Australia Resumes Use of the Phrase ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’

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Australia Resumes Use of the Phrase ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’

Internationally, the decision to realign the definition is seen as very uncontroversial. But it does put Australia out of step with the United States.

Australia Resumes Use of the Phrase ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’
Credit: Depositphotos

The Australian Labor government has officially reverted to using the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” reversing a position laid out by the previous Coalition government. The decision, announced by Foreign Minister Penny Wong, aligned Australia’s position with those of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, but puts Australia at odds with the United States. 

The move sparked wild consternation among the opposition, conservative elements of the media, and Jewish/Zionist groups. Many argued that the decision was only made to appease far-left factions in the Labor Party. 

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry welcomed the decision, calling it a “significant and important development in the Australian position.” It argued the next step should be for Australia to “recognize the state of Palestine swiftly, in accordance with international law and international legitimacy.”

Speaking to the Senate, Wong stated that Australia was “gravely concerned about alarming trends that are significantly reducing the prospects of peace.”

“In adopting the term we are clarifying that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza were occupied by Israel following the 1967 war and that the occupation continues and reaffirms our commitment to negotiate a two-state solution in which Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist,” she said

The decision was overall modest, with legal scholars arguing it was the minimum Australia could do. It didn’t – as 138 other nations do – recognize Palestine as a nation. And the Labor Party still considers itself a friend of Israel, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese previously calling criticism of Israel from within his own party “unproductive.” 

During both the 2018 and 2021 Labor national conferences, a resolution was backed that “supports the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist as two states within secure and recognized borders” and “calls on the next Labor government to recognize Palestine as a state.”

The Labor conference held over the weekend saw debate nullified, with the various factions – who at times operate as almost separate entities – agreeing to avoid any major conflict. This included not putting recognition of Palestine to a vote (wanted by the hard-left and even some of the right).

Nevertheless, Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein was critical of the change in designation around the occupied territories, even if he welcomed Labor not yet recognizing Palestine as a state. 

“Given the government’s recent misguided and misconceived policy changes on Australia’s stance toward the West Bank and Jerusalem, which will only encourage continued Palestinian intransigence and refusal to negotiate with Israel, and make a two-state outcome more difficult to achieve, any additional changes to the [Australian Labor Party]’s stance on ‘Palestine’ would have been especially unwelcome and counter-productive,” Rubenstein said.

Federal opposition leader Peter Dutton led the coalition’s criticism, suggesting during question time that the prime minister had hung “one of Australia’s closest Middle East partners out to dry.” 

Opposition MP Julian Leeser took it one step further, arguing that Labor was “controlled by the hard left and trade union movements and the Jeremy Corbyn faction [that] doesn’t even want to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist.”

“This decision will not help a two-state solution on the ground. It will only embolden and please organizations that we in this country have listed as terrorist organizations like Palestinian jihad,” he said.

In The Australian – traditionally a strong supporter of Israel – Greg Sheridan wrote the decision was “wrong on the international law, wrong on the morality of the situation and probably wrong on the politics.”

Seemingly, however, this minor decision does align itself with international law. Speaking to The Diplomat, Amy Maguire, an associate professor in human rights and international law at the University of Newcastle, said the decision “aligns Australian practice with orthodox practice in the international legal system.”

“This is of course a highly politicized issue and there are strong views across a wide spectrum. As an international law scholar, I am confident in the view that the phrase ‘occupied Palestinian territories’ is uncontroversial in legal terms,” she said. 

A Recent History 

Australia has moved away from the term “illegal” since 2014, as well as avoiding the words “occupied” and “occupation” when discussing Israel. Then-Attorney General George Brandis noted in a 2014 Senate hearing that “the description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful.”

Maguire emphatically disagrees: “I wouldn’t say that it is my personal opinion. It is a statement of legal fact. Israel is the occupying power in the occupied territories.”

Sydney University Challis chair of international law Ben Saul argued that the position of the previous government was “extreme,” mirroring many of the U.S. policies and positions toward Israel implemented by Donald Trump.

“…[T]he fact that this is even news demonstrates how extreme the Morrison government was on this,” he said in reference to Australia’s temporary decision to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its opposition to U.N. resolutions condemning illegal Israeli settlements and violence.

“We certainly don’t tolerate the same in relation to, for example, Russia and its claims to have annexed Crimea and other parts of Ukraine – it’s illegal, it is occupation, it’s a crime of aggression; every state that believes in international law has condemned it.”

The United Nations’ longstanding condemnation of Israel’s occupation was recently reasserted in a resolution on December 30, 2022. It noted Israel’s obligations, as the occupying power, to: comply with the Geneva Conventions on the protection of civilians during war, cease violating the human rights of the Palestinian people, and stop construction and dismantle the wall it has been building in the occupied territories. 

The recent violence in the occupied territories by Israeli military and settlers has been widely condemned. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both labeled the occupation “apartheid,” while even the Israeli military has vowed to crack down on settler violence. 

Internationally, the decision to realign the definition is seen as very uncontroversial. Israel’s opposition to the term will of course remain, but they have criticized the United States regularly and the two remain in lockstep – with U.S. President Joe Biden stating as recently as last month, “If there wasn’t an Israel, we’d have to invent one.”

The recent political disharmony that has seen mass protests in the streets of Israel will not endear their political decisions to the wider public. Australia may have turned their back on the United States in this instance, but by aligning with the majority of its allies, it won’t be seen to be controversial. Instead, it will be seen to be following international law.