Why worry about Syria when you can pick on Israel?

Why worry about Syria when you can pick on Israel?

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

The Punch – 18 Jun 2012

In a famous incident on an episode of ABC’s Q and A, almost exactly one year ago, comedian Sandy Gutman (aka Austen Tayshus) berated Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon for her defence of the NSW Greens’ decision to adopt a boycott of Israel. The implementation of this boycott policy in Greens-controlled Marrickville Council had caused a huge PR disaster for the Greens and probably cost them the State seat of Marickville in the then-recent NSW elections.

Referring to Rhiannon’s support for the 2010 “flotilla to Gaza”, Gutman said to her:

Can I just ask you why you’re so obsessed with Israel? Why not, say, North Korea or China or Somalia or Cuba or any other country…

In fact, why don’t you send a flotilla to Syria?

… Because Syria has now murdered 1100 people of its own citizens. Why aren’t you on – why aren’t you on that flotilla? That’s what I want to understand.

While the deaths of the 1100 Syrians that Gutman referred to were tragic in themselves, the episode was taking place while the uprising in Syria was in its infancy. At the time, those of us who watch the region were expressing our disappointment at the lack of attention that the escalating conflict in Syria was being afforded by the largely mute international community.

A year on, the situation has changed somewhat.

It took another 10,000 deaths, but the conflict in Syria is finally on the public’s radar. Some international bodies have even been trying to deal with the issue. The Arab League took action by sending an observer mission led by a suspected war criminal to observe that there was nothing bad happening. The UN then decided to up its game and send its own mission, which has been doing a great job observing the war crimes being committed by the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, the United States has long-since ended its initial hesitancy to speak out publicly against the crimes of the Assad regime and has been rampantly condemning Syria over the past few months. After the Obama Administration “broke the seal”, other countries began to follow suit, including Australia.

After the recent massacre in Houla – which Syria expert Dr Jonathan Spyer, who spent some time embedded with the Syrian opposition, says was no different from the many other massacres that have occurred there aside from being better reported – the condemnations have reached a new and unprecedented intensity. The UN has condemned the killings in the “strongest possible terms” and, as renowned American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg put it, the US has been providing the Syrian opposition with “very strong language to describe Assad’s various atrocities”, including “some of the most powerful adjectives, adjectival intensifiers and adverbs ever aimed at an American foe” and a whole arsenal of synonyms for “repulsive”.

That said, a certain segment of the Australian public does not yet seem to have joined this particular bandwagon. Twelve months after Gutman’s prescient question and Senator Rhiannon has yet to call for a flotilla to Syria (incidentally, there was a flotilla to Syria … of Hizballah supporters to help their patron Bashar Assad).

The extreme left groups who like to vociferously condemn Israel every time it so much as sneezes have been uncharacteristically silent over a conflict happening just over Israel’s border that has seen more innocent people killed than in all the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians since 1967 put together.

There was no word from these groups when Assad began shelling Palestinian “refugee camps” in August last year, killing several and displacing thousands. This silence continued when reports emerged earlier this year of Palestinians being used as human minesweepers by the regime. There was not a peep from Rhiannon or her bedfellows when 1,000 Palestinians from Syria were stranded on the border with Jordan because the Jordanians have a policy of not admitting Palestinians, despite taking in over 100,000 Syrians.

Tens of thousands dead, untold suffering amongst millions more – including tens of thousands of Palestinians – and Marrickville Council has yet to flex its foreign policy muscles. The groups who have been adamantly not condemning Syria, however, include not only the NSW Greens.

We have yet to see any strong condemnation from such champions of Palestinian rights as Australian Friends of Palestine, Australians for Palestine, Australians for Justice and Peace in Palestine and other associated groups – all of whom have spent the past year blockading Australian chocolate shops that use an Israeli franchise.

“Pro-Palestinian” groups have even seen fit to annoy commuters in the Sydney CBD and give racist speeches in order to commemorate the establishment of the State of Israel, but have not yet had any inkling to hold even a small “vigil” in solidarity with the Palestinians in Syria.

Someone more cynical than I would probably draw conclusions from this phenomenon. It could be that these groups do not really care so much for the “Palestinian cause”, or about Palestinian suffering but are in fact motivated by some kind of irrational and venomous hatred of all things Israeli. Perhaps Arab and Palestinian deaths do not count so much in their eyes when Israel hasn’t been doing the killing.

This line of thinking is dangerous. It could lead to certain other conclusions as to their motivations, possibly involving some forms of racial prejudice.

Fortunately, I’m not quite as cynical as that. I’m sure there’s another explanation. I am, however, having some difficulty in figuring out why the 14 months of civil war happening a stone’s throw from the Palestinian territories has slipped-by the many groups dedicated to that area.

Perhaps it is simply an indictment on the terms of reference in this debate – where the “pro-Israel side” is primarily the side calling the formation of a Palestinian state, the end of corruption/extremism in the Palestinian leadership and the end to discrimination against Palestinians in Arab states.

Those who claim the mantle of the Palestinian cause seem set on the destruction of Israel and little else, they are willing to look the other way when an “ally” (read: arms-dealer) of the Palestinians like Bashar Assad is responsible for Palestinian suffering  – as long as he continues to be devoted to the destruction of Israel.

Perhaps it is time to recognise that being “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” are not mutually exclusive. All reasonable parties want to see a lasting peace based on a two state solution, which involves both sides having a state of their own.

The poisonous fixation on the destruction of Israel to the exclusion of all else is sheer hypocrisy. It is not pro-Palestinian, because it is opposed to Palestinian statehood and self-determination through any peace agreement not involving the destruction of Israel.

By blinding “pro-Palestinians” to the atrocities in Syria it would seem that this obsession has also somewhat detracted from the humanity of these “activists”. Despite the language of human rights often employed, it appears that the worldview of too many in the nominally “pro-Palestinian” camp revolves around hatred and destruction, not rights and peaceful co-existence.