Gaza: if not now, when?

An essential part of the compact of a free society is that all its citizens are afforded protection from persecution and freedom from fear. […] When a segment of society is targeted by reason of its identity – be it a religious, ethnic or national identity – the right of that segment to live free from fear is compromised.

That’s Peter Kurti, a visiting Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, calling the Greens anti-Semitic for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

How perverse that 2011 piece seems now! In Gaza, nearly two million people are being targeted by reason of their identity. Literally rather than metaphorically targeted, with air strikes and tank shells and helicopter fire from the world’s fourth largest army raining down on a dense urban area. There’s no way to describe what’s taking place other than deliberate collective punishment.

In an earlier phase of the assault, the IDF dropped leaflets and used recorded phone calls to warn a hundred thousand Palestinians to leave their homes. No-one even pretended that these people were all Hamas members but their houses and apartments were nonetheless deemed legitimate targets. One struggles to find a historical equivalent – but, for the sake of argument, imagine if, during the height of the Troubles, the British government had announced it would bomb entire neighbourhoods of Belfast, and tell the householders to leave or die.

Here’s a video from the strikes on Gaza, a clip illustrating what the IDF calls its ‘knock on the roof’ method. The army fires an explosive projectile at a building, a signal to the inhabitants to flee. Fifteen minutes later, unseen planes obliterate the whole structure.

The entire business – the notion that it’s okay to signal civilians to flee by firing explosives at their buildings – makes sense only in a dehumanisation so profound that it’s been entirely internalised. The campaign might be ostensibly directed against Hamas but the IDF holds all Palestinians guilty. If you’re an army commander and you’re feeling charitable (‘the most moral army in the world’), you might allow women and children to scurry away before you destroy an apartment block. But if you don’t, it doesn’t much matter. They’re only Palestinians.

Let’s not forget that Gaza is blockaded and has been for years, which is why that bleeding heart David Cameron called it a ‘prison camp’. Even before the current assault, the stranglehold imposed on this tiny area meant that more than half of Gaza’s people survived on United Nations food aid, with no electricity for 16 hours a day. The power shortages mean that few essential services functioned properly. With the Israelis preventing the importation of building materials, the facilities destroyed in the last assault (‘Operation Cast Lead’) could not be repaired.

The warnings, then, are charades. There’s no safe place, there’s nowhere to go. And the Israelis know it. ‘Gaza and its vicinity are a battleground,’ explains a Government Press Office statement for reporters. ‘Covering the hostilities exposes journalists to life-threatening danger.’

True enough. But what of the 1.8 million people – half of them children – who call Gaza home? They’re exposed to life threatening danger, too. What are they supposed to do?

Over the last days, with the ground assault under way, we’ve seen the answer to that. They’re supposed to die – or, at very least, they’re supposed to feel they could die at any minute, as drones, F-16s, Apache helicopters, naval warships, tanks and artillery go to work upon a destitute and overcrowded urban area.

The clip below shows the inevitable result – uncollected bodies (many of them children) lying in the streets of a devastated city.

If you look at such scenes and you don’t see a problem, you are morally dead.

‘Atrocity’, ‘massacre’, ‘crime against humanity’: one thinks of Conrad’s reference to ‘the old, old words worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage’. But there are times when such terms ring true – and we’re living through one of them.

Whatever Hamas has or hasn’t done, attempts to justify a military assault on a city of millions necessarily rely on a terrorist logic: it’s the imposition of a collective responsibility that holds every Gazan guilty simply because they live in Gaza. The grotesque Alan Dershowitz spells it out: ‘[C]ivilians [will] continue to pay the heavy price for Hamas’s hatred of Israel and contempt for its own citizens.’

It’s the exact argument Osama bin Laden made when he explained that the actions of the US government rendered all Americans legitimate targets.

In the context of this obscene effort to blame the slaughter of Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves, let’s turn back to the debates in Australia about the BDS campaign.

Today, much of the liberal intelligentsia refuses to unequivocally oppose the IDF’s carnage in Gaza on the basis that Hamas, too, fires missiles. If only the Palestinians embraced non-violence, we could rally to their cause. Until then … well, it’s all very complicated and unpleasant and we don’t much like to think about.

But what could be less violent than BDS? The BDS campaign does not leave dead children strewn in the streets. It launches no missiles; it fires no weapons. One could scarcely imagine a more peaceable response to the horrors now unfolding than the simple decision of ordinary people to shun certain products and services.

Peter Kurti pitches his anti-BDS spiel in terms of liberty, an entirely risible approach. In fact, the freedom he invokes implies the right to boycott. If you are free to buy Max Brenner chocolate, you are, by definition, free not to buy it – otherwise what we’re really talking about is making shopping at Max Brenner compulsory.

Of course, the hypocrisy over BDS mirrors the hypocrisy over Israel more generally. Jake Lynch recently won the court case brought against him by the Israeli legal centre Shurat HaDin over his refusal to endorse an application for a fellowship at the University of Sydney by an Israeli political theorist.

Lynch’s stand – a response to a call by Palestinian academics and intellectuals to isolate an education system that fundamentally discriminates against them – proved controversial even among progressives, some of whom suggested that an academic boycott violated the spirit of scholarly exchange.

But few of those condemning Lynch’s actions acknowledged that, actually, sanctions are a routine part of the Australian higher education system.

Let the government explain:

Australia implements United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions regimes and Australian autonomous sanctions regimes.

Australia is obliged to implement UNSC sanctions regimes as a matter of international law.

In addition, the Australian Government has decided to implement Australian autonomous sanctions regimes as a matter of Australian foreign policy. Australian autonomous sanctions regimes may supplement UNSC sanctions regimes, or be separate from them.

These sanctions are imposed by all the universities. Here’s how Monash puts it:

The Sanctions Laws are punitive measures imposed by the Australian Government as a foreign policy response to situations of international concern.  The purpose of the Sanctions Laws is to target persons, entities and governments most responsible for these situations.

The Sanctions Laws bind the University and entities over which the University exercises effective control.  The Sanctions Laws impose sanctions against foreign states, individuals and entities.

In other words, the academics and vice chancellors condemning Lynch’s stand as inconsistent with his position were either lying or deluded. Academics apply sanctions all the time; indeed, they can be punished quite severely if they don’t apply them.

Critics of BDS routinely accuse campaigners of double standards. But, as Larry Derfner argues, the double standards are on the other side. Discussing the 2013 decision by the American Studies Association to support BDS, he writes:

As of Friday at noon, a Google search of “human rights sanctions” turns up over 40 million results. There are human rights sanctions and other punishments against ChinaRussiaIranSyriaZimbabweSudanYemenBelarusCubaNorth Korea and lots of other countries. And these sanctions weren’t put in place by some minor academic group like the American Studies Association, but by the United States of America, the European Union and/or the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, these sanctions hurt those countries quite a bit more than the ASA’s boycott of Israeli colleges is likely to hurt Israel. […]

The world doesn’t punish this country unfairly – it doesn’t punish this country at all, while America rewards it lavishly.

The ASA boycott, like the rest of the BDS movement’s achievements, are not examples of the world’s double standard against Israel – they’re  Quixotic, rearguard actions against the world’s blatant double standard in Israel’s favor.  If this country were treated with a minuscule fraction of the severity the West ordinarily visits on human rights violators, the occupation would have ended long ago.

The most obvious illustration of Derfner’s point is the American military support for Israel: according to one recent estimate, the US has provided the IDF with more than $121 billion worth of weapons since 1948, and is subsidising about 25 per cent of Israel’s annual defence budget in recent years.

Australia’s backing is more political than military but you can still see the grotesque hypocrisy at work.

One of the countries against which Australian universities currently impose sanctions is Iran. DFAT explains why:

The UNSC adopted resolution 1737 (2006) on 27 December 2006 imposing sanctions in relation to Iran in response to the proliferation risks presented by the Iranian nuclear program and, in this context, by Iran’s continuing failure to meet the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and to comply with the provisions of Security Council resolution 1696 (2006). The sanctions were extended by UNSC resolutions 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1929 (2010).

Australia also implements an autonomous sanctions regime in relation to Iran.

The Australian Government announced the autonomous sanctions regime in October 2008 in response to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear and missile programs and efforts to contravene UNSC sanctions. The sanctions regime has been amended on several occasions since.

No-one seriously claims that Iran currently possesses atomic weapons. For what it’s worth, the Iranian regime insists its research schedule is entirely directed to peaceful ends. Be that as it may, because Iran might – at some stage in the future – develop an atomic bomb, there are currently all sorts of strictures on how Australian academics can relate to their Iranian counterparts.

Now, in 2013, former Knesset speaker Avrum Bur openly admitted what everyone had known for years: namely, that Israel possesses both nuclear and chemical weaponry. Yet, despite an estimated arsenal of some 80 atomic weapons, Israel remains conspicuously absent from the DFAT list intended to fight ‘proliferation’.

The question, then, is not whether universities should apply sanctions, because they already do. The real debate is about whether Israel should be held to a standard routinely applied to other nations.

The Australian Right will back Israel whatever atrocities it commits, in much the same way conservatives backed apartheid-era South Africa until the bitter end. But what will the liberal intelligentsia do?

Yes, there are arguments against the BDS campaign. But as Rania Khalek argues, most of them replicate, almost exactly, the justifications given by liberals for not boycotting South Africa – and history does not judge such positions kindly.


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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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

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  1. You’ve done well. I find it difficult to get a thought handle on the Gaza situation, with so many different puppet masters with fingers in so many different gloves. I’m a bit clearer now. Thanks.

  2. Great journalism Jeff, as per usual, but I think BDS is a stuck concept, a dead end for broad-based action, because so many people sympathetic to the human rights cause oppose the boycott tactic in this case. Whether you endorse the South Africa comparison or not (I find it historically too problematic, but I know many would disagree with me), the call for a boycott itself triggers a 1930s memory that is every bit as strong for many people as the 1970s associations. It just won’t fly in large sections of the left, let alone the liberal centre. There are alternatives to keep the issues bubbling, though, as your article indicates in the discussion of state sanctions regimes.

  3. Thanks, Tom. Idk — I think the sentiment for BDS growing, and will grow even further as a result of the current crisis. As for the apartheid comparison, this plece is quite persuasive

    The 2002 Statute of the International Criminal Court contains no references to South Africa and regards apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.” …
    How should we call a regime that leaves millions of its subjects with no political rights, that practices segregation in all walks of life and that denies them the basic right to determine their future? True, there is a Palestinian Authority as well, but it has no power over crucial issues of security, land, water, movement of people and goods, industry and trade. All that matters is controlled by Israeli military authorities, which operate on behalf and at the behest of settlers and Israeli interest groups. That the territories have not been formally annexed to Israel is irrelevant – it changes none of the oppressive practices to which Palestinians are daily subjected.

    Some people prefer not to term this regime apartheid because it is indeed different (not better) in some respects from what existed in South Africa before 1994. Fair enough, but what better term is there?

  4. BDS on the Australian Government radar? Not currently – too much seeking of glorification through the plane crash aftermath.

  5. This is a valuable piece for a number of reasons but perhaps mostly for stressing the point that there is no ethical ‘fence-sitting’ position regarding Israel and Palestine.
    Hard to get effective change though with both major parties broadly supporting Israel.

  6. BDS, the Israeli people are poor enough, why would we punish them? 70 years this has been going on…I haven’t read your book but it appears to associated Stalinism with communism to me in the blurb..

    This is what the Fourth International said about Palestine in 1947-48. One cannot but be struck when reading its statement, Against the Stream, written nearly 60 years, how extraordinarily prescient its warning was. It insisted that Zionism was both Utopian and reactionary and denounced the 1947 UN decision to partition Palestine into two tiny states.


    “By partition a wedge is driven between the Arab and Jewish worker. The Zionist state with its provocative lines of demarcation will bring about the blossoming forth of irredentist (revenge) movements on either side. There will be fighting for an ‘Arab Palestine’ and for a ‘Jewish state’ within the historic frontiers of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). As a result, the chauvinistic atmosphere thus created will poison the Arab world in the Middle East and throttle the anti-imperialist fight of the masses, while Zionists and Arab feudalists will vie for imperialist favours.”

    The Fourth International said: “The Jewish state, this gift of Truman’s and Bevin’s, gives the capitalist economy of the Zionists a respite. The continuous flow of Jewish immigrants, who would come with the remnants of their possessions, is apt to increase the circulation of goods. It will allow the bourgeois producers to dispose of their expensive wares. Mass immigration would also be a very useful means of forcing down wages which ‘weigh so heavily’ on Jewish industry.

    A state engaged in inevitable military conflicts would mean orders from the Hebrew Army, a source of Hebrew profits not to be underrated at all. A state would mean thousands of snug berths for Zionist veteran functionaries.”

    Jewish workers would have to bear the cost in the form of high prices and heavy taxes. Separated from their Arab brothers and sisters and prevented from fighting as a united class, they would be at the mercy of their class enemies, imperialism and the Zionist bourgeoisie. As Chaim Weitzmann, who was to become the first president of the new state, said, “The Jewish state will stem the communist influence.”

    “And what promises does the Jewish state hold out? Does it really mean a step forward towards the solution of the Jewish problem?” the Fourth International warned,

    “The partition was not meant to solve Jewish misery nor is it ever likely to do so. This dwarf of a state, which is too small to absorb the Jewish masses, cannot even solve the problems of its citizens. The Hebrew state can only infest the Arab East with anti-Semitism and may well turn out—as Trotsky said—a bloody trap for hundreds of thousands of Jews.”

    For the Arab feudal leaders, the UN vote for a Zionist state was a godsend, enabling them to divert the attention of the masses away from a united class struggle and any possibility of international class solidarity, with a declaration of war on the newly formed Zionist state.

    The military conflict and ensuing bloodshed—all in the name of anti-imperialism—also served to break up the workers’ movements in both camps, thereby weakening the working class and strengthening imperialism.

    The Fourth International stressed that Zionism was a reactionary and utopian movement. It was utopian to believe that:

    1. A harmonious development within an isolated and closed economy in the midst of a capitalist world is possible. Without the expansion of the economy, millions of Jewish immigrants could not be absorbed.

    2. A Jewish state could exist amid the open hostility of tens of millions of Arabs, and in the face of an Arab population growing at least as fast as Jewish immigration.

    3. That Israel could manoeuvre successfully between the rival imperialist powers, all of which were using Israel to further their own strategic interests in the region. (The US)

    4. That anti-Semitism could be eradicated simply by granting nationality to the Jews, ignoring its social, historical and ideological roots.

    It was reactionary because Zionism:

    1. Serves as a support for imperialist domination by giving it the fig leaf of acting as arbiter between the Jews and the Arabs.

    2. Produces a nationalist reaction on the part of the Arab masses thereby creating a racial division of the international working class, and strengthening the national “unity” of both the Jews and the Arabs.

    3. As a nationalist force, acts as a break on the participation of Jewish workers in the class struggle in the rest of the world, separates them from the world proletariat, gives them their own and different goals to strive for, and above all creates illusions in the possibility of improving their lot within the framework of capitalism.

    The Fourth International warned that war on neither side in the Arab-Zionist conflict bore a progressive character: it served only to obscure the class antagonisms and open the gates for nationalist excesses, weakening the proletariat and strengthening imperialism in both camps. It called on the workers of the two peoples to unite in a common front against imperialism and its agents. It warned Jewish workers that they would not be free and safe as long as they had not done away with national discrimination, isolationism and imperialist loyalty.

    After 60 years no one has learnt a goddam thing, people are still saying free Palestine…its not about freeing Palestine, and turning it into a ghetto, its about freeing mankind from the private property relations of capitalism and throwing down all borders. You know, one world, one human race…..all the world sharing all the world…..someone got a problem with that…too free?? How hard is this to understand? Impossible when you don’t want to. There is no other answer, there is none and while you keep watching vapour trails people are being slaughtered like animals.

  7. Hey have you seen: ‘Boycotting Israel: Academia, activism and the futures of American Studies’ in the latest Radical Philosophy 186 (Jul/Aug 2014)?

    The Commentary by Mandy Merck there starts —
    “On 4 December of last year, the annual conference of the American Studies Association resolved that ‘whereas the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine … whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights’, its members would support both a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and ‘the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine.’

    See more at http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/boycotting-israel

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