By Sonja Karkar
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
Looking at the photos of the Gush Shalom convoy on Saturday to bring relief and protest the siege of Gaza (apparently some 2,000 Israelis braved the storms and bitter cold), I couldn’t help remembering how wonderful Australians are when any human calamity strikes here at home. One event that particularly sticks in my mind is the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in eastern Australia that came so close to Melbourne the world reported that Melbourne was in flames. It wasn’t, but the ash from the fires hung heavy in the air and there wasn’t a home that didn’t have coatings of black ash outside and even inside the house. It didn’t take long for people to mobilise and begin putting together relief packages for those who had lost everything in those fires. Radios ran hot with stories of this mass relief effort and it warmed the hearts of all to know that neighbours and strangers were so ready to come to the aid of those less fortunate.
Australians are well known for their generosity in these calamitous circumstances – cyclones, fires, floods and earthquakes: they can be relied on to mass a campaign in no time at all. Sometimes that extends to tragedies occurring in foreign lands, particularly if our government takes the lead. But there are some causes that fall on deaf ears and one that rarely opens doors is the occupation of Palestine. Certainly, our governments – whether Labor or Liberal – have never been known to show any compassion for the Palestinians and regrettably our media follows suit.
Last week, an event happened in Gaza that should have hit the front pages of all our newspapers – it didn’t. When hundreds of thousands of Palestinians brought down the wall to escape Israel’s punishing sanctions that had increasingly deprived them of electricity, fuel, food and medicines for almost two years and had subjected them to barrages of bomb attacks killing some hundreds of civilians and maiming and traumatising many more, there were no headlines. The sudden death of Australian Hollywood actor Heath Ledger was deemed immensely more newsworthy than the deaths and extreme distress of others, and pages of his short life and work told us so. Only the week before, we had been filled with news about the killing of whales by Japanese whalers in the great southern ocean and page after page and replay after replay told us about the efforts of Australians to save the whales. Even the government got involved. At the same time that this was happening, Israel was bombarding Gaza mercilessly after it had hermetically sealed the 1.5 million Palestinian population into their Gaza prison so that there was no way that they could escape. Not a word of condemnation, not a murmur of compassion was heard from Australians.
There were a few attempts to shake the media into listening, but the courageous efforts of those who could protest in the early morning when radio programs and television cameras are primed ready to give listeners and viewers the news of the day before they leave for work, fell on deaf ears. Only a mass protest of thousands could have forced the media chiefs to rethink their news priorities, but in a catch-22 situation only the media can really mobilise those thousands.
Letters to the government and the Israeli embassy have brought no announcements. Not a single human rights organisation like Amnesty International Australia or World Vision has held a media conference to protest Israel’s illegal collective punishment of the Palestinians and no emergency relief was promoted over the air waves. In fact, while the World Vision website says that it works in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, there is not a word about the current crisis in Gaza or how one can donate to the Palestinians. Its emergency appeals certainly include deserving causes like the Bangladesh Cyclone, the Sudan Crisis, the Kenya Crisis and the Papua New Guinea Floods, but the very human calamity in Gaza does not appear on the screen.
The churches are not much better when it comes to emergency relief for Gaza even if they are doing other ongoing good works in the occupied Palestinian territories. I know that this will upset some who believe they are doing their best to help the Palestinians, but the truth is that so much more can and should be done and should have been done years ago. Public appeals and announcements from the churches in Australia is necessary to stir the consciences of their parishioners to act. In the case of Gaza particularly, it has been necessary for a very long time.
Much has been made of Australia’s doubling of contribution levels for development assistance to the occupied Palestinian territories in 2008, but this is simply not enough. The head of Oxfam International, Jeremy Hobbs warned donor governments last year prior to their meeting in Paris to pledge funds for the Palestinian Authority that “More aid will not be effective until donor governments insist on a rapid change in Israel’s movement restrictions in the occupied Palestinian territories and the ending of the blockade of the Gaza Strip . . . [They] are not sufficiently critical of Israeli policies, which wreck the projects they fund. They are investing precious aid funds, but without holding Israel accountable this aid will be more and more ineffective.”
The blanket silence on Palestinian suffering is only compounding the guilt that people in the West have been feeling for more than six decades for not raising a single protest about the persecution and slaughter of Jews in Nazi Germany when it was happening. It is really time to separate Jewish suffering from Israel. A state that pursues policies of persecution, discrimination and oppression against another people cannot in all good conscience be supported. Yes, Israel and Zionist lobby groups hold enormous sway over what people in power and in business do, but they should not be able to intimidate the people into silence. I can still remember feeling astounded when I heard former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon say on Australian television something to the effect of “we tell Americans what to do” when he was interviewed after the Jenin massacre in 2002. No one challenged this brazen statement.
And that is the way it has been – Israel says and does what it wants and we keep quiet or rush to defend Israel like our former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer when he said that he wears Israel like a badge of honour just when Israel was mercilessly bombing Lebanon. Israel should not be granted any sort of immunity from criticism of its violence and aggression, and if it is, by cowed governments and media, we the people must speak out to stop this blind allegiance while so many other ordinary people are being subjected to Israel’s cruel and inhumane acts.
Australians have to get over the false notion that somehow Israel’s needs justify and exonerate its oppression of 4 million Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. They simply don’t and there are many groups within Israel itself who are determined to show the world that they do not agree with the criminal policies and practices of their government. They showed it last Saturday when they mounted a relief convoy to Gaza and protested against the siege.
This Friday, Australians in Melbourne can do the same. An “End the Siege of Gaza” rally will be held at the State Library of Victoria at the corner of Swanston and Latrobe Streets, Melbourne city at 5.00pm. We ask Melbournians to join the Melbourne Palestine Solidarity Network and many other groups endorsing the protest, and demonstrably show their support for the people of Gaza. It is the least that anyone of us can do when so many powerful forces are against the Palestinians in their struggle to be free in their own homeland.