Brandis out of step with international consensus on East Jerusalem

Until George Brandis’ comments last week, Australia’s position has been to recognise East Jerusalem as ‘occupied by Israel’. AAP/Alan Porritt

Under questioning at a Senate estimates hearing, federal attorney-general George Brandis revealed that the Abbott government does not consider East Jerusalem to be “occupied”. Brandis later put out a statement making this clear. He said last week that:

The description of East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied East Jerusalem’ is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful.

While Brandis said the government supports a “peaceful solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict, he added:

The description of areas which are subject to negotiations in the course of the peace process by reference to historical events is unhelpful.

Brandis’ statement, which follows recent moves by foreign minister Julie Bishop and Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, confirms that Australian policy regarding Israel has changed significantly. This change contradicts both international law and the history of western attitudes towards the occupation of East Jerusalem.

What does ‘occupation’ mean?

On June 5, 1967, the Six-Day War began. By the end, Israel had captured the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

But Israel annexed only East Jerusalem. It claimed full sovereignty over the region in 1980. However, UN resolution 2253 (passed on July 4, 1967) rejected the annexation and the United Nations has ever since seen it as illegal.

No western country recognises this sovereignty. All describe it as “occupied”. As a consequence, all countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem.

Despite this, Israel celebrates the “reunification” of Jerusalem with annual Jerusalem Day celebrations. The Old City – with its three key religious sites of the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – is in East Jerusalem.

The occupation means that separate laws govern the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli settlements are built on Palestinian land and Israeli life is supported over Palestinian life in all sorts of ways. This includes access to water, roads and the religious sites of East Jerusalem.

It also means that Israelis move into the homes and onto the lands of Palestinians. In East Jerusalem, this occurs in neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.

Australia’s approach to Jerusalem

In 1948, Australia supported a UN decision that the status of Jerusalem should be decided by international agreement. Since then, the bipartisan approach has been to recognise East Jerusalem as occupied by Israel, but not Israeli sovereign territory.

This stance has remained firm – until now.

What does this mean for Australia’s approach?

When Brandis said that the government would not call East Jerusalem “occupied” he invoked history. Through his invocation of “historical events”, Brandis naturalised one version of history and erased another. He asked his audience to pretend that one description of the past – the one that doesn’t support Israel’s sovereignty in East Jerusalem – doesn’t exist.

In this intervention in a conflict that is bound up and discussed through competing historical claims, Brandis suggested that history is not important. Instead, he argued that East Jerusalem should live in a perpetual year zero.

In this way, the Abbott government demonstrated a lack of understanding of the conflict that has not been seen before in an Australian government.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee member, said this idea presented by Brandis “is shameful and dangerous”. She added:

Brandis, whether out of ignorance or whether out of blind bias, is trying to render Australia complicit in the Israeli occupation and is forcing it to become an advocate of international criminal behaviour.

We can consider that Brandis’ comments are not solely a misunderstanding. They are a misunderstanding that supports a deliberate policy shift in line with similar Abbott government policies.

Micaela Sahhar, a Palestinian-Australian PhD student from the University of Melbourne, told me that:

When Brandis says that terms like occupation are “pejorative” and neither “appropriate nor useful”, we are seeing an identification between an Australian government that absolves itself of responsibility for refugee deaths, and the Israeli government.

In turn, according to Sahhar, this erases the violence of Australian colonisation from its histories, and absolves an Israeli government that acts similarly harmfully towards Palestinians.

Whatever the reason for Brandis’ statement, it is clear that the bipartisan approach in Australia to acknowledging Israel’s vast occupation is over.