Australia advised to allow more Pacific Islander workers. Japanese navy equipping small aircraft carriers. Dutton and Downer freelancing foreign policy. By Hamish McDonald.

Casualties as protests rage in Gaza and Israel

A Palestinian protester during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel–Gaza border this week.
A Palestinian protester during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel–Gaza border this week.

The Middle East flared up even more as the month began, with further civilian casualties from Saudi air strikes in Yemen, an uncertain end to the Syrian government’s bloody assault on the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, and a reminder that the Israeli–Palestinian dispute is still unsettled.

On March 30, Hamas and other Palestinian groups started mass protests along the wire fences and embankments between Gaza and Israel. Some 17 Palestinians died of gunshots, and up to 1000 were treated for bullet and other injuries. It became a competition of competing videos. Israeli authorities said troops had fired only on those trying to breach or burn the fence, and in one case shooting at Israeli soldiers. Palestinian videos showed people dropping from sniper bullets while trying to wave flags or run away.

The casualties led to protests inside Israel itself, with the Israeli group Peace Now demonstrating outside the Tel Aviv headquarters of the ruling Likud party against a “trigger-happy” policy, and retired army brigadier general Shlomo Brom accusing hard-right Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman of authorising “lethal force” as a deterrent, instead of minimal force. The United States used its United Nations Security Council veto against calls for an independent inquiry.

The Palestinians plan further rolling protests in what they call the “Great March of Return” leading up to May 15, the date they mark as the anniversary of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”) in 1948, when an estimated 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were forced out of their homes in what had become Israel. This will be the day after Israel marks the 70th anniversary of its independent state, and the US moves its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

So far the Palestinians have certainly registered their presence. But their leadership is weakened. Hamas, governing Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are losing outside funding. This week, the Saudi crown prince and effective ruler Mohammed bin Salman told US magazine The Atlantic that every people had “a right to live in their peaceful nation” and that he believed “the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land”. Saudi Arabia looked forward to cooperation with Israel once peace was reached. Arab states intent on contest with Iran and fighting their own Islamist attackers, he said, are tired of the Palestinians.

For his part, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued on a domestic political tightrope, with police looking into a third case of alleged corruption – this one involving the telecom giant Bezeq – and his right-wing supporters forcing him to drop a tentative deal with the UNHCR to resettle about half of the 37,000 African asylum seekers in the country and keep the rest.

In Egypt, politics is so easy by comparison. Former army general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has just been re-elected as president with 97 per cent of the vote, albeit with a turnout of only 41 per cent and even then with about 7.5 per cent of the ballots spoiled. Only the North Koreans could do better.

Pacific remit

As foreign minister Julie Bishop is reported to be facing another $400 million cut in her foreign aid resources in Scott Morrison’s impending annual budget, the World Bank has stepped in with a helpful suggestion on how to make up for it.

In a new report this week, the international development bank said Canberra should consider shifting the heavy reliance on backpackers for fruit picking to temporary workers from the Pacific islands.

It pointed out that 36,000 backpackers, mostly from comparatively wealthy countries, outnumber Pacific islanders by six to one in seasonal work in horticulture and other labour-intensive regional activity.

Their working holiday visas can be extended for a second year if they do three months’ work in agricultural, mining, fishing or construction industries in a regional area. Then they are free to travel and work anywhere.

Workers from nine Pacific countries and Timor-Leste have more limited fields, and are tied to a particular employer or labour-hire company. Though there have been abuses reported, the scheme is a success. Over the typical six-month stay, the islanders remit to their families an average $2200 while in Australia, and take $6650 in savings home at the end of their stay, the bank found.

The World Bank suggested “levelling the playing field” by abolishing the second-year option for working holiday-makers. If all seasonal work went to islanders, this would represent an additional $282 million in net annual income gains for the Pacific, equivalent to 26 per cent of Canberra’s entire aid budget for the region.

Plane sailing

In case anyone is wondering about the purpose of those large flat-top amphibious landing ships recently acquired by the Australian navy, the Japanese navy may be showing us what lies ahead.

Under post-1945 constitutional and political rules, Japan’s armed forces are blocked from acquiring weapons capable of projecting force far from home waters, such as aircraft carriers. But they’ve been creeping back towards this capability.

The new Izumo-class of helicopter carriers are roughly the same size as Australia’s HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide. Last month, Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said his navy was now studying whether to acquire the F-35’s short takeoff, vertical landing version, and thereby transform the Izumo ships into aircraft carriers. The option has been considered for the Australian ships, but so far rejected on cost grounds.

Downing Downer

Who speaks for the Australian government in the world? It seems that ministers and ambassadors are free to take its foreign policy where they will these days.

This week, South Africa’s foreign minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, said Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop had retracted Peter Dutton’s comments that her country’s white farmers were so persecuted they needed asylum in a “civilised country” such as Australia. They had assured South African officials these comments were “not in line with Australian immigration policy”.

Not so, said Dutton. “The statement does not accurately reflect the prime minister or minister for foreign affairs’ position on this matter,” his office said. “There was no rebuttal of the words of Minister Dutton.”

Then in London on March 29, we had Australian high commissioner Alexander Downer continuing his advocacy of a “hard Brexit” option when Britain leaves the European Union. He said the alternative of a “soft Brexit”, by remaining in the European Customs Union – a free-trade arrangement used by some non-EU members – would make Britain “irrelevant” to countries such as Australia and be a “gross act of folly”.

Downer thus aligned us with Tory figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, who think the old empire is a better prospect than the continental EU’s 450 million people. Downer was speaking at the Policy Exchange, a London conservative institute he will head when replaced by George Brandis at the end of April.

Asked if Downer was exceeding his brief by jumping into one side of this bitter British debate, Bishop said Britain’s future relationship with the EU was up to the parties involved.

“The Australian government places a high priority on commencing negotiations for a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom as soon as it is able to do so,” she said. So it seems Downer is enunciating government policy: don’t worry about European unity, pursue the trade dollars. Maybe we should be told.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 7, 2018 as "Casualties as protests rage in Gaza and Israel".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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