Australian Government use of the term ‘occupied’ when referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem

In June 2014 a minor diplomatic uproar occurred when, during Budget Estimates hearings, Attorney-General George Brandis stated :

The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful....It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott also commented at the time on this issue, asserting:

It is important, as far as you can, not to use loaded terms, not to use pejorative terms, not to use terms which suggest that matters have been prejudged and that is a freighted term. The truth is they're disputed territories.[emphasis added]

Middle Eastern media headlines highlighted the issue, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation raised the possibility of trade sanctions, and many in Australia criticised the language used by the Attorney-General.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, in a 16 June 2014 letter to the Moroccan Ambassador to Australia, clarified Australia’s stance:

I emphasise that there has been no change to the Australian Government’s position on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem … Senator Brandis’ statement was about the nomenclature, and was not a comment on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories.

Foreign Minister Bishop stated further on ABC radio:

The Coalition has never disputed the historical fact that, in 1967, Israel occupied east Jerusalem.

Many critics argued that the Attorney-General’s and Prime Minister’s statements in particular represented a shift in Australia’s Middle East policy. Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek, for example, noted at the time:

Until recently there was bipartisan agreement that the building of settlements was not in line with international law and that East Jerusalem—bipartisan agreement that East Jerusalem is occupied territory. It has seemed, from Julie Bishop’s comments and George Brandis’ comments that they have retreated from that position.

But does the language used by the Government, including in its clarifications, represent an actual shift in policy?

Aside from the statement by Foreign Minister Bishop on ABC radio cited above, it is difficult to find any Australian Government minister using the word ‘occupied’ when referring to the Palestinian territories, since about 2001. There are a couple of exceptions to this:

And it seems that the last time an Australian Government minister used the specific phrase ‘occupied East Jerusalem’ was under the Fraser Government in December 1981.

The current Foreign Minister pointed out in June 2014 that recent Labor foreign ministers Bob Carr, Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith had all referred to ‘East Jerusalem’ without adding the adjective ‘occupied’. It also appears that those foreign ministers generally refrained from using ‘occupied’ when referring to the West Bank as well.

It should be noted that shadow ministers and backbenchers, as opposed to ministers, are much more likely to use ‘occupied’ when referring to the Palestinian territories.

The Government’s lawyers still apparently consider East Jerusalem to be ‘occupied’.  During a June 2015 Budget Estimates hearing, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was asked about the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. A DFAT official responded:

The government is in receipt of legal advice on this matter. Without going into any details of the legal advice provided to the government with respect to this question, it is clear that historical facts exist that the territories were occupied in the 1967 war and have continued to be occupied.

While it therefore appears not to be a change in formal policy, the language used by the Attorney-General and Prime Minister is not only of a different tone to that used by the previous Government, but also now at odds with the Government’s own legal advice on the matter. Labor and the Coalition clearly use different language when talking about Israel/Palestine, and the fact that both the Shadow Foreign Minister and Opposition Leader explicitly stated in the aftermath of this incident that they considered East Jerusalem to be ‘occupied’, reinforces this.

This dichotomy can likewise be seen in the way the two major parties, at least while in government, talk about Israeli settlements. While in office, the Labor Government criticised Israeli settlement activity on a number of occasions, and in 2013, Foreign Minister Bob Carr began to use the word ‘illegal’ when referring to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The current Government, on the other hand, does not seem to have made any negative statements about Israeli settlement activity, and indeed, in January 2014 Foreign Minister Bishop called into question the illegality of Israeli settlements under international law.



Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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