Gaza stance embarrassing for New Zealanders

Sometimes it’s an embarrassment to be a New Zealander.

It was one of those times last week when Foreign Minister Murray McCully sided with the US and Israel over the latter’s brutal attack on the protest flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Gaza.

While other countries were condemning the Israeli outrage and ordering ambassadors in for a diplomatic dressing down McCully simply invited the Israeli ambassador in for a chat and told media he had left the ambassador in no doubt as to New Zealand “concern” over the deaths. That was as strong as it got. He then told us the ambassador had “outlined the difficulties faced by Israel in relation to Gaza, and the importance of the blockade to the security of Israel and issues around Gaza.” In other words McCully became an apologist for the cowardly act of brutality which saw at least nine aid workers killed in the Israeli military assault.

Under widespread criticism McCully later strengthened his language but in a self-defeating manner. He condemned the violence and the deaths but refused to condemn the instigators of the brutal attack. McCully says we should wait on the result of an investigation before pointing the finger of blame. The fact the attack was an act of piracy on the high seas and made on a boat carrying food, medicine and building materials for a people suffering starvation and deprivation under a primitive military siege was lost on McCully. Throughout last week he closely echoed the words of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Our foreign policy is once more being written by the US embassy.

The attack on the flotilla has thrown a long-awaited spotlight on the Israeli/Egyptian blockade of Gaza which followed from Hamas freely and fairly winning the Palestinian elections in 2006 and ousting the corrupt Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas.

Immediately following the election the US and European Union froze aid to the West Bank and Gaza. It’s clear the US support for democracy survives only as long as those elected to power support US policy. Hamas didn’t. There’s plenty to criticize with Hamas such as its views on the rights of women but it has provided the only infrastructural support for Palestinians under military occupation.

A year later the Palestinian Authority tried to wrest control from Hamas but after a brief battle Hamas reaffirmed its control of Gaza while the discredited politicians of the Palestinian Authority took over the west bank and suppressed dissent.

Since then Israel has maintained a land and sea blockade with enormous hardship to the people of Gaza. The nominal reason has been to stop arms reaching the people of Gaza but in reality the food and aid supplies have been drip-fed in the misguided hope that the collective punishment of Gazans would lead to abandonment of Hamas. If anything the opposite has been the case. Palestinians retain a truly admirable fighting spirit which has survived every brutality to which they have been subjected.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, says the Israeli embargo is illegal.

She says “international humanitarian law prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of warfare and … it is also prohibited to impose collective punishment on civilians.”

Amnesty International agrees. In its recent Annual Human Rights Report it says the blockade has “deepened the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, food insecurity and food price rises caused by shortages left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. The scope of the blockade and statements made by Israeli officials about its purpose showed that it was being imposed as a form of collective punishment of Gazans, a flagrant violation of international law.”

The United Nations representative in the territory, John Ging, has gone further and called on the international community to break the siege because of the humanitarian crisis. However western governments and their local allies have ignored the suffering. It’s been left to aid organizations to try to breach the blockade.

Israeli outrages closely resemble the brutality of the apartheid regime in South Africa which used similar methods to suppress dissent. Let’s hope the massacre on the Mavi Marmara is a marker for Israel just as the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres of 1960 and 1976 respectively marked the beginning of the end for South Africa’s racist policies.

In the meantime New Zealanders can’t rely on Murray McCully to carry our conscience. He is part of the problem. It will be ordinary New Zealanders who work effectively for a solution on Palestine as they did against the apartheid policies of the South African regime.