into a supposedly brutal war zone. It’s nothing of the sort. I’m based in East Jerusalem and safely travel to the West Bank without fear of attack.
Apart from scant time in the West Bank, Baird’s trip was principally about deepening NSW’s economic, medical cannabis and policing ties to Israel. Co-ordinated by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Baird was effusive in his praise for Israel. He told the Australian Jewish News that Israel is an “incredible nation” that is “leading the world in so many ways”. He wanted his trip to represent a “critical turning point” in relations between NSW and Israel, “going from being … allies and friends to significant collaborators and economic partners.”
Baird inked a deal with Israeli arms manufacturer, Elbit Services, to provide a flight simulator to help the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service. Elbit is subject to a worldwide campaign against its involvement in Israel’s military and building of the separation wall through Palestinian territory.
The politics around Israel/Palestine are changing in Australia, however, and Baird’s visit won’t change this reality. Outgoing Labor MP Melissa Parke – who worked as a UN lawyer in Gaza – tabled a petition in parliament urging Australia to back the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The Greens’ Lee Rhiannon is an outspoken opponent of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Although many politicians and journalists from most media outlets routinely take free pro-Israel lobby trips to Israel with a few minutes in the West Bank, and despite growing opposition in the NSW Labor party, the Australian public are becoming less tolerant of the Israeli occupation and regular attacks against Gaza.
Roy Morgan polling from 2011 showed that a majority of Australians opposed expanding Israeli colonies in the West Bank, and in 2014 a majority also thought that Australia should vote yes for Palestinian recognition as an independent member state at the UN. These trends have had no effect on Australia partneringwith Israelis weapon’s manufacturers over the last decade; Canberra is keen to purchase battle-tested armaments.
The boundaries of acceptable political debate in Australia are narrow. Think of so-called Labor dissidents pushing for the party to recognise Palestine at some point in the indeterminate future when such a policy is irrelevant to facts on the ground after nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
The Palestinian Authority, the likely head of this “state”, is an authoritarian and corrupt body backed by the west, including Australia. What’s brave calling for them to rule over Palestinians? On the ground in Palestine, the idea of “recognising” Palestine elicits confusion. Many Palestinians tell me they crave global support and recognition but after years of empty gestures and UN resolutions their scepticism is warranted. Palestinian politicians haven’t faced an election in over 10 years.
I know that some activists in Australia celebrated Mike Baird’s brief trip to Palestine as a sign that political leaders have to at least show interest in the Palestinians in 2016. Perhaps. But until journalists and politicians talk more honesty about Israel’s stranglehold on the Palestinian territories, public opinion will continue to turn away from the Jewish state.