Gaza usually seems far away from New Zealand and well outside our circle of interest. Then every few years it suddenly springs into our living rooms – looming confrontingly close and demanding our shocked attention.
Right now we are in one of those appalling “close” periods after the dramatic Hamas attack on Israel 10 days ago and the inevitable horrific Israeli retaliation which is following.
Most of us simply shake our heads. We have lived our entire lives with “violence in the Middle East” as part of the wallpaper of our existence. The cycle of fighting and bloodshed seems endless and endlessly brutal. It seems there is no possible solution.
But here we are wrong. There is a clear reason for the violence and a clear solution to this seemingly intractable issue. And despite being so far away we also need to understand that our political leaders in New Zealand, and other western countries, are the biggest part of the problem.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was right to condemn the killing of Israeli civilians and taking hostages. Killing or abducting civilians is a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and should be universally condemned.
But for the past 75 years, successive New Zealand governments, including our outgoing Prime Minister, have been deathly silent on the myriad war crimes committed by Israel against Palestinians. This has emboldened Israel to act with impunity as it bulldozes more Palestinian homes, steals more Palestinian land, builds more illegal Jewish-only settlements and casually kills more of those who resist its military occupation.
By making only whimpering noises of objection, New Zealand is betraying Palestinians and their right to human solidarity in the face of the most appalling oppression.
So why are there 2.3 million Palestinians living in a tiny, hopelessly-overcrowded place surrounded, like animals in a cage, by a highly militarised security fence, patrolled by legions of Israeli troops? The answer is simple and tragic. From 1947 to 1949 heavily armed Israeli militias attacked Palestinian towns, villages and rural communities across vast swathes of Palestine and drove everyone at gunpoint into the tiny coastal area of Gaza or into the West Bank of the Jordan River.
Israeli militias were following a detailed strategy called “Plan Dalet” – the plan to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from most of Palestine to artificially create a majority Jewish state. Many massacres of Palestinians took place. The 2022 film “Tantura” tells the story of one of these massacres at the small Palestinian fishing village of Tantura.
Driving indigenous people off their land because you want it for yourself is called colonisation. It happened to Māori in New Zealand, Aboriginals in Australia, to black South Africans and to first nations people in North America. It is happening to Palestinians in Palestine today.
80% of Gaza’s population are Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants.
These refugees have the right under international law to return to their land and homes but despite numerous and repeated United Nations resolutionsdemanding they do so, Israel has refused. (New Zealand votes to support these resolutions but it is lip-service only)
Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion who oversaw the ethnic cleansing said Israel wouldn’t have to worry about Palestinian refugees because he said “The old will die and the young will forget”. Ben-Gurion’s comment, with its layers of colonial racism, was as wrong for Palestinians as it has been for any indigenous people.
Palestinian families can go to Israel’s “security fence” along the east side of Gaza and see their family and ancestral lands around their bulldozed villages to which Israel says they will never be allowed to return. On the Israeli side of the fence there are 7 people per square kilometre. On the Gaza side of the fence there are 7,000 people per square kilometre.
These Palestinians want to return to their land but when they have protested, appealed for international help, sent delegations and deputations around the world, argued their case using international law or appealed to the United Nations Security Council they have been met with sympathetic noises or embarrassed silence from western countries, New Zealand included. There are never any consequences for Israel refusing to allow these refugees to return home.
Many decades later Gaza remains the largest open-air prison in the world. A prison for Palestinian refugees who refuse to forget and continue to demand their freedom.
Is there any one of us in the same position who would not demand our right to go home and take up arms to fight for our freedom? When western countries like New Zealand turn their backs what other options do Palestinians have?
Under international law Palestinians have the right to fight for their freedom just as Ukrainians have the right to fight Russian occupation of their country.
The situation doesn’t need negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It simply needs western countries like New Zealand to set a timeline, with accountabilities, for Israel to abide by international law and United Nations resolutions. That will bring justice to Palestinians and peace to the Middle East.
The immediate situation is a slow-motion catastrophe. “We are fighting against human animals” said Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant last week as he announced what he called a “complete siege” on Gaza.
Hearing racist, dehumanising language about Palestinians from Israeli politicians is nothing new but this time it was done to prepare us to accept the massive death toll which Israel is inflicting on these Palestinian refugees which Israel’s colonial policies created.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention it is a war crime to use collective punishment against civilian populations. It’s unlawful to punish a whole group for the actions of a few. It is also unlawful to withhold, food, water and the essentials of life from people living under military occupation as the people of Gaza are. But the western world is silent.
So far our Prime Minister, true to the tradition of cowardly New Zealand political leaders, has not spoken out about any of these war crimes and yet more than 2,300 Palestinians have been killed, including well over 700 children. Mr Hipkins says New Zealand will be prepared to offer humanitarian assistance but what good are bandages after the orgy of killing Israel is conducting against Gaza. Speak up and hold Israel accountable Mr Hipkins.
Once again the people of New Zealand are having to stand up and take action in solidarity with the Palestinian people because, in the words of the great Roger Fowler song, “In our thousands and in our millions, we are all Palestinians”.
There are times when I feel ashamed to be a New Zealander. This is one of them.