The Guardian | 13 May 2021
Human rights groups call on Australia to drop pursuit of Israel trade deal over Palestine conflict
by Christopher Knaus
Australian and Palestinian human rights groups have urged the federal government to stop pursuing a potential free trade agreement with Israel and condemn its actions in Gaza and East Jerusalem.
The Australian government is considering strengthening its trade relations with Israel, including through a possible FTA, hoping such a deal would boost defence, cybersecurity and innovation.
Trade between the countries is already worth about $1.3bn, with Australian exports to Israel worth about $345m and imports $1.02bn.
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But the deteriorating situation in the region has prompted the Australian Centre for International Justice and the Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council to urge the Australian government to walk away from considerations of expanded trade with Israel and condemn its actions in Gaza and East Jerusalem.
The death toll in Gaza, according to the Gaza health ministry, was 48, including 14 children. A further 300 were wounded.
Six people have been killed in Israel.
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and multiple rocket barrages were launched by Palestinian militant groups at Tel Aviv, Beersheba and other central Israeli cities. The United Nations has warned of the potential for full-scale war and has pleaded for restraint and de-escalation.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is conducting a feasibility study into the potential for increased trade with Israel. In a submission to the study, the Australian Centre for International Justice and the Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council say the government “must not neglect major human rights concerns, and Australia’s obligations and responsibilities under international law”.
The submission calls on Australia to urgently review all trade with Israel and “implement effective measures to protect the Palestinian people’s fundamental human rights”.
Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, called for Australia to “change track” and condemn Israel’s actions. He said in a statement that “every centimetre in Gaza is shaking” and that the international community, including Australia, must be ashamed.
“The situation is bleak, it’s unprecedented,” Sourani said. “Even in the numerous tragic and military assaults we have been subjected to in the past, Israel has launched the worst attack ever.”
Rawan Arraf, the Australian Centre for International Justice’s executive director, said Australia was rewarding Israel with free trade despite it crippling life in Gaza and launching a “further military assault directed at civilian targets”.
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“Over several years, the Australian government has adopted an adverse and harmful approach to Palestinian human rights, whether that’s at the UN or its appalling intervention at the international criminal court at the request of the Israeli government, to prevent investigations into international crimes in Palestine,” she said.
Both the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, and the shadow foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, called on Wednesday for a de-escalation from both sides.
Payne said Australia was “deeply concerned” by the violence in East Jerusalem and called on “all leaders to take immediate steps to halt violence and restore calm”.
“The focus of all parties must be on a return to genuine peace negotiations to define a just, durable & resilient peace agreement,” Payne tweeted.
Wong said Labor had been a strong supporter of “the rights of Israelis and Palestinians” to live in secure and recognised borders.
“Labor is deeply distressed by recent violence and incitement in Jerusalem including unacceptable attacks on worshippers and rocket attacks,” she tweeted. “Labor calls on all sides to de-escalate.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s feasibility study into stronger trade ties with Israel is expected to be finalised by July. The trade minister, Dan Tehan, has previously said he wants to “move to something of more substance by end of the year”.
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (Aijac) is strongly supportive of the trade expansion. In a submission to the study, it commended Tehan’s “foresight in proposing a feasibility study on strengthening trade and investment with Israel with a view to a future free trade agreement”.
“Aijac believes a proposed free trade agreement between Australia and Israel can look beyond merchandise exchanges to consider trade more broadly – in terms of shared knowledge, technological collaboration and a gateway for each country to the other’s region,” the council’s submission said.
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“These collaborations are already being built but are largely based on strong people-to-people links and state-based initiatives. Commonwealth-level support via a significantly upgraded trade relationship would enhance these collaborations, both in quantity and quality.”
The council wants stronger trade in areas of national priority, like innovation, defence and cyber-security, enhanced access to each others’ markets through a free trade agreement, which would leave “Australian business well-placed to reach a large market in the Middle East”.
The council is also hopeful of increased collaboration on shared challenges such as water security, bio and medical research and digital technologies.
In a separate media release, Aijac condemned the rocket attacks from Gaza, saying they had targeted civilians.
“The targeting of civilians is a war crime and is never acceptable, but the latest violence is particularly egregious,” Aijac’s chair, Mark Leibler, said.
Aijac called on the “entire international community” to condemn the attacks.
Save the Children, meanwhile, has demanded all actors cease targeting civilians, including children. Jason Lee, country director in occupied Palestinian territory, said families in Gaza were living in overpopulated areas and under blockade, meaning they had nowhere to flee or take refuge.
“Our staff are struggling to support their terrified children,” he said. “For them, as with all families in Gaza, the last 48 hours reminds them of the horrors they have witnessed over the last 12 years in three Gaza wars. We call for all sides in the conflict to take immediate steps to de-escalate and stop this deadly cycle of retaliatory actions.”