Gordon Campbell on Gaza and burning the Israeli flag

One of the selling points in New Zealand’s campaign for a temporary seat on the Security Council is that we have a pluckily independent voice to offer on international conflicts. This image is not entirely self-delusional. When we did occupy a temporary UN Security Council seat in the 1990s, New Zealand was forthright about the need for the international community to actively respond to the Rwanda genocide. On April 14, 1994, New Zealand, Nigeria and the Czech Republic were the only nations to call for a forceful UN intervention to halt the killings. It was a proud moment in the diplomatic record of the Bolger government.

What then, is the current National government doing with respect to the slaughter in Gaza? The death toll among Palestinians stands at 690, with 4,000 injured. By UN estimates, over three quarters of those deaths are civilians, and at least a quarter of them have been children. On the Israeli side, the civilian deaths stand at three. Some 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the course of carrying out their offensive. The casualty numbers speak volumes about the nature of this one-sided conflict.

What then, should a New Zealand with a truly independent voice be saying? Just as the Bolger government was prepared to take a stand against the Rwanda genocide, the Key government could choose to hold the Israelis to account for their violations of Article 33 of the Geneva Convention.

No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

In their official commentary on Article 33 and the logic of collective punishments, the International Committee of the Red Cross said:

In resorting to intimidatory measures to terrorise the population, the belligerents hoped to prevent hostile acts. Far from achieving the desired effect, however, such practices, by reason of their excessive severity and cruelty, kept alive and strengthened the spirit of resistance. They strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice and it is for that reason that the prohibition of collective penalties is followed formally by the prohibition of all measures of intimidation or terrorism with regard to protected persons, wherever they may be…

Yet regardless…over the past fortnight, Israel has been inflicting collective punishment on the penned up people of Gaza, on a massive scale. Civilian areas packed with refugees have been bombed and shelled. Medical facilities have been targeted by air strikes. Unarmed teenagers have been picked out and killed by snipers. The facilities that provide electricity and clean water have been destroyed…and so on, and so on.

So far, New Zealand’s response has been limited to this press release two weeks ago, framed in the anodyne language of international diplomacy:

“We urge both sides to show restraint and immediately de-escalate the situation. Civilian deaths are unacceptable and further civilian casualties must be prevented.

“These latest incidents reinforce the urgent need for a two state solution to be reached as part of a permanent and sustainable peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mr McCully says.

Hardly comparable to our forthright stance on Rwanda. On 9 July, McCully had said this:

We call for an immediate end to rocket attacks into Israel and for proportionate responses that do not further escalate the situation.

Well, does McCully – and does John Key – now think that the Israelis have been conducting “proportionate responses that do not further escalate the situation?” And if not, what do Key and McCully intend to say about it? A lot of countries that will be voting on our Security Council bid would dearly like to know.

Some substance will be required. While a ceasefire and talking is obviously preferable to the current carnage, the reality is that – in the context of the Israel/Palestinian conflict – “peace talks” have been merely a figleaf for the ongoing stealing of Palestinian land, and the brutalisation of the populations of Gaza and the West Bank. An inhuman status quo cannot be the basis for peace talks that have any integrity, or future.

During the past fortnight, the only positive development has been the tentative steps towards co-operation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Naturally, these moves to Hamas/PA unification have been denounced by the Israelis.

The outraged beat-up by RNZ this morning about the burning of an Israeli flag at a demonstration occurred in a free speech vacuum. Morning Report seemed totally unaware that our Supreme Court had ruled three years ago that the burning of a flag – even a New Zealand flag at an Anzac day ceremony – is a legitimate form of political protest, protected by our Bill of Rights protections for free speech.

In the US, the Texas v Johnson case had similarly found that flag burning is symbolic speech, protected by the First Amendment. If you find that symbolic speech ruffles your feathers, the chances are that is the point of the protest. Yet it is not open slather. There are offensive forms of protest behaviour that are not protected yet flag-burning is in almost all circumstances a protected form of symbolic speech. In her dissenting Court of Appeal decision – and her stance was later vindicated by the Supreme Court – Judge Susan Glazebrook made comments that can easily be transposed to the context of the Israeli flag burning incident:

Ms Morse’s intention was to make a political statement of views genuinely held, at a time Ms Morse considered was relevant for making the points she wished to make…Indeed, a commemoration service for servicemen and women of past wars might be seen as a particularly apt time to protest against current and future involvement in wars. The content of Ms Morse’s message was clear from the surrounding circumstances as an anti-war message, which could not in any way legitimately be seen as offensive.

During the past week, the events in Gaza and the fate of flight MH 17 have made the world look like a particularly horrible place. In both cases, two major powers (Russia and the US) have put lethal weaponry in the hands of thuggish allies who have had no compunction in using them to kill hundreds of innocent civilians – many of them children – who posed no personal threat to them. If anything, Vladimir Putin comes out better in the comparison. At least the killers in eastern Ukraine seem to have shot down MH17 by accident.

Washington Phillips
In the light of the above, some consolation may be in order. The singing evangelist Washington Philips made a handful of gospel recordings in the 1920s, supposedly with a unique instrument called a Dolceola. Reportedly, he’d died in the late 1930s. Yet thanks to this astonishing piece of detective work, almost everything we thought we knew about Phillips has turned out to be wrong. The music endures, regardless. There’s nothing quite like Phillips, and his naively, intensely compassionate sermons. IMO, “Take Your Burden To The Lord” is one of the loveliest, most humane songs in American music.