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Gaza: Eyeless, Voiceless and Abandoned

ByJeremy Salt

The Author

Jeremy Salt is an independent researcher who previously taught the history of the modern Middle East at the University of Melbourne, Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara. His publications include The Last Ottoman Wars. The Human Cost 1877-1923 (University of Utah Press, 2019) and The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (2008), which was shortlisted (five books) in 2009 for the US Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross award for “books that make an outstanding contribution to the understanding of foreign policy or international relations.

In a recent ABC Question and Answer program, Patricia Karvelas superintended discussion on Gaza. The panellists were four in number, Mark Leibler, Francesca Albanese, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts and Nasser Mashni. The atmosphere was striking because of the complete lack of outrage, except in a contained way from Nasser Mashni, co-founder of the Australia-Palestine Advocacy Network. 

Hamas was the centre of discussion, not Israel’s slaughter of 5000 children, by that time, surely one of the most horrific events in modern history if not history in general. Mark Leibler, the tax lawyer and chairman of the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council, concentrated on Hamas and the war crimes he said it had committed. If it were not destroyed, there would be another Jewish holocaust– a line now repeated by Israel’s lobbyists everywhere. History is twisted, the perpetrator turned into the victim: every Palestinian who died was turned by Leibler into no more than opportunity for Hamas to blame Israel.

Karvelas’ questions also centred on the harm done to Israel and not the harm done by Israel.  She constantly interrupted Nasser Mashni.  Out of nowhere she tried to humiliate him by raising a crime he had committed as a young man that had nothing to do with the Middle East.

In her later address to the National Press Club Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories, referred to the “execution squad” Mashni had faced on Q and A.  Leaving Australia, she commented on the “very basic” knowledge of the Middle East among journalists, but at least she could get away from it by flying off to New York.

While Leibler is well known in power elites around the world, his appearance on Q and A during the onslaught on Gaza put him at the centre of one life-long interest, Israel. He has another, decades if not life-long, interest in the rights of Australia’s indigenous people, whose dispossession and suffering he says took him 50 years to recognize (not until the 1990s).

Pictured: Mark Leibler on ABC’s Q&A Program that aired on Monday, 13th of November.

Leibler was involved in developing the Reconciliation Action Plan in 2006 and co-chaired the referendum council that preceded the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. He also chaired the Expert Panel on the Constitutional Recognition of the Torres and Straits Islander Australians. However, while supporting indigenous rights in Australia, he does not support them in Palestine, certainly not as laid out by the United Nations ever since 1947/8 and as understood under international law.

He will not even refer to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied, preferring the Israeli formula of “disputed.”He supports a two-state solution as long as Israel can keep a belt of settlements around Jerusalem, the western part occupied by Israel during the 1948 war and the east in 1967. As there is not even the remote possibility of a two-state solution being reached it is, of course, very safe for Leibler to support it. 

Of all the indigenous figures Leibler has worked with on the Voice and other issues, his relationship with Noel Pearson is especially close.  After graduating in law, Pearson served his time as an articled clerk with Leibler’s Melbourne taxation law firm, Arnold, Bloch Leibler.  According to Leibler, this period taught Pearson “how much our two peoples have in common.”  

“Our two peoples” includes Israel, where the Zionist colonial settler motive of ‘the land without a people for a people without a land’ was the dishonest counterpoint of white settler Australia’s terra nullius. Both were the starting point of a fictionalised national narrative. 

For Pearson, “he [Leibler] taught me about power. How to get it and how to use it” but Leibler would also have taught him about Zionism from the viewpoint of an ardent Zionist.  While he could hardly not know the other story, Palestine has never been a central issue for Pearson despite the common background of dispossession, discrimination and racism between the Palestinians and Australia’s indigenous people. 

Pictured: Thousands walk through Melbourne’s streets at a rally in support of Palestine on the 12th of November.

What Leibler did not say in the Q and A program was more important than what he did say. Defending indigenous rights in Australia, he was at the same time defending a state which had crushed them in Palestine and at the time he was speaking had already killed thousands of civilians in Gaza.  The contradictions were obvious, blatant and offensive yet Karvelas, a strong supporter of the Voice herself, let him get away with it. 

Gaza has put the intersection between indigenous rights in Australia and Palestine in the national spotlight. Tens of thousands of people have been marching through the streets of Sydney and Melbourne and other cities for seven weeks in support of the Palestinians. The size and duration of the demonstrations means that they can’t be shrugged off by a federal government caught in the web of its own contradictions. 

Condemning Hamas, it has refused to condemn the Israeli government for its response to October 7, genocidal in the view of human rights and international law specialists.  

Speaking to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce on October 11, Penny Wong referred to the “barbaric attacks” by Hamas but uttered not a word of criticism of Israel’s far more barbaric response, if that’s the word she wants to use. Anthony Albanese has had almost nothing to say. For the leaders of a country that has ratified all international treaties on international law, humanitarian law, war crimes laws and genocide, the refusal of Albanese and Wong to condemn Israel is shameful and cowardly, especially in the context of their support for indigenous rights in Australia.  

Gaza has opened a Pandora’s box for Australia. It has exposed a significant split between the government and the people. It has shown that the mainstream media is not believed or trusted as a reliable source of ‘news’ by the people pouring into the streets. It has also underlined the double standards of the government and senior indigenous figures.

Of all the figures in the Expert Panel on Indigenous Constitutional Recognition set up in 2011, co-chaired by Leibler and Pat Dodson, only Leibler and Marcia Langton have spoken out on the question of Palestine, in both cases to support not the indigenous people but the government oppressing them. Langton, the foundation chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, said Gazans had “precipitated” the Israeli siege by voting for Hamas in 2006.  Thus, by implication, they bore responsibility for their own slaughter at the hands of the Israeli military. 

She said the claim that indigenous people felt solidarity with Hamas “is false – it is the view of a tiny few…there is very little comparable in our respective situations.”   

In her view, “Hamas are terrorists …Palestinian Islamic Jihad are terrorists … the slogan ‘not all Palestinians are Hamas’ denies the fact that innocent Palestinians are being used as human shields by these terrorists.” In fact, there is not a shred of evidence that Hamas is using civilians as human shields although there is plenty of evidence that Israel does. 

Furthermore, Langton said, “I fear that our multicultural society is being torn apart by people deluded about terrorism who have used their protests as a cover for anti-semitism…no legitimate Aboriginal leader will permit our movement to be associated with terrorists.”  By comparison the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza was not terrorism on a far greater scale but only “unjustifiable.” Langton uttered not a word of condemnation of what is being described around the world as genocide. Dr David Adler, of the Australian Jewish Association, praised Langton as “the voice of reason” against “Palestinian extremists” like Nasser Mashni, while the Australian newspaper, running propaganda for Israel day after day, remarked on her “eminently sensible comments.”  

Pictured: Marcia Langton

Langton’s background includes her support for the Howard government’s 2007-12 19th century colonial-style ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory. She is surely aware that over decades Israeli politicians, media and military figures have used the same dehumanising language as white settlers did in Australia.

In the 19th century, the word ‘terrorist’ had not yet come into wide political usage.  For the French occupiers of Algeria, the resistance fighters were bougnoules (ragheads), assassins, bandits and scorpions; for the Russians in the Caucasus the Muslim fighters were bandits, outlaws and rebels; in Australia the native people were, as the Israeli defence minister has remarked of the Palestinians, “human animals, as Israeli ‘defence’ minister Yoav Gallant called them, thus, as dangerous animals, to be hunted down and killed.

His abuse of the Palestinians compares with the Colonial Times’ recommendation in the 1820s of the forcible removal of all Aboriginal people from the white settled areas of Tasmania to an island in the Bass Strait.“ Self-defence is the first law of nature,” the newspaper remarked. “The government must remove the natives – if not they will be hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed.” 

The colonist George Pearce Serocold said in the 1850’s, “in dealing with all savages you must make yourself feared.” This is the precise and undeniable doctrine of governments of Israel from 1948 to the present day, based not on morality, law and justice but force.

The failure of the Voice referendum revealed the depth of division among all Australians on the question of indigenous rights. Many who probably would have voted ‘yes’ have risen to the defence of Palestinians. They are at least consistent, compared to the defence of Israel by politicians and ‘yes’ supporting media commentators.  

Among indigenous Australians – or people “living in the continent now known as Australia” – the ‘no’ supporting Gary Foley has been defending the rights of the Palestinians for 50 years. In 2019, he and Suzannah Henty arranged a Black-Palestinian solidarity conference whose purpose was to strengthen Indigenous solidarity against the settler-colonial occupation of Australia and Palestine.  

For Foley, the Voice was “lipstick on a pig,” as he put it, avoiding rather than dealing with the bedrock issues of justice and sovereignty, a word that instantly raises the hackles of right-wing politicians and media commentators from John Howard to Andrew Bolt.  

Pictured: Dr Gary Foley

Lidia Thorpe has also spoken out strongly for the Palestinians. Other Indigenous movements also stand behind them. However, another leading Indigenous ‘no’ voter, Warren Mundine, has regurgitated Israeli propaganda for years, even blaming the people of Gaza for their own desperate situation. Australian politicians and media commentators take the same view of Indigenous Australians, dismissing the   catastrophic long-term effects of invasion and colonisation. 

The failure of the Voice referendum was partly the result of how the issue was presented. It was not convincing to the majority of voters. Some may have been and probably were racist but the opposition was not all stupid and racist as Marcia Langton said. There was something furtive in the government’s presentation which generated distrust. 

The split over the Voice followed the split over Covid and was immediately followed by the split over Gaza. All of these issues are chararacterized by polarisation, virtue signalling and abuse, with people running from one virtue-signalled position to another. The overlay through Covid, the Voice and Gaza serves a media and government determined to control debate; the media by suppression, distortion and abuse and governments by using their ever-increasing legislative, intelligence, surveillance and police powers to keep the freedom of expression within their own limits. Their tools of control have never been greater.

It can hardly be a coincidence that colonial settler governments around the world, are lining up behind Israel. Memory and the imprint of a common colonial eliminationist history seem to be guiding them into complicity. By their refusal to condemn, their continued arming of Israel and by their whining calls for restraint when there is no restraint, settler colonila governments lend themselves to the crimes being committed. The bones of the imperial/colonial past poke through everything they say and show that the past is not past after all.  



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