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‘Traditional Ownership’ Here But Collaboration With An Apartheid State There: Andrews And Israel

ByRobert Silverman

The Author

Robert Silverman is the pen name of a journalist and academic with extensive Australian and international experience in teaching, researching and writing on politics and history.

Other than a politician saying ‘trust me,’ there is surely no more dishonest phrase in Australia than ‘we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land.’ No other phrase is uttered so frequently, or so sanctimoniously, especially by the mining companies that dig beneath this traditionally owned land and occasionally destroy, by accident of course, sacred sites to get at the iron ore they want.

There can be no such thing as a ‘traditional’ owner of land or of anything else, of course. Something is either owned or it is not owned. The word ‘custodians’ is alternatively used, as though there is no difference between ownership and custodianship. ‘Spiritual sovereignty’ falls into the same category as ‘traditional owner.’ There is either sovereign power or there is not sovereign power. In fact, Australia’s first nations people have no real sovereignty over anything.

As they never signed a treaty and never gave their land away, the Commonwealth of Australia was built on stolen land and in essence is surely no more legal outside settlers’ law than Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

The very serious moral, legal and historic complications arising from this situation, affecting Australia’s future as well as its past, could be resolved with a treaty but that would have to confer real rights on the first peoples that Australian governments do not want to grant. The federal government’s current ‘Voice’ is a limp substitute that enables them to continue evading these issues endlessly.

Moral contradictions

The moral and legal contradictions here are duplicated in federal and state government support for another settler colony, Israel. To use the inhabitants of one ethnically cleansed land to join celebrations in another ethnically cleansed land would seem to be the height of cynicism but this is what the federal government did in 2017 by sending a delegation to Israel to celebrate the capture of Beersheba by Australia’s 4th Light Horse in 1917.

Wearing digger hats and army uniforms, aboriginal horsemen attracted all the photographers as they rode along the so-called Anzac trail. They were the descendants of the 12 ‘halfcaste’ aborigines who took part in the capture of Beersheba but, along with all other aborigines, were not given citizenship rights until 1948 and the right to vote until 1962.

Members of the Australian Light Horse Association ride near Beersheba in the southern Israeli desert on October 31, 2017, during a centennial reenactment of the historical fight of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division), which captured the area from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. AFP Photo / Menahem Kahana. (Source: The Times Of Israel)

In 1947, Beersheba (Bir Saba’) was allocated to the Palestine state but captured by Zionist forces in 1948. The population of this wholly Palestinian town and the villages in the region were ethnically cleansed. The politicians and the media reporting on the 2017 ‘celebrations’ either did not know about this or did not care to know. What they know is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, represented on the battlefield by the most moral army in the world.

These untruths remain central to the discourse on Israel. In 1920, Jews – the bulk of them recently arrived Zionist settlers – constituted about 10 per cent of the population of about 600,000 people. The only way a Jewish state could be established was through the removal of the native people.

The ethnic cleansing of 1948 – repeated in 1967 – was not a random act but the only foundation on which a Jewish state could be built. Such a state cannot credibly be called a democracy. Neither does an army that massacres civilians as regularly as Israel has done for 75 years have any claim to morality, let alone superior morality.

Paying obeisance to Israel is a rite of passage for Australian politicians, with very few exceptions. They still talk of a ‘two-state solution’ as if they seriously believe it is going to happen, while surely knowing that it won’t. Governments express their sincere commitment to peace while upholding Israel’s ‘right’ to defend itself, which in practice means its ‘right’ to ‘defend’ a land it took from other people and continues to take to this day.

There is an obvious moral contradiction in supporting the rights of the ‘traditional owners’ in Australia and ignoring them in Palestine. Perhaps this is because the rights in Palestine are too obvious to be passed off as ‘traditional.’

International law is very clear on this subject. UN resolutions have regularly affirmed the right of the Palestinians to return to their stolen land ever since they were first driven out in 1948. Whereas land in what became Australia was ‘owned’ tribally, in Palestine ownership was based on documents that would be valid under European or Australian law.

‘Terra nullius’ in Australia was followed 170 years later by ‘a land without people for a people without land’ in Palestine. Both phrases were lies, at best self-serving delusions: in both cases, the land was populated by a people whose suppression was the necessary first step of the colonial settler enterprise.

A child-killing “beacon of democracy”

Although foreign relations are the preserve of the federal government, Daniel Andrews has taken Victoria into a relationship with Israel that gives it a foreign and defence policy of its own. Andrews has long worn his undying affection for Israel on his sleeve. This year, marking the 75th year since the establishment of Israel, speaking to Jewish/Zionist audiences, he was fulsome in his praise of this “beacon of democratic freedom, the only true democracy in the region.”

In 2017, Andrews went to Israel, where he was briefed by Benyamin Netanyahu on the ‘Iranian threat.’ Three years earlier, after another trip, he had said.

“I have stood on the crest of Sderot. I have looked across the border, out to Beit Hanoun and the cities in Gaza beyond it and I have witnessed failure. It’s sad. There are 1.8 million men, women and children in Gaza. They have a right to prosperity and peace. Their leaders in Hamas have a responsibility to deliver it. They haven’t done that. They haven’t even tried because Hamas does not care about the progress of its people. They have consigned them to a life in a factory of terror because they hate their neighbours’ children more than they love their own.”

Daniel Andrews with Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: GPO/Amos Ben Gershom. (Source: The Australian Jewish News)

This last phrase is reminiscent of words once uttered by former Israeli ‘prime minister’ Golda Meir:

“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace when they love their children more than they hate us.”

For the record, by June 6 this year Israeli soldiers had killed 27 Palestinian children, 20 of them on the West Bank, including recently a two-year-old boy shot by a sniper in the back of his father’s car. In 2022 40 were killed, 16 in August alone. In May 2021, 67 children were killed in seven days. In 2014 an estimated 547 children were killed during the Israeli attack on Gaza that year. Between 318-431 were killed in the onslaught of 2008, according to Palestinian sources and the Israeli peace group Beit T’selem. In 2006, an estimated 400 children were killed during Israel’s attack on Lebanon. Israeli children have been killed too, but very few, and often in occupied territory where they were taken to live by their settler parents.

The killing of Palestinian children by soldiers and settlers goes right back to the foundation of the state and has been widely condemned internationally, but not by Daniel Andrews. Sderot, where he had stood in 2014, was built on stolen Palestinian land close to the ethnically cleansed village of Simsim. Dozens of villages in the region suffered the same fate. Residents not killed in this clearing/cleansing operation were driven across the border into Gaza.

Israel has been designated as an apartheid state by Amnesty International, by Human Rights Watch, by a report of the UN Human Rights Council and by two Israeli human rights groups, Beit T’selem and Yesh Din. It is currently under investigation for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Netanyahu himself is widely regarded as an unindicted war criminal. In 2021, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories said that, under the Rome statute establishing the ICC, Israeli settlements should also be regarded as war crimes.

Arms, apartheid and Andrews

Aware of this background, numerous corporations, government bodies and NGOs around the world have ended their connections with Israel. Andrews, however, has taken Victorians in the opposite direction. Victoria is the only Australian state with a trade office in Israel, opened by the Andrews government and recently the premier took the relationship a step further by signing an agreement with the Australian subsidiary of an Israeli corporation, Elbit Systems, that manufactures drones, helicopters, airborne guided munitions, other precision munitions, artillery systems, armoured vehicles, cyber command and control systems, and surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

While 75 per cent of this array of weaponry is sold to other countries, the rest is supplied to the Israeli military for use against the Palestinians and any other enemies. In April this year, Elbit signed a contract with an ‘international customer’ (very possibly Ukraine) to convert commercial aircraft into intelligence and electronic warfare aircraft over the next three years. Founded in a state based on ethnic cleansing and producing the weapons to kill Palestine’s native people, the Elbit Systems of Australia website is underwritten by the server’s statement that “We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community,” connections which in Palestine are being deliberately destroyed.

In February 2021, the Andrews government announced a “partnership” with Elbit Systems of Australia to establish a Centre of Excellence for Human and Machine Teaming and Artificial Intelligence in Melbourne (specifically Port Melbourne) “that will drive the research, development and commercialisation of defence technologies.” This should surely be the prerogative of the federal government and not a state that does not have a defence department and no need for defence – except against policies that in the past three years traumatised its people and brought the state close to economic ruin.

Source: Elbit Systems of Australia.

Elbit is already selling digitalisation technologies to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that include ‘interfaces’ with airborne and naval platforms and unmanned systems, some of which will be developed in Port Melbourne and adapted for potential use in emergency services such as firefighting. This ‘centre’ will work with Australian universities and research organisations to foster collaboration within the “innovation ecosystem,” a phrase tapping into concern for the planet. According to Andrews, Elbit’s ‘investment’ will bolster Victoria’s “defence chain capability.”

BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) has called on Andrews to cancel the contract with this major component of Israel’s war industry but with no effect. Complementing his support for an apartheid state whose soldiers and settlers are killing Palestinians virtually every day of the week in occupied territory, Andrews rejected the resolution recently passed by the state branch of the ALP, with support from his own faction, calling on the federal government to recognise the state of Palestine.

In the view of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died in 2021, “Israel’s apartheid is even worse than South Africa’s. We never had F16s bomb our bantustans, killing hundreds of our children.”

Source: DPC Photographer

Andrews’ hypocrisy speaks for itself. Reverential respect for the ‘traditional owners’ of land in Australia, but identification with an apartheid state in Palestine – identification with the oppressor and not the oppressed – and now collaboration with an Israeli corporation producing the weaponry that is killing Palestinians. Up to 1991, this would have put him on the side of apartheid South Africa.

Given Andrews’ admiration for ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ perhaps it is not a coincidence that the tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, armoured car and special anti-terrorist forces used against demonstrators in 2021 turned the streets of Melbourne into mirror images of the streets of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.



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