GRIEVANCE DEBATE Foreign Affairs: Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
16 September 2002
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (4.35 p.m.)—Last week saw the first anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. One of the lessons of September 11 is that military power is not enough in the modern world—security can only be achieved by a victory of humane, democratic values. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict unfortunately remains the best example of the virtues of this lesson. This conflict has been played out for over 50 years, and still we are no closer to a solution. Yet this is a problem that threatens to destabilise the Middle East and, if US foreign policy continues in its current vein, it poses a real obstacle to progressive relations between the Arab world and the West.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and subsequent events have produced up to 3.8 million Palestinian refugees to date. The latest escalation of the conflict, the Al Aqsa intifada, began with Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al Sharif. Of course, Mr Sharon has form. An Israeli official inquiry, the Kahan commission, found that as Minister for Defence he had responsibility for the massacre of more than 2,000 men, women and children that occurred in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in September 1982. Mr Sharon was advised against the visit to Haram al Sharif by both the US and the Palestinians—and many Israelis. Clinton’s envoy Dennis Ross famously told him, `I can think of a lot of bad ideas, but I can’t think of a worse one.’
The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories estimates that since the first intifada in 1997 almost 3,000 people have been killed—80 per cent of them Palestinians. Palestinian residents of the occupied territories are `protected persons’ under the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. This means that they may not be wilfully killed, tortured, taken as hostages or suffer humiliating or degrading treatment. Between the outbreak of the most recent crisis in September 2000 and 7 May 2002—the date of the UN report on the events in Jenin—there have been more than 1,500 Palestinians killed and 441 Israelis killed. In addition, an estimated 2,500 Palestinians have been permanently disabled—500 of them children.
Suicide bombings are horrific but, as the UN Secretary-General has put it, self defence is not a blank cheque, and responding to terrorism does not in any way free Israel from its obligations under international law, nor does it justify creating a human rights and humanitarian crisis in Palestine. Although all of us would argue that the Palestinian authority has an absolute obligation to curb Palestinian suicide attacks, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has noted that Israeli military retaliation for those terrorist attacks was often carried out against the Palestinian authority itself `severely weakening the authority’s capacity to take effective action against militant groups’. It is unfortunate that it was Israel which first funded Hamas, the most militant of all the resistance groups in Palestine, in order to destabilise the power of the PLO in the 1970s. Operation Defensive Shield, which began with an incursion into Ramallah, did nothing to advance peace and merely exacerbated Palestinian hatred of their occupiers. The Israeli Defence Force, IDF, fired on mosques, schools, farms and homes. Forty-one schools have been closed, 275 schools have been disrupted, 30 schools were shelled, causing an estimated $400,000 worth of damage, and 42 students were killed on the way home from school.
The borders between the Palestinian and Israeli zones are repeatedly closed, which impinges on business and on the health and quality of life of Palestinians. There are over 230 fixed military checkpoints and many hundreds of mobile checkpoints. Living conditions inside the Palestinian autonomous zone are at crisis point. The Israeli per capita income is $US35,000 compared to a West Bank per capita income of $3,000 and in Gaza just $2,400. Unemployment in Gaza is 50 per cent, while in the West Bank it is 35 per cent. There are 1½ million Palestinians living below the poverty line on less than $US2.10 per day. The Palestinian authority’s income has dropped by more than 70 per cent. The closures result in disharmony and poor economic outcomes for both Israelis and Palestinians. There is nothing short of a humanitarian and health crisis in the occupied territories.
While many Israelis continue to demonise all Palestinians as terrorists, Palestinians experience Israelis as occupiers and employers of cheap labour, interrogators and jailers. Meanwhile, the government of Israel continues to allow fundamentalists to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Even the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz can see the madness in this. Illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza now total 200,000 and are a leading target for Palestinian terrorists—although, as we have seen, the shocking and reprehensible killing of Israeli civilians occurs outside the occupied territories as well.
There were also extreme restrictions on movement during Operation Defensive Shield. It was not only Palestinians whose movement was restricted during Operation Defensive Shield; in many circumstances humanitarian workers were restricted and medical ambulances were attacked. People were not even able to bury their dead according to their religious law. The culmination of these horrendous policies was the incursion into Jenin in April of this year. These events have still to be sufficiently explained. The Israeli government, regrettably, did not allow the UN fact finding team to visit Jenin, despite the best efforts of the UN Secretary-General to clarify the terms of reference. The world is absolutely correct in demanding UN weapon inspectors be allowed into Iraq. It is a pity the US was not as vocal on the Jenin issue.
A number of witnesses stated the IDF warnings about imminent house destructions were not sufficient. It is clear that there was very widespread destruction of Palestinian property. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, mounted a considerable operation to deliver food and medical supplies to people who had fled to the Jenin hospital, but they were not allowed to enter the camp. Before the incursion, the head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, PRCS, emergency medical service in Jenin, while travelling in a clearly marked ambulance, was killed by a shell fired from an Israeli tank. During the incursion things went from bad to worse for medical staff, as workers and ambulances were fired upon. The final UN report, released on 30 July, concluded that the humanitarian crisis was exacerbated by the fact that, on the first day of the offensive, electricity in both the city and the camp were cut by the IDF. It was not restored for some three weeks. Despite the IDF’s claims, the hospital was directly affected by this. Wounded civilians waited days for treatment and in some cases died during this wait.
This kind of response holds no real solution. Armed attacks that aim to curb unseen terrorists result in the loss of innocent lives and the potential destruction of the matrices that knit societies together. Coupled with this unjust situation, the Palestinian authority is now charged with rebuilding the shattered Palestinian economy, with significantly less help than that provided to Israel. Israel already receives about $3 billion in US assistance annually. On 4 September, President Bush requested another $200 million for Israel. Fifty million dollars was requested for Palestine, for humanitarian refugee and reconstruction assistance, but none of that is permitted to go to the Palestinian authority. Israel receives about 80 per cent of the total US and Near East aid budget. In addition, there are various indirect ways in which aid is given, in the form of defence weaponry and vehicles. The IDF routinely uses tanks, Apache helicopter gunships and F16 fighter jets against a population that has no military whatsoever and none of the protective institutions of a modern state.
It is up to all of us to try to see both sides of this conflict and to apply pressure where we can to try to redress the repressive policies of the Israeli government and its military and to oppose the extremists of the Palestinian side who engage in terrorism. Security can only be achieved through negotiation. Israel must be allowed to exist within secure borders and an independent Palestinian state must be established. Terrorism, whether by individuals or states, must be opposed in a consistent manner by all those who support democratic humane values. In the battle for hearts and minds, there is no room for ambiguity when it comes to respect for human rights. If the world is to truly advance, all UN resolutions, including resolution 242, calling for the withdrawal from the occupied territories, passed on 22 November 1967—almost 35 years ago—must be implemented in order for all citizens to believe that they have a stake in the peaceful resolution of international conflict. Anything less risks alienating further the dispossessed and playing into the hands of fundamentalists, whether Islamic, Jewish or Christian, who in the modern world threaten the security of us all.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.