Australian Government's Support of Israel Alienates Local Palestinians

Aussie Palestinians resigned to a rocky period, given the Abbott government's pro-Israel stance and its intention to deny funding to those advocating boycott of Israel.

Dan Goldberg
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Dan Goldberg

Australia’s new conservative government has been widely welcomed by the mainstream Jewish community.

Not so much by the Palestinian community.

Tony Abbott’s unapologetic support for Israel, backed by his deputy’s pre-election pledge to deny funding to those who support the boycott of Israel, offers cold comfort for the small Palestinian diaspora Down Under.

Samah Sabawi, who was born in Gaza in 1967 and now lives in Melbourne, slammed the “radicalization” of the Australian government on its Israel-Palestine posture and its hardline asylum-seeker policy. “It is a setback, not just in terms of the Palestinian cause, but for human rights and civil liberties,” Sabawi told Haaretz.

Maher Mughrabi, the son of a Palestinian from Jerusalem, said the local community was “heartened to some extent” when the previous Labor government abstained last year on the vote to upgrade the status of Palestine at the United Nations. Then-prime minister Julia Gillard had signaled her intent to oppose the vote, but was outvoted in a party revolt led by her foreign minister, Bob Carr.

“It was considered a marginal improvement,” said Mughrabi, a foreign news editor at Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. “Now Palestinians are resigned to a period in which they’re not received particularly sympathetically in Canberra.”

Tony Abbott’s refrain that “we’re all Israelis now” after the Bali bombings in 2002 suggests the likely marginalization of Palestinians from political discourse under the new Liberal government, Mughrabi added.

Hani Elturk, an editor at Sydney’s Arabic-language El Telegraph newspaper, agreed. “Bob Carr was much liked by the community,” he said of the man at the center of the turbulent relations between the Labor government and the Jews, fueled by his repeated branding of all Israeli settlements as “illegal.”

Mughrabi, who arrived in Australia in 2000, said the Palestinians in Australia lacked the leverage to lobby effectively in Canberra because they do not have an ambassador; instead, Izzat Salah Abdulhadi has been the head of the General-Delegation of Palestine to Australia since 2006.

Abdulhadi said it would be “premature” to judge the Abbott government less than two months after its landslide victory. But he warned: “Australia will not be able to ignore international recognition of Palestine as a non-member state in the General Assembly.

“With Australia playing an increased role in the international arena, especially with regard to its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, I hope Australia will continue to take an even-handed approach in its policies and actions towards the Palestine-Israel conflict.”

But Sabawi, a playwright and poet, is less sanguine. The “Zionist influence” in Canberra is too strong, she said. “When you have Tony Abbott and [Deputy PM] Julie Bishop espousing their love for Israel and the pro-Israel bias of the media, it’s not based on a conspiracy. It’s tangible.”

Members of Abbott’s government have been vocal in their opposition to the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions campaign, as have the vast majority of Australia’s 110,000-plus Jews. But Sabawi said the campaign has helped focus attention on the Palestinian cause. “It’s a tactic, and part of the goal is to get a conversation going,” she said. “Before, we only talked about Israel-Palestine when there was mass killing on one side or the other. Now it’s a daily conversation.”

Sabawi has signed up as a co-defendant in a legal case launched by Israel’s Shurat HaDin against two academics at the University of Sydney’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, who last year refused to cooperate with Dan Avnon, an academic from the Hebrew University. The support expressed for BDS by Jake Lynch and Stuart Rees was in violation of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, Shurat HaDin alleged. The organization filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, claiming that “all BDS activity is disguised anti-Semitism.”

The complaint was terminated last month because the commission couldn’t resolve the dispute. However, Akiva Hamilton, a Shurat HaDin lawyer, told Haaretz he plans to file proceedings in the Federal Court by the October 28 deadline.

The first wave of Palestinian immigrants to Australia arrived after the 1967 war, according to Elturk, the Jaffa-born author of “The Palestinians in Australia.” Further waves were triggered in 1975 by the Lebanese civil war, in 1982 during the Lebanon War and in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, as Palestinians fled Kuwait. Estimates put the population in Australia at 9,000 holders of Palestinian Authority passports and another 15,000 who hold other passports, according to Abdulhadi.

While Mughrabi advocates a two-state solution, some support a one-state solution. But there’s unity on one issue. “The common ground is that the occupation should end,” Mughrabi said.

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