NZ response to latest Israeli massacre doesn’t go far enough

Article – Aubrey Bloomfield

On 14 May, Israel killed at least 60 Palestinians in Gaza taking part in the Great March of Return protest and injured thousands more. The Israeli massacre was met with widespread international criticism. The prosecutor of the International Criminal …New Zealand’s response to latest Israeli massacre does not go far enough

On 14 May, Israel killed at least 60 Palestinians in Gaza taking part in the Great March of Return protest and injured thousands more. The Israeli massacre was met with widespread international criticism. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court also vowed to “take any action warranted” over the violence, while the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to launch an investigation. A number of countries opted to take their own action, with Turkey and South Africa recalling their ambassadors to Israel in protest. Turkey went further and expelled the Israeli ambassador and there have been calls in South Africa for it to do the same. Sadly, however, the New Zealand government’s own response did not reflect the severity of what happened and the broader context of Israel’s systematic disregard for Palestinian lives.

The Great March of Return protest began on 30 March, with the aim of highlighting the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 in what Palestinians refer to as al-Nakba (Arabic for ‘the catastrophe’). It was also about drawing attention to the reality of living in what is effectively an open air prison and the desire of Palestinians to exercise their right of return. Tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated as the protest peaked on 14 May, which coincided with the ceremony in Jerusalem to mark the opening of the United States’ Embassy in the city. The death toll made it the deadliest day in Gaza since Israel’s 2014 war on the coastal territory.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the killings as a “devastating, one-sided loss of life” and said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade would again be summoning Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand, Ambassador Itzhak Gerberg, for a meeting to discuss the situation. She also said reiterated New Zealand’s stance that the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem would not help efforts to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Foreign Minister Winston Peters meanwhile called the loss of life “highly regrettable.”

The media cycle in New Zealand has now largely moved on, with the release of the budget and the hype around the royal wedding in particular dominating headlines. But it is worth critically reflecting on the New Zealand government’s response to this latest Israeli massacre.

While it is clear that the government condemns the Israeli violence, its response does not go far enough given the scale of these deliberate and unprovoked killings and the fact that they do not represent an aberration in terms of Israeli behaviour.

Governments around the world, including New Zealand’s, have been condemning Israeli violence for decades. Yet all this condemnation has not been matched with concerted efforts to impose real costs on Israel for its actions. The result is that Israel has continued to brutalise the Palestinian population with impunity and its occupation of Palestinian land has only become further entrenched.

A different approach is needed now. Because unless the dynamic of the situation begins to change, this sort of violence will most certainly happen again, as it already has many times before.

The Great March of Return protest took place along the fortified fence between Gaza and Israel, with the protestors separated from Israel by an Israeli-imposed buffer zone. Despite being a largely peaceful protest, and the small minority of protestors who threw stones or used molotov cocktails posing no real threat to Israeli civilians or soldiers, Israel responded with sniper fire and tear gas.

A hastily deleted tweet by the Israel Defence Force spokesperson back when the Great March of Return began makes it clear that what happened on 14 May, and in the weeks before, was not just an unfortunate or accidental loss of life resulting from a struggle between two equal sides. Following the killing of 15 Palestinians on 30 March, the tweet said “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”

Israel’s actions on 14 May were no different: the deliberate targeting of unarmed protestors.

New Zealand’s response of offering mild (given the circumstances) condemnation of the violence, reiterating support for a two state solution, and calling the Israeli ambassador in for a chat will not change anything. Ardern also made the effort to emphasise Israel’s right to defend itself but made no mention of Palestinians’ right to resist occupation or their right of return.

When asked whether New Zealand would consider following Turkey’s lead and kicking out Ambassador Gerberg, Peters reportedly responded that it was not an option because it would be hard to talk to the ambassador if he was not there. New Zealand currently has diplomatic accreditation to Israel through our ambassador to Turkey.

It is doubtful that anything useful will have come from New Zealand’s meetings with Ambassador Gerberg. The Israeli Embassy has repeatedly made it clear that it blames Hamas for the violence.

The tired insistence of Israel and its supporters, such as president of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand Rob Berg, on blaming Hamas for everything not only excuses Israel’s brutal violence but also dehumanises the many Palestinians resisting occupation who are not members or supporters of Hamas.

New Zealand seems stuck in an outdated approach to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. Reiterating support for a two state solution and offering mild condemnation of Israeli violence (while always highlighting Israel’s right to protect itself) is somehow seen as a progressive, principled position. But by doggedly sticking to this approach, New Zealand is not being part of the solution.

Israel’s systematic violence against the Palestinians and the failure of diplomatic efforts to date are why the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions has attracted growing support around the world. It is why there were such strong calls for Lorde to heed this call and not perform in Israel.

Decades of talk have achieved nothing. Action is needed. Israel must be treated like the rogue nation it is. There must be consequences for its repeated violations of international law and the human rights of Palestinians.

It is time to dust off that much vaunted independent foreign policy of ours and take a truly principled stance in support of human rights. Downgrading or severing diplomatic ties with Israel should be considered, as should further actions in line with the call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

A helpful question for the current New Zealand government in guiding its decision-making should be: how would we respond if this was apartheid South Africa?

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