Gaza: the Australian connection

Who knew? Mark Regev, the man who pops up on your TV to suavely justify each fresh atrocity in Gaza, hails from Melbourne. His Wiki entry runs:

Born Mark Freiberg in Australia to Martin and Freda Freiberg, he is a graduate of Mount Scopus Memorial College, received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History at Melbourne University, and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as a Master of Science in Management from Boston University.

Regev’s not, it turns out, the only Australian forging a career as an international apologist for war crimes. You might recall Captain Benjamin Rutland, whom we last encountered explaining how ordinary policeman in Gaza were legitimate targets. Captain Rutland, it seems, was born in Paddington, raised in Bondi and studied arts-law at University of NSW. He’s also good friends with a certain Guy Spigelman, also from Sydney, and now the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson. Indeed, Rutland describes himself as part of an ‘Australian mafia’ working in Israeli PR, an unwittingly accurate phrase, since, according to the Oz, Rutland spent the last week explaining why Israel killed forty people in a clearly marked UN school in Gaza – an eminently suitable occupation for a self-styled mafioso.

The Australian origins of these characters reminds us that Gaza’s not as far away as it seems. It’s not somebody else’s problem, not a crisis unfolding in another time or a different world, but a moral challenge to our generation, right here, right now. What happens in Australia has real consequences for Gaza, which is why far more attention needs to be turned to the response of local politicians.

We’ve noted before how the Israelis initially welcomed Australia as the only state other than the US to support its murderous campaign. On 29 December, Julia Gillard, then the acting Prime Minister, explained:

Clearly the act of aggression was engaged in by Hamas which commenced shelling with rockets and mortars into Israel. That is what breached the ceasefire, and Israel responded.

In the trade, that’s what’s known as a ‘lie’ (a technical term with which Rutland and Regev and co are undoubtedly familiar). In reality, on 4 November, with the world preoccupied with the US election, Israel consciously and deliberately breached the ceasefire by crossing into Gaza and killing six Palestinians. The Guardian reported at the time:

A four-month ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza was in jeopardy today after Israeli troops killed six Hamas gunmen in a raid into the territory.

Hamas responded by firing a wave of rockets into southern Israel, although no one was injured. The violence represented the most serious break in a ceasefire agreed in mid-June, yet both sides suggested they wanted to return to atmosphere of calm. [snip]

Until now it had appeared both Israel and Hamas, which seized full control of Gaza last summer, had an interest in maintaining the ceasefire. For Israel it has meant an end to the daily barrage of rockets landing in southern towns, particularly Sderot. For Gazans it has meant an end to the regular Israeli military raids that have caused hundreds of casualties, many of them civilian, in the past year. Israel, however, has maintained its economic blockade on the strip, severely limiting imports and preventing all exports from Gaza.

Pretty clear-cut, one would think. Yet this easily identifiable falsehood has become the basis for the bipartisan Australian support for the Gaza attack. Last Thursday, for instance, Gillard repeated her lie.

I did say in the early days and I would happily say it now that obviously there was Hamas shelling into southern Israel and Israel responded.

Naturally, Malcolm Turnbull agreed:

Hamas broke the previous ceasefire with its unprovoked rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages.

As far as one can tell, neither of Gillard nor Turnbull has been challenged by journalists on their mendacity — a sad indictment of the state of the Australian media.

As for Rudd, when he reappeared on the scene, he ostentatiously  refused to condemn the Gaza operation on the basis that ‘Australia recognises Israel’s right to self-defence’, a line that was echoed by Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Helen Coonan. So how’s that self-defence working out? Well, in the commission of war crimes, as it happens.

The Israeli military may have committed war crimes in Gaza, the UN’s most senior human rights official said tonight, as Israeli troops pressed on with their increasingly deadly offensive in defiance of a UN security council resolution demanding a ceasefire.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, singled out the killing this week of up to 30 Palestinians in Zeitoun, south-east of Gaza City, when Israel shelled a house where its troops had told about 110 civilians to take shelter.

Pillay, a former international criminal court judge from South Africa, told the BBC the incident “appears to have all the elements of war crimes”. She called for “credible, independent and transparent” investigations into possible violations of humanitarian law. [snip]

OCHA said the incident took place on 4 January, a day after Israel began its ground offensive in Gaza. According to testimonies gathered by the UN, Israeli soldiers evacuated about 110 Palestinians to a single-storey house in Zeitoun. The evacuees were instructed to stay indoors for their safety but 24 hours later the Israeli army shelled the house. About half the Palestinians sheltering in the house were children, OCHA said. The report also complains that the Israeli Defence Force prevented medical teams from entering the area to evacuate the wounded.

But wait – there’s more. Much, much more.

A petition to the Israeli courts was announced on Wednesday by Taleb al-Sanaa, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, over the shelling on Tuesday of a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp that killed at least 40 Palestinians sheltering there.

UN officials, noting that they had passed on the school’s GPS coordinates to Israel and that it was clearly marked with a UN flag, insisted that only civilians had sought refuge at the school. The UN has demanded an investigation.

Mr al-Sanaa said the petition would name the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and Ehud Barak, the defense minister, as the responsible parties. “Israel needs to decide whether it wants to be a terrorist organization like Hamas or respect international law,” he said.

A further petition has been launched by eight Israeli human rights groups, demanding that Israel’s high court ban the army from targeting ambulances and medical personnel.

The petition cites a large number of cases in which Israel has fired on ambulances, arguing that as a result medics have been unable to treat the wounded or transport them to hospital.

Palestinian medics said 21 of their staff have been killed by Israeli fire and many more wounded, according to reports on Al Jazeera TV. The al-Durra hospital in Gaza City was hit on Tuesday, and a day later three mobile clinics run by a Danish charity, DanChurchAid, were destroyed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross dropped its usual diplomatic language this week in denouncing Israel’s refusal to allow medical teams to tend the wounded.

During a three-hour pause in the fighting on Wednesday rescuers managed to reach the Zaytoun neighborhood, southeast of Gaza City, that was extensively bombed at the start of the week.

Four children were found close to starvation alongside 15 bodies, including those of their mothers. Many other civilians were found dead in the area, and others are believed still to be in hiding. Israeli tanks were stationed nearby the destroyed buildings during the whole period.

Pierre Wettach, a Red Cross spokesman, called Israel’s delay in allowing a medical evacuation “shocking” and “unacceptable.” He added: “The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded.”

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel added its voice, criticizing the Israeli authorities for repeatedly ignoring requests to move seriously wounded civilians.

The UN suspended its aid operations on Thursday after two of its drivers were killed and others wounded by Israeli fire directed at one of its relief convoys during another three-hour ceasefire.

John Ging, head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees in Gaza, said: “They were coordinating their movements with the Israelis, as they always do, only to find themselves being fired at from the ground troops.”

Palestinian sources and international observers warned that the death toll among civilians is rising rapidly as Israel’s ground invasion pushes deeper into Gaza.

Al Haq, a Palestinian legal rights group, warned that 80 percent of more than 750 Palestinians killed in the fighting so far have been civilians. According to figures cited by the World Health Organization, at least 40 percent have been children. Another 3,000 Gazans have been wounded.

Israeli commanders were reported in the Israeli media to be unsurprised by the heavy toll on civilians of their latest actions, saying their priority was to protect soldiers.

“For us, being cautious means being aggressive,” one told the Haaretz newspaper. “From the minute we entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war. That creates enormous damage on the ground.”

The newspaper said the government had taken into account the likely high number of Palestinian civilian casualties when it approved the ground operation a week ago.

Another soldier, identified as Lt Col Amir, told Israeli TV on Wednesday: “We are very violent. We are not shying away from any method of preventing casualties among our troops.”

Among the dubious tactics the army appears to be resorting to is use of white phosphorus shells, which burn intensely on exposure to air creating the firework-type explosions characteristic of Israel’s shelling of Gaza.

Although the shells produce dense clouds of smoke to cover military operations, they also cause severe burns on contact with skin.

Photographs of pale blue artillery shells lined up by tanks stationed on the edge of Gaza have been identified as American-made phosphorus munitions. Neil Gibson, a missiles expert for Jane’s, told The London Times that the shells were an “improved model” that burned for up to 10 minutes.

Although such shells are allowed when used solely as a smoke screen, they are banned as a chemical weapon if used as an anti-personnel munition. Palestinian and international medics in Gaza have reported large numbers of burns victims with injuries difficult to treat.

Yesterday, Amnesty International also accused Israeli soldiers of using Palestinian civilians as human shields — a charge Israel has repeatedly leveled against Hamas.

Malcolm Smart, a spokesman, said: “Israeli soldiers have entered and taken up positions in a number of Palestinian homes, forcing families to stay in a ground-floor room while they use the rest of their house as a military base and sniper position.”

Chemical weapons, attacks on ambulances, children starving alongside their dead parents. This is happening now, and no-one can say they didn’t know. Australian politicians need to be held accountable. In Melbourne, the next demonstration will be on 18 January at 2pm at the State Library of Victoria. Presumably, other cities are holding similar events.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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