A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is now in its early stages after a brutal conflict in which Israel carried out more than 1,500 strikes on Gaza and Hamas sent nearly 1,400 rockets into Israeli territory. Australia's staunch bi-partisan support for Israel over the conflict appeared increasingly problematic as the number of Palestinian civilian deaths, at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), continued to climb. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott all condemned Hamas rocket attacks and backed Israel's right to defend itself. Although this stance was in perfect symmetry with other Western nations, including the US, UK and Canada, who articulated their support for Israel and apportioned blame squarely at the feet of Hamas, such an absence of objectivity, conscience and commonsense is no less reprehensible.
During Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009, as Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Gillard was equally unequivocal in supporting Israel's 'right to defend itself'. Israel, for its part, embraced this 'right' to the tune of 1,400 Palestinian deaths, of which 333 were children under the age of 18. In the current conflict, Israel again invoked the fig leaf of self-defense to unleash wholly disproportionate violence against Palestinians in Gaza, without a flicker of condemnation from the Australian Government. As the carnage unfolded, Israel, through its ever-dependable orator of obfuscation Mark Regev, maintained the "fundamentally defensive" nature of its engagement. Defensive or not, as of 21 November, Israeli raids had killed at least 162 people, including dozens of civilians and 37 children. The Israeli death toll stands at five.
Backing Israel's right to self-defense is incompatible with the attendant call (however tepid, in the case of Australia) for the protection of civilians. As long as the IDF conducts military operations in the confined and densely populated area of Gaza, civilians will be killed. Israel attempts to soften this reality by narrowing the distinction between terrorist and civilian and inventing its own definitional framework to distinguish between so-called Hamas-affiliated reporters (i.e. valid targets) and 'legitimate journalists'. The rhetoric of 'surgical strikes' and of 'cleaning the target' is also invoked to paint the IDF, as Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu informed UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-moon on 20 November, as unlike any "military on earth" when it comes to protecting civilians. Countries such as Australia have gobbled up this fanciful portrayal in order to justify their ongoing support of Israel and cleanse their collective conscience, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary (during Cast Lead, the ratio of Palestinian civilians killed to Israeli civilians killed was 400:1).
In this intractable conflict, where the cycle of violence, revenge and hate has created victims and perpetrators on both sides, it is nonsensical for Australia to champion one side over the other like a cheering one-eyed sports fan. As the motion moved in the Australian Senate on 21 November underlined, the Australian government is practicing a blatant double-standard by, rightfully, condemning the violence perpetrated by Hamas and terrorist entities in Gaza, while failing to oppose the state-led (and wholly more destructive) violence committed by Israel. Israel receives the message loud and clear: it can act without fear of censure. This effective green light from Western states such as Australia emboldens more belligerent sections of the Israeli government to call for ever-more aggressive military action in Gaza. Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai inflamed tensions in the past week when he vowed to "send Gaza back to the Middle Ages".
The Australian government should make clear to Israel, as it does to Hamas, that the rampant infliction of civilian casualties is utterly unacceptable. It should also stress that, just as Hamas rocket attacks are an impediment to peace, so too are thuggish offensive military operations and the building of new Israeli settlements. The government has demonstrated a willingness to confront Israel in the past, when it expelled an Israeli diplomat over the faking of Australian passports used in the assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai in 2010. The wholesale loss of Palestinian civilian lives in this latest installment of Gaza violence should give more than enough cause for Australian officials to register their active opposition to Israeli actions. As Australia prepares to assume a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2013-14, it is important for the government to assume thoughtful, impartial and independent positions on issues of international concern. Refusing to help Israel wash the blood from their hands over the Gaza violence would signify a welcome shift from Australia's partisan posturing.