Australia/Israel Review


Noted and Quoted – June 2021

May 31, 2021 | AIJAC staff

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Causes and conspiracy theories

One of the dominant media themes throughout the 11 days of the Israel-Hamas war was the claim that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu had orchestrated the crisis because his political rivals were on the brink of creating a government without him for the first time in 12 years.

This view was popular on the ABC, where academic and pro-Palestinian activist Lana Tatour appeared three times on various programs on May 11 pushing this line.

On ABC TV “Mornings”, Tatour said, “this is a classic Netanyahu move, if you will, in which escalating the situation to stay in power and so Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel now.” Over the following days, this view was heard many times.

The counterview was occasionally heard, such as on May 14 when Washington Post Jerusalem Bureau chief Steve Hendrix told ABC Newsradio the idea was “outrageous and outlandish.”

In the Sydney Morning Herald (May 14), Gwynne Dyer called Netanyahu and Hamas “objective allies” who would seek to win political points over their rivals from the fighting. 

On May 21, Crikey’s Guy Rundle went one step further, arguing that “Even the sudden flare-up of the Sheikh Jarrah issue had a suspicious timing… Was the hard policing of Arab protesters, the encouragement of settlers and radicals, designed to create a situation which would test not Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas but US President Joe Biden?”

News Corp’s Sarah Blake’s May 16 report said, “there are other factors at play here,” citing the potential political boost Netanyahu might gain. Yet, it had nothing to say about Hamas’ calculus. 

More rationally, in the Sydney Morning Herald (May 13), New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said neither Israel, surrounding Arab countries nor the Palestinian Authority (PA) were seeking a war. He said PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to postpone planned elections, “which Hamas probably would have dominated, means it is stuck. What does Hamas tend to do when it is stuck? Fire rockets at Israel.”

 

Pretextual

In the Daily Telegraph (May 18) AIJAC’s Jamie Hyams explained the events used by Hamas to justify starting a war with Israel. 

According to Hyams, “the claimed motivation was a decades-long legal case, nearing its end, where Jewish landowners in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem are trying to evict Palestinians who live on their land. The Palestinians had been granted protected tenancy but have been refusing to pay the minimal rent required. The Temple Mount confrontation involved Palestinian worshippers arming themselves with rocks, firecrackers and firebombs and, after services, attacking the police as well as Jews worshipping at the Western Wall, which is below the Temple Mount. Israeli forces responded with riot suppression measures and hundreds were injured. The Palestinians portrayed this as Israel attacking innocent worshippers and exploited video of stun grenades accidentally entering the open doors of the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself to claim Israel had deliberately ‘attacked’ that holy place.”

 

Truth as the first casualty

As the war progressed and the Palestinian death toll increased, the media focused on whether Israel was carefully targeting Hamas’ assets or punishing Gazans. 

On Channel Ten’s “The Project” (May 16), Human Rights Watch researcher and former ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill claimed that “The death toll is higher on the Palestinian side because of this Israeli pattern of an excessive use of force.”

But in the Age/SMH (May 20), Israel Defence Force spokesperson Jonathan Conricus explained that a cluster of civilian deaths in Gaza happened after Israeli jets hit Hamas’ tunnel network, causing the houses above to collapse.

An AP report in the Age/SMH on May 13 said that Israel gives “warning shots” to “allow… civilians to evacuate buildings” – which is pretty inscrutable – but at least quoted Conricus saying minimising civilian casualties was Israel’s priority.

 

Saving lives is unfair

A large amount of coverage was also dedicated to the disparity between Palestinian and Israeli casualties, with Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system that intercepted 90% of Hamas’ rockets heading for civilian towns saving countless Israeli lives.

An Age/SMH (May 14) report stressed that in Gaza “there are no air raid sirens or safe houses” and noted Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses civilians as human shields against retaliatory strikes and sets up command centres inside residential buildings. But it failed to point out the obvious fact that, after 14 years of ruling Gaza, Hamas chooses to dig tunnels for military use, rather than provide reinforced shelters for civilians like Israel does.

An “explainer” in the Age/SMH (May 20) sneered that Iron Dome is “a big-tech solution to the low-tech rockets built by Hamas in the streets and tunnels of Gaza, and one part of Israel’s sweeping security apparatus of surveillance drones and checkpoints that monitor the 2 million Palestinians blockaded inside Gaza.”

 

Tower of Ire

The May 14 targeted strike on the al-Jalaa Tower which housed the Gazan offices of AP and Al Jazeera, but which Israel said also housed a Hamas military intelligence technology division that disrupted GPS reception and developed technology for rocket production and other weapons development, brought widespread media accusations that Israel was endangering journalists and trying to prevent them reporting what was happening in Gaza. 

But the scepticism was uncalled for, as the Daily Telegraph reported on May 13 when Israel targeted another 12-storey building, “Hamas… said the tower block” was “a residential building” but “AFP reporters said it also houses the offices of several Hamas officials.”

Moreover, as AP reporter Fares Akram’s eyewitness account published in the Age/SMH (May 17) noted, his boss was told by the IDF “to go back into the building and make sure everyone’s out… As far as I knew, no people had been hurt.”

On Sky News (May 16), Australian Financial Review senior writer Aaron Patrick said this is a “military conflict with belligerents on both sides” and if Israel believes Hamas was using a building such as al-Jalaa Tower, then “I think you’ve got an argument under the rules of war” that it’s a “legitimate” target and the fact Israel gives civilians and journalists warnings and “time to get out” proves “it’s just not as bad as everyone says.” Fellow panellist Gemma Tognini said pro-Palestinian demonstrators should ask themselves why Hamas’ leader is “lobbying for this war from the safety of Qatar.”

 

Dave’s Debunkings 

Dave Sharma, Liberal MP for Wentworth, lent his expertise as the former ambassador to Israel to respond to many of the absurd claims made against Israel.

On ABC RN “Drive” (May 17), Sharma explained that “what has prompted or provoked this conflict is, of course, Hamas’… firing of rockets against civilian populations within Israel” and that “from my own experience” Israel’s Defence Forces “are very careful… but they’ve faced an incredible dilemma in Gaza, because Hamas is embedded very deeply into civilian infrastructure. They’ve got command posts in the hospitals, they’ve got rocket launchers in schools, they’ve got intelligence posts in hotels used by the international press, for instance… Israel… try to limit or avoided or minimise it altogether by providing warnings in advance, urging people to evacuate… the building. But of course… mistakes do happen.”

In the Sydney Morning Herald (May 21), Sharma’s wife, Rachel Lord wrote of experiencing Hamas’ rockets fired at Israel during the 2014 Gaza war. Lord said, “as an international lawyer with a background in human rights and the laws of armed conflict…I took a pretty dim view of Israel until I lived there. After four years in the country, I recognised the situation was far more nuanced than many understand. Now I don’t have a firm position on who is right and who is wrong. I can’t help but think that people who do are generally those without real-life experience of the conflict.”

 

Editorial excesses

Trying to find the root causes of this latest bout of fighting, the Sydney Morning Herald (May 14) naively said, “The issue, as always, has been Palestinian resentment at the spread of Jewish settlements in the territories Israel has occupied since 1967 and the lack of equal rights for Palestinians and Jews… this disaster might convince both sides to recommit to serious negotiations.”

A Canberra Times editorial (May 19) incorrectly blamed both sides for the continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and falsely claimed that “Arab Israelis [live] a marginalised existence within the Jewish state that rivals apartheid.”

 

Neglected Truths

An op-ed from AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein published in the Canberra Times (May 19) noted, “it is the PA that has actually blocked peace initiatives, having refused generous offers of a state in 2000, 2001 and 2008. According to US envoy Martin Indyk, in negotiations in 2014, Abbas simply walked away when Netanyahu was ‘sweating bullets’ to make a deal. It is Abbas who has refused to talk since then.”

On May 20, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt said Hamas’ refusal to build bomb shelters in Gaza as it launches “yet another missile war against Israel…it knows must fire back to defend itself” tells “us all we need to know about the Hamas terrorist group that runs Gaza, and how it plays naive Western journalists like a fiddle.”

He asked, “Doesn’t this show Hamas actually wants Palestinian women and children to die to create anti-Israel propaganda?”

 

Cause has no effect

On Sky News (May 19), Australian foreign editor Greg Sheridan lambasted media coverage of the fighting, saying “Hamas has fired rockets in response to Israeli bombardments.”

He correctly noted that “Hamas initiated this conflict with… rocket attacks on Israeli civilians” and is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Australia, adding that “the idea that Israel can just stop, that would mean that Hamas could initiate these strikes anytime it liked, turn them on for a day or two, and then turn them off. So that would give it tremendous power to disrupt Israel all the time.”

After the ceasefire, Sheridan wrote in the Australian (May 22) that Hamas wanted to prove its “bona fides” as “the most militantly anti-Israel force,” while its patron “Iran wanted to see how effective Iron Dome was when huge numbers of rockets…were fired in rapid succession…Iran has in mind an eventual conflict involving one of its other regional proxies, Hezbollah, based in southern Lebanon.”

 

Mercury runs hot

At the start of the fighting (May 10), anti-Israel columnist Greg Barns spun a tale in the Hobart Mercury of Palestinian victimhood. He said Israel “rounded up and killed thousands” of Palestinians in 1948, and cited a recent Human Rights Watch report that accused Israel of practising apartheid. He also claimed that “whenever their [sic] have been negotiations to resolve issues between the Israelis and Palestinians the cards are stacked against the latter who lack resources and diplomatic firepower to contend with the incessant Israel lobby.”

A published response in the Mercury from AIJAC’s Judy Maynard (May 13) noted that nearly two million Israeli Arabs “have the same rights as their Jewish fellow-Israelis” and the 1948 war only occurred because of attacks launched by Arab forces and countries against Israel, something which also applies to Hamas’ actions today.

 

Not Fran’s fan

After the war, speaking to former US Ambassador Tom Pickering (May 24), ABC Radio National “Breakfast” host Fran Kelly pushed an assumption that Israeli PM Netanyahu would benefit from the war and blamed “Israeli forces going into the al-Aqsa Mosque, throwing their weight around basically, with various sort of… authoritarian behaviour in the mosque [as] one of the root causes of the tensions.”

Pickering didn’t think Netanyahu was likely to benefit from the war and also stressed his belief that “it doesn’t appear that there is a one state outcome to” the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

 

Cynical diplomacy

Speaking to Kelly on May 17, Izzat Salah Abdulhadi, head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, cynically exploited a war launched by PA nemesis Hamas from a territory the PA doesn’t even control, saying “we need international protection of Palestinian people. We don’t want to repeat this every year.”

Talking to Israel’s Acting Ambassador to Australia Jonathan Peled, Kelly was much more aggressive and suggested Israel’s responses were not proportional, and immoral, when whole families die in air strikes. 

Peled said it was easy “to judge and criticise Israel from the comfort and safety of our homes here in Australia” and noted that “many of the missiles and rockets… that were fired from Gaza… never reached Israel, but hit their own population.” 

He dismissed the accusation that Israeli forces hit al-Jalaa Tower to silence the media by noting that “today, with social media… there is really no point in trying to censor media. It just happens to be unfortunate that a media building was also being used… for terrorist needs.” 

Peled denied that the Sheikh Jarrah property dispute, which was still before the courts, “gives any kind of remote justification for Hamas in Gaza [to] send…thousands of rockets on Israelis, and by the way, trying to target Jerusalem as well. So you can’t be calling to defend Jerusalem and be attacking it and shooting missiles at it at the same time.” 

Kelly implied that Israel would not be interested in even “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire for some hours to allow those who are wounded and displaced… to leave?” Peled replied, “Why not?,” questioning her assumption.

The claim that Israel was preventing a ceasefire was also conveyed in the Sydney Morning Herald (May 21) by Oxfam representative in Gaza Asmaa Abu Mezied who said, “Should Israel cede to international pressure for a ceasefire, that only begs the question: how long will it last before, once again, we must live through this torment?”

In fact, as the Age/SMH reported on May 15, Hamas actually rejected an Egyptian proposal of a three-hour humanitarian hiatus.

 

A targeted response

On May 20, Matthias Schmale, Gaza Director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), disagreed with Kelly’s suggestion Israel was not trying hard enough to avoid civilian casualties.

He responded that “they are not directly targeting UN installations or civilian installations. As far as I know, you know, nothing has been reported to me that suggests there were deliberate strikes” and said that Hamas were “firing from within very built-up areas, you know, where civilians are living. So that bit they have to be questioned whether that’s not reckless at minimum.” 

Earlier, on May 18, Martin Indyk, former US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, explained to Kelly that “the only reason that you don’t have those kinds of casualties on the Israeli side is because they have this Iron Dome anti-missile system that protects much of their public.”

 

Pie in the Sky

On Sky News (May 15), anti-Israel activist Antony Loewenstein implied that the fighting involving Gaza was initiated by Israel and described Hamas as “a convenient enemy of Israel” which doesn’t threaten its “existential reality.”

On Sky News (May 17), former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr blamed the “remorseless spread of settlements on occupied Palestinian land…that is smothering a two-state solution” – which doesn’t explain why Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected an offer of a Palestinian state in 2008 that included the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, Gaza and a capital in east Jerusalem.

 

Human Rights Wrongs

An SBS online story (April 27) quoted AIJAC’s Jamie Hyams accusing Human Rights Watch (HRW) of “cherry-pick[ing] evidence to support a pre-formed conclusion” in its report that said Israeli policies towards Palestinians on the West Bank and Israeli Arabs amounted to apartheid.

Hyams explained that “Palestinians [have] been offered a state of their own many times.” He also appeared on SBS TV “World News” the next day to talk about the report. 

On April 28, Nine Newspapers quoted AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein denouncing the report as a “textbook example of a biased organisation knowing what conclusion it wants to reach and then writing a report to substantiate it.” Rubenstein added that “all Israeli citizens, regardless of race, colour or creed, have the same democratic rights” and any security restrictions faced by Palestinians were “to prevent a repeat of the Second Intifada in 2000-05, which saw over 1000 Israelis murdered.”

On an ABC website (April 16), NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg revealed that “In 2012, the heads of HRW accepted a secret donation of US$470,000 from a Saudi billionaire who was himself … involved in certain human rights abuses. The money was conditioned on an agreement that the organisation refrain from criticising Muslim majority countries for violating LGBTQ rights.” 

 


In Parliament

 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Lib., Cook) answering a question at a Federal Budget lunch – May 14 – “… Israel unquestionably has the right to defend itself and its people. Unquestionably. And, equally, Palestinians need to be able to live safely…we stand strongly and always have with the nation of Israel…Indiscriminate attacks with wanton disregard for civilian casualties perpetuate the cycle of violence and bloodshed.”

Julian Leeser (Lib., Berowra) – May 25 – “…democratic Israel has every right to defend its citizens, prevent attacks and destroy the source of such violence…we would expect our government to protect our citizens in this way too. Unfortunately much of the commentary has painted Israel as the villain, because it had fewer casualties. Many of the Palestinian casualties were, tragically, human shields used in a Hamas propaganda war.”

Julian Hill (ALP, Bruce) – May 25 – “After the latest violence, though, it’s important not to lose focus on the barriers to peace. Chief amongst them are Israel’s settlement policies…” 

Graham Perrett (ALP, Moreton) – May 24 – “…700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee from their homeland during the 1948 Palestine war…the brutal extinguishment and sacking of more than 400 Palestinian villages—the first steps in that long journey to the establishment of what would appear to be a semi-apartheid state.” 

Anne Stanley (ALP, Werriwa) – May 24 – “The world has seen further escalation of violence with the bombing of al-Aqsa Mosque…the use of banned weapons, tear gas and guns fired at worshippers at one of Islam’s holiest sites during the holiest month of the year is unsettling.”

Ken O’Dowd (Nat., Flynn) – May 13 – “The core of the problem is that Palestinians do not live in freedom and dignity. To live under apartheid-type rule is inexcusable…in 1948 the Jewish military depopulated and destroyed Palestinian cities, towns and farming communities, and it’s still happening today.” 

Maria Vamvakinou (ALP, Calwell) – May 13 – “I … [express] my deep concern at the current outbreak of hostilities in Palestine and, in particular, the situation in Jerusalem…Anyone who has walked its ancient streets knows how much pride of place Jerusalem has amongst the Palestinians…”

Senator Janet Rice (Greens, Vic.) – May 13 – “Minister, do you agree that this latest devastating outbreak of violence stems from the unlawful and unjust occupation of Palestine by the Israeli government?” 

Senator Mehreen Faruqi (Greens, NSW) – May 12 – “I…express my solidarity with the Palestinian people who, for generations, have had to pay the price of settler colonialism taking their land, homes and lives…Israel’s state sanctioned, apartheid violence against protesters must end…From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Josh Burns (ALP, Macnamara) – May 12 – “…there is no justification for targeting innocent civilians or using them as human shields. There is no justification for…Hamas, recognised by Australia as a terrorist organisation, firing a barrage of rockets and missiles at Israel, at civilian populations… many of these rockets fired by Hamas have misfired or fallen short and killed innocent Palestinian people.” 

Senator Janet Rice (Greens, Vic.) – May 11 – “Israel has used a raft of discriminatory residency regulations and planning frameworks to reduce the Palestinian population in Jerusalem.” 

Senator Susan Lines (ALP, WA) – May 11 – “This violence has erupted because Israel will not halt forced evictions from…Sheikh Jarrah…Seventy-three years after Nakba, life for Palestinians remains poor. Some 5.6 million Palestinians remain refugees…Other Palestinians live inside what is now Israel. They live as second-class citizens…”

Senator Raff Ciccone (ALP, Vic.) – May 11 – “Israel truly is the miracle in the desert. Its formal re-establishment all those years ago facilitated the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, who together have created a state that they can be incredibly proud of.” 

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