Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged APEC to ensure fair access to Covid vaccines, as a step toward a ‘rules-based’ Pacific region. As a small, remote country, Aotearoa-NZ depends heavily on those rules. We have moral, legal and self-interested reasons to act and speak for a rules-based world and when we do, our voice carries.
We should use our voice now, while we are all staring at our contradictions. Covid shows that our health is indivisible – while the old, morally vacant politics have eroded our ability to act collectively on health, climate, inequality, violence, or the massive flows of refugees driven from their homes by from great hardship. Self-interest lies in restoring our international institutions. Institutions are not just buildings, they are agreed behaviours and rules. We need to reinvigorate especially those agreements which underpin our institutions of law, equality and science.
Why should Palestine be on our agenda? Israel’s forever-occupation is a product of the old power politics. Our donor and policy choices make us actively complicit: we are part of the Palestine problem. In May we all watched the intentional destruction escalate once more: over 260 Gazan lives lost and 13 in Israel, half a billion dollars of infrastructure and housing wrecked, one-fifth of Gazans left without running water, and ongoing expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem.
On the ground things are only worse, but the excessive violence has finally broken into the mainstream media. The New York Times, Vanity Fair and others are publishing real images of Gazans’ experience. Even staid diplomatic voices now declare that states must change their diplomacy in order to bring solutions about.
And where does Aotearoa stand? Contrast these two statements. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon used to appeal for humanitarian aid to Gaza. Now he speaks of cause, law and responsibility.
“Israel has pursued a policy of incremental de facto annexation in the territories it has occupied since 1967… This is not a conflict between equals… a powerful state is controlling another people through an open-ended occupation, settling its own people on the land in violation of international law and enforcing a legal regime of institutionalised discrimination. Calls for a return to unconditional bilateral talks every time there is a fresh flare-up in fighting will only serve to perpetuate the status quo if these root causes are not addressed. What has become increasingly clear in recent years is Israel’s intent to maintain its structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation… a situation that arguably constitutes apartheid. It is now time for the international community to recognise and confront the consequences of Israel’s policies and actions in this regard.”
Compare that with our Foreign Minister, Hon. Nanaia Mahuta, writing on December 14, 2020:
“Successive New Zealand Governments have been clear that Israeli settlements are a violation of international law. On 23 June 2020, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rt Hon Winston Peters issued a statement highlighting this and warning that annexation would also breach international law and have negative implications for the peace process… New Zealand has a warm relationship with the Palestinian Authority, but our policy to date has been one of non-recognition of Palestine, on the basis that it lacks sufficient control of its territory to constitute a state… New Zealand will continue to pursue a principled and balanced approach to the Middle East Peace Process including support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Illegality without consequence. Blind, bystanding balance. We can’t recognise Palestine because, well, because it’s so successfully and perennially occupied, for reasons that we warmly decline to analyse.
Is that really where our principles lead us?
Rather than waiting for justice to sprout like magic beans, we could ground our voice in the institutions of law and equality. International law and the Geneva Conventions are institutions of principle. They oblige our constructive intervention on behalf of all people in a rules-based world.
Law and treaty and convention are only meaningful if they are supported by action when they are breached. This report by the UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk outlines the sources of states’ legal obligations to act on the many breaches in Palestine, and it notes the characteristics of actions that have helped elsewhere.
Lynk reiterated just last week that Israel’s West Bank settlements, which have transferred 680,000 Israeli settlers onto occupied Palestinian land, should be classified as war crimes.
“The illegality of the Israeli settlements is one of the most settled and uncontentious issues in modern international law and diplomacy. Their illegality has been confirmed by the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the International Court of Justice, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention and by many international and regional human rights organizations… [but] the international community has been remarkably reluctant to enforce its own laws.”
We sponsored UN Resolution 2334 in 2016 to reiterate that illegality, but we have done nothing to make our action meaningful. We speak up for principled fair access to Covid vaccines in the Pacific, but we have not spoken to Israel’s legal (and moral) failure to provide Covid vaccines to the people of occupied Palestine. And so on.
The rules-based order we seek requires more than that.
Ardi Imseis is a Canadian law professor and former Senior Legal Counsel to the Chief Justice of Alberta. He has made an excellent argument to go further and recognise the State of Palestine. He elaborates Palestine’s qualification to be recognised, and outlines the legal and institutional value of regarding both Palestine and Israel as sovereign and territorially inviolable. In a world of state-based institutions, a State of Palestine would have access to “a number of legal principles that, by definition, can only apply to states and which are therefore the bedrock of the modern international legal order.” Recognition would also “serve as a holding operation … to halt the ongoing colonization by the occupying power” of Palestinian territory and Palestinians’ lives.
Alternative Jewish Voices has called for us to recognise Palestinians as a people with equal standing to speak about their resources, lives and aspirations. Recognition would help to bring about the preconditions for any number of states to be governed in the interest of all citizens. Isn’t that what our government says that it wants?
Early in our own uneven work of decolonisation, Aotearoa-NZ would bring a grounded, hopeful voice to the project of doing Palestine policy differently. We would add to the external pressure for constructive change. Surely that is where our values lead us. How much impact would it make, to uphold the laws that we sign or to act in the interest of a rules-based world? Absurdly, in all the decades of this occupation, it hasn’t been tried.
No single policy will please the Jewish community, because we are not monolithic. A quarter of the American Jewish voters – and a third of those aged under forty years – surveyed by the Jewish Electorate Institute now call Israel an apartheid state. Locally, we are as deeply divided. However, we are not the object of the policy and we must not be an excuse for inaction. Israel’s forever-occupation is not about us. As Sara Roy writes,
“Israel’s struggle against the Palestinian people is fundamentally about their presence and their representation to the world. It is about diminishing if not removing their certainty by depriving them of agency and capacity and condemning them for their own privation. Palestinians have resisted. Yet, their resistance is not enough… They must be seen as a civil society with aspirations no different from ours. They must be seen as the solution to the problems of their region.”
In our Jewish community, in Aotearoa and in Palestine, there can be no future based on erasing a nation. We need to embark on the work of listening, making good the harm that has been done, imagining and constructing a future together. There is no other way forward – and that is the vision to which our national policy should speak.