By Sonja Karkar
The news that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Australia and was welcomed by the honourable members of our parliament came as somewhat of a shock. It is one thing to have allowed a man on corruption charges as well as facing war crimes indictments into Australia at all; it is another thing that he was listed as a distinguished guest in Hansard – the official record of parliamentary proceedings – and received a resounding “hear, hear” from our elected representatives.
This is, after all, the man who approved the genocidal attack on the 1.5 million imprisoned and defenceless Palestinians in Gaza less than a year ago. This is the same attack that was the subject of numerous enquiries, not least the UN fact-finding mission led by Justice Richard Goldstone, which found that “the operations were carefully planned…and designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population…[and] that the serious violations of International Humanitarian Law recounted in this report fall within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).” With further investigations, these violations may well amount to “war crimes and “crimes against humanity”.
The 574-page report detailed meticulously the violations carried out in that military action as well as the enormous deprivations that were already being suffered by the entire population due to Israel’s punitive sanctions and long-running military occupation. It was an official assessment of what the world had seen with its own eyes during three weeks of savage attacks, notwithstanding the po-faced “explanations” given at the time by a team of Israeli ministers, generals and officials, in particular, Mark Regev spokesman for then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
There is no doubt that Olmert was responsible for the military operation on Gaza. The planning for it, according to Israeli correspondent Barak Ravid for Haaretz, had begun at least six months before the 28 December 2008 attack and this was during a brokered ceasefire that had been held by Hamas since 19 June. Part of Israel’s strategy was to provoke Hamas into action and thereby break the ceasefire. As prime minister, Olmert would have known that the multi-pronged provocations included military raids and arrests in the West Bank, no significant easing of the suffocating siege on Gaza, and the ultimate violation of the ceasefire by Israel on 4 November when it bombed a tunnel inside Gaza and killed six Hamas fighters. With no intention of itself honouring the ceasefire, Israel’s provocations finally led to the reprisals that Israel sought.
By 18 December, Olmert and his defence minister Ehud Barak gave the green light for war and ten days later, Israel attacked. On 30 December, Olmert upped the stakes further when he told President Shimon Peres that the operation was ‘the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet’. By then, the bombing campaign had already caused the largest death toll of Palestinians in a single day with the numbers mounting daily.
Olmert’s war crimes are compounded by charges of corruption at home and although he is by no means the first minister to be investigated for serial offences, he is the first to be accused in a criminal case. So, not only in running the country, but also in his personal affairs, Olmert behaved as though he was untouchable. It is a common refrain against Israeli politicians and one that the Goldstone report noted that when no action follows investigations or reports, this “emboldens Israel and her conviction of being untouchable.” Furthermore, it said, “to deny modes of accountability reinforces impunity and impacts negatively on the credibility of the United Nations, and of the international community.”
On this matter, Australia ought to reflect on its own obligations. As one of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, it has a duty to bring before its courts those responsible for alleged violations amounting to grave breaches of the Convention. The Goldstone Report, along with reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Gisha, the International Committee of the Red Cross and others, make for chilling reading of what the Palestinians in Gaza are made to endure for Israel’s “security”. Certainly, comparable concerns ought to be raised for the security of the beleaguered Palestinians and action taken when it is violated, but this is rarely the case. Our own government has shown a callous disregard for Palestinian human rights and no amount of aid can compensate for its cavalier decisions to back Israel regardless.
Only last month, The Guardian reported that a UK lawyer “is working to expand the application of ‘universal jurisdiction’ for offences involving serious human rights abuses committed anywhere in the world.” A number of Israeli politicians and military leaders have already come close to being arrested in some European countries and Olmert would most likely face arrest if he visited Britain. It is only a matter of time before those wanted for war crimes will find themselves subjected to universal jurisdiction wherever they go, not least because of Israel’s failure to undertake a genuine independent investigation into alleged war crimes as urged by the Goldstone report.
Australia’s politicians on both sides are sending the wrong message when they open their arms to every visiting Israeli official. Not only are they condoning acts that have been shown to indisputably contravene international law, but they leave themselves open to charges of hypocrisy and racism. To wit, the treatment of Dr Mohamed Haneef for allegedly supporting terrorist attacks on no more evidence than innuendo and suspicion, which at the time, then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd backed without a whimper; and similarly, the government’s ugly rhetoric about asylum seekers and terrorist links because they are trying to come to Australia illegally.
Ehud Olmert is wanted for war crimes. Those war crimes have been amply documented. As Israel’s prime minister at the time, there can be no doubt that Olmert knew the consequences of the military operations he approved and ordered. And he is by no means the only one.
Australia’s position on war crimes is very clear. A recent letter from the Attorney-General’s Department to a request for more information about Australia’s handling of cases involving alleged war criminals says that “the Federal Government takes the allegation of war crimes very seriously” regardless of where they are committed or by whom. The letter continues:
“Australia takes an active role in identifying and investigating anyone who may have had involvement in human rights abuses and war crimes, including those that have occurred overseas. If there is evidence on which to base a prosecution under Commonwealth law, the Australian Federal Police will give that evidence to the Commonwealth Director of Public prosecutions (CDPP). It is then a matter for the CDPP to consider, in accordance with the Prosecution Policy of the Commonwealth, whether there is sufficient evidence, reasonable prospects of securing a conviction, and whether a prosecution is in the public interest.”
We do not know if Olmert was invited by the Australian Government or if he came privately. However, his visit certainly generated enough interest for The Australian to publish two articles about Olmert on the one day and a convivial photo-op of Olmert with our prime minister Kevin Rudd. For those who may not remember, Olmert rang Rudd to congratulate him on winning office in November 2007. Eleven years of conservative rule and sycophantic support for Israel had been trumped by Rudd’s declaration only days before the election that his support for Israel was ‘in my DNA’. Since then, the Labor Government’s connections with Israel run even deeper.
There is a danger that Australia could become a safe haven for Israeli war criminals if political pressure is allowed to interfere in the work of the judiciary, despite Australia’s obligations under international law and Division 268 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth), which criminalises genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The question for Australians will be whether justice and universal human rights is something they wish to champion over the political concerns and self-interests of whatever government is in power. The opportunity may have been missed with Olmert, but there will be no shortage of opportunities as long as our government continues to play host to war criminals whether from Israel or elsewhere.
– Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine and one of the founders and co-convener of Australians for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia. She is also the editor of www.australiansforpalestine.com and contributes articles on Palestine regularly to various publications. Contact her at: email@example.com.