Gaza: How did taking the side of the oppressed get so hard?

by · November 19, 2012

The Australian Greens are deeply worried about the civilian death toll in Israel and Palestine, and urge both sides of the conflict to put down their weapons and respect a ceasefire.

“The human suffering is too great and the continued recourse to violence has done nothing for peace,” Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, said.

“We support a two-state solution and urge the Government to support Palestine’s bid for a UN non-member statehood status.

“Now that we have a seat at the UN Security Council, Australia needs to step up to this role and take a more considered and independent position. Calling for ‘de-escalation’ is not enough – a ceasefire is what is needed.”

—Australian Greens media release, 16 November

The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years.

—Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, 17 November

There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.

—Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, in the Jerusalem Post, 18 November

In case you thought that Australian politics was all about interminable partisan sledging between the Right (a.k.a. Tony Abbott) and the Left (a.k.a. Julia Gillard and her Greens allies), along comes Israel’s attack on Gaza to unsettle things. Not because it has reproduced the same Right-Left divide, but because it reveals the near-unanimity of our political class in refusing to condemn Israeli aggression.

With a few honourable exceptions (such as Labor’s Doug Cameron and the Greens’ Lee Rhiannon), there has been barely a word of criticism of Operation Pillar of Defence, only abstract calls for “calm”, “de-escalation” and “ceasefire” that paint Palestinians as equally if not more to blame for the bloodshed. Yet the idea of equivalence is readily peddled even though it is light years from a reality where more Palestinians were killed in the first day of Israel’s new assault than Israeli’s were killed in the last three years of projectile fire from Gaza. Of course, there is nothing quite like the systematic military oppression of an entire population to expose the platitudes and fake equivalences spouted by a whole section of the official Left. Most disturbing has been the Greens’ position (above), leaving the large wells of sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight unrepresented in mainstream political discourse.

But if this blog post were simply about “exposing” such positions then there would be little more to say. Instead it is more useful to try to understand the politics that drive the situation in the Middle East, to get what is at stake, and to understand what kind of Left response is actually needed. Most importantly it goes to how central it will be to break more Greens and ALP politicians from the government’s line so as to maximise the impact ordinary Australians can have on the horror currently unfolding in Gaza. 

A region transformed

Israel has been the militarily dominant power in the Middle East for over four decades. It has only been able to maintain this pre-eminence by ensuring not only that it had powerful sponsors —in particular the United States since the early 1970s — but also that the international balance of power favoured its continued authority, regionally and domestically.

As Antony Loewenstein and others have pointed out, it is not coincidental that the current attack comes just after the US presidential election and in the lead-up to Israeli elections where Netanyahu hopes to regain power in coalition with ultra-Right Zionists. This parallels the context for Operation Cast Lead, in which over 1400 Palestinians (mostly civilians) were slaughtered in Gaza in 2008-9. Cast Lead and its fallout provoked an unprecedented international movement for Palestinian rights, including an intensification of the BDS campaign and two Flotillas attempting to break through the Israeli blockade on aid to Gaza. The old consensus — that the “international community” would facilitate a “two-state solution” for the Palestinians — was exposed as a cruel joke in the eyes of millions.

Muslim Brotherhood members protest against assault on Gaza

But then something even more significant happened: The 2011 revolutions in the Arab world, especially the revolt in Egypt, destabilised the arc of pro-Western dictatorships that had provided a political buffer for Israel against the increasing hostility of ordinary Arabs. While Arab rulers have long made occasional (in some cases regular) denunciations of Israel, in reality most of them maintained a stance of co-existence, and of malign neglect of the Palestinians. So, for example, Egypt under Mubarak maintained not just a formal peace agreement with Israel but also policed the Sinai border of the Gaza strip. That border has become increasingly porous after the revolution (at times left open to both supplies and arms), and the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary and Presidential elections reflects a significant shift away from absolute military control of foreign policy. This explains President Morsi’s major PR effort around trying to mediate a ceasefire agreement, as he feels both the pressure of Egypt’s ties to Israel and the US on one side, and the anti-Zionist anger of a radicalised popular base on the other.

With the regional instability caused by the Arab uprisings, the ability of Israel to depend on support from its Western backers has also been weakened. Netanyahu’s hopes of launching a US-sanctioned strike on Iran ran into repeated resistance from a Washington worried about worsening MENA instability. The US had already joined Britain and France in military action to depose Gaddafi and head off a more radical outcome from below in Libya, and in recent weeks there was a flurry of Western posturing for intervention in Syria to help topple Bashar al-Assad.

If it couldn’t immediately resolve the Iranian problem, the Israeli leadership is at least able to force these “pro-democracy” Western powers into defending the mass murder of Palestinian civilians to help it deal with its Gaza problem — and Barack Obama (“There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders”) and Julia Gillard (“The government condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip and calls on Hamas to cease these immediately”) have quickly obliged by playing their assigned parts. While Israel may hold the whip hand militarily, its motives for lashing out like this are founded in a level of political weakness it has not had to endure for decades. It is telling that the assassination of leading Hamas figure Ahmed Jabari was actually of what liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz called Israel’s “subcontractor in Gaza”. That is, his “crime” was not that he was organising violence against Israel but that he had not been a reliable enough partner in enforcing a ceasefire on his own people.

In a sense, Israel is trying to get back ahead of the game in a region where it can no longer call the shots in the same way as it used to. The sheer one-sidedness of what Netanyahu is trying to do may strike many as a massive public relations disaster, but in fact politics is not just about how things look but where the balance of forces lies. Put simply, politics is about power, and even if they look bad, Israel’s actions will only become a political disaster if ordinary people can consciously and effectively rise to oppose them.

Politics there and here

For some on the Left, this conflict can seem like a faraway issue not relevant to the lives of ordinary Australians. It is this kind of thinking that led supporters of realpolitik in the Australian Greens to pursue and smash the NSW party’s pro-BDS policy; a policy that emerged from the party’s involvement in the protest movement against Cast Lead. I suspect many of these “realist” Greens would personally support the Palestinian cause, but their desire to make it go away because it is potentially divisive has led them to spend over a year fighting for a position more in line with the deadening pro-Israel line of the major parties. Reading the Greens’ statement one could be forgiven for thinking that they waited until Gillard had her say so that they could put a position exactly one cigarette paper (and no more) to her Left.

Yet this doesn’t just weaken the struggle against Israel’s actions. Every time the Greens fail to take on Gillard’s rotten foreign policy stances, they undermine any ability to build progressive political opposition to the government domestically. This is all a far cry from when Greens MPs used their offices as organising centres for the movement against the invasion of Iraq in 2002-3, or when Kerry Nettle and Bob Brown heckled George W. Bush in parliament. Whatever people thought of their positions, they acted as a clear alternative to the major parties.

But by late last year we were treated to the uncomfortable spectacle of the federal Greens MPs (even the most left-wing ones) fawning over Barack Obama when he visited Canberra. We also saw anti-BDS Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham joining the “Parliamentary Friends of Israel” to prove how even-handed he was towards one of the most uneven conflicts in the world.

But something else happened, as the inspiration of the Arab revolts was used politically by Western governments to incorporate a section of the Left in seeing Western military action as part of the process of democratisation in the Arab world. The Greens, although opposed to Arab “violence” in the context of Gaza, were bellicose in their demands for a no-fly zone over Libya, and then uncritical of the Western military assault that toppled Gaddafi.

As Kevin Ovenden, a British activist who survived an IDF assault on the first Gaza Flotilla, puts it:

As Gaza burns — where is the handwringing in Western capitals over a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians; the cliché from Paris of “humanitarian corridors”; the emergency London or Doha conference to agree “non-lethal” defence supplies to Gaza; the total sanctions regime on Israel; the calls for Netanyahu to step down; the media castigation of the “regime” in Tel Aviv; and the arms and billions of largesse flowing from the Gulf and Turkey to those fighting an illegitimate, violent aggressor?

Simply to ask this is to cut through the muddle of the last 12 months during which Israel and its allies succeeded in shifting Palestine to the margins and placing their own narrative at the centre of world coverage of the Middle East.

Lee Rhiannon and her state counterpart David Shoebridge are correct to argue that the grossly disproportionate situation the Palestinians suffer under means there can be no equating them with Israel’s military might. But their argument needs to go further; to call for united action by all those willing to challenge the cosy Canberra consensus. Why shouldn’t they demand that the government withdraw Australia’s ambassador from Tel Aviv? That it condemns the horror being rained down on Gaza? That it threatens to break military ties with the terrorist state?

There is, after all, something new going on here: The decline in Israel’s political authority. This offers us a chance to turn this aggression into what history will judge as a “terrible miscalculation” on Netanyahu’s part. That requires us to act here in Australia to widen the splits inside our “Left” government’s support for Israeli aggression. Let Doug Cameron and Lee Rhiannon be just the first.

Discussion10 Comments

  1. Caroline Alcorso says:

    Great piece Tad.

  2. Excellent Dr Tad. Well written/researched.

    What is interesting (as a side note) is that there seems to be a bit more dialogue amongst the middle class and working class about this conflict since the latest increase in discord (or at least there is around me). I wonder if social media has a part in that?

    Doesn’t add much to the main topic, just an observation….

    • Dr_Tad says:

      While I think that social media is an excellent conduit for information, the change in views comes from Israel’s growing isolation, especially in the wake of the Arab revolutions. Israel just looks more unreasonable than ever, despite the fact that (in Australia at least) its sway among the political class is (at least superficially) now greater than in 2008-9.

      While I was waiting for a late plane the other day I overheard two elderly middle-class women talking about the conflict. They started with the “both sides are to blame” line, but then it became obvious that this represented a shift away from their previous “the Arabs are always to blame” views.

      All this reflects the growing disconnect between official politics and views on the ground, which is what makes the Greens’ falling in behind official politics all the more dispiriting (yet probably also more fragile than you’d think).

  3. John Newton says:

    Excellent Tad, but a couple of things I would love to read either here or elsewhere
    1. A forensic analysis of the events leading up to this disgusting slaughter – you hint at some of the behind the scenes action but don’t spell it out and
    2. Some commentary on an important weapon for Netanhanyu – Hamas’ continued insistence on the destruction of Israel – I heard on the ABC this morning there are rumours of Fatah and Hamas making some kind of joint declaration, which would be historic, and would mean Hamas backing down on destruction.

    One more thing. As a member of the NSW Greens I am disgusted with that section of the party – state and national, especially national, attempting to move us to a bland and self-destructive middle ground.

    Keep sniping Tad

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks John. I might the leave the first (massive!) question aside for now.

      On the second, actually backing down on that question would be a liability for Hamas among not only the Palestinians but Arab people generally. It can be hard for us here to grasp just how bitter ordinary Arabs are about the role of Israel, and how much the plight of the Palestinians is seen as the concentrated form of all grievances in the region. So Hamas dropping its (effectively rhetorical) stance would be seen as a massive symbolic and practical setback for the struggle for freedom and justice in the region. Uniting with Fatah around this would, additionally, be seen as succumbing to Tel Aviv’s political hegemony, which is why Fatah has become so much less popular.

      I think it is true that Hamas rhetoric appalls many people in the West, but then it is in substance only a variant on what people like Antony Loewenstein are saying: That a Zionist state (i.e. a state that is mono-religious & exclusivist) is a barrier to genuine peace and religious rapprochement in the region, particularly because its specific characteristics and basis in ethnic cleansing lead it to be necessarily expansionist and belligerent as its form of “self defence”.

      All the talk from the mainstream that Israel must have “a right to exist” really means its right to exist as a Zionist entity. I’m not sure we should say that right has been earned, if the last 64 years is anything to go by.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Here is some background to the current conflict from The Guardian’s Seumas Milne:

  4. […] Prior to the assault on Gaza, for most Australian supporters of the Palestinian struggle for justice, the last two years must have felt like the cause was losing ground at a rate of knots. For months the media, politicians and even sections of the Australian Greens hammered the decision by the NSW Greens, and the Greens-dominated Marrickville Council, to support the BDS. And the shrill outrage over a series of small but noisy BDS-related protests outside Max Brenner chocolate shops could only have added to the sense that there was little support for the Palestinian people. After a bitter debate Marrickville Council retracted its BDS commitment, and the NSW Greens dropped clear support for the strategy. This was the context in which the Australian Greens party room issued an appalling statement on Gaza that seemed to apportion blame equally on both sides — a context I wrote about in a previous blog post. […]

  5. Patrick Watson says:

    Tad. This is the same greens reaction Syria. Why the silence on this liberation from the Greens? As you say “How did taking the side of the oppressed get so hard?”

    • Dr_Tad says:

      If you will allow me to be cynical, perhaps if there was clear clamour for a Western military intervention the Greens would get more excited. One of the interesting things about the Egyptian uprising in Jan-Feb last year was how long it took Greens MPs to unequivocally take the side of the protesters (Bob Brown initially called on Mubarak to call elections; not even step down!).