The inconsistent outrage of Key and Abbott

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In the face of the continued slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, the Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Abbott have offered mild concern at best. They were much more willing to take Vladimir Putin to task two weeks ago.

Israel’s assault on Gaza has so far killed more than 1,500 Palestinians and counting. The vast majority of these casualties have been civilians, a significant amount of them children, as they always are in Israel’s attacks on the territory. The bombings have destroyed thousands of homes, as well as mosques, hospitals, schools and the only power plant in the Gaza Strip. Most recently, an airstrike destroyed a UN school crowded with refugees, in what both the UN and Amnesty International have called a possible war crime.

On the Israeli side, 59 have died, only three of which have been civilians.

You would think our Prime Minister would at the very least condemn such a disproportionately brutal, not to mention patently careless, response to Hamas terrorism, if not help pressure Israel to stop its assault. After all, we like to think of ourselves as a human rights leader on the world stage. Even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s own page on the Arab-Israeli conflict notes New Zealand’s “international reputation for fair-mindedness” regarding the conflict, noting that we have criticised Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its illegal settlements alongside denouncing Hamas rocket attacks against Israel.

Instead, John Key’s comments on the increasingly alarming death toll in Gaza were decidedly tepid. When asked about Israel’s indiscriminate killing of Palestinians, Key replied that “it’s a blot on the world as we currently know it, and it’s got to end,” according to the Herald. Note the use of impersonal, passive language by the Prime Minister, referring simply to the killing needing to stop, as if it was a blizzard the world simply had to wait to pass.

When asked about Israel’s argument that Palestinians, who are effectively trapped in what is one of the most densely populated territories in the world, could simply get out of harm’s way, Key meekly offered that it was “a bit flawed in its logic.” Ultimately, he concluded, “both sides really have to stop.”

Compare the Prime Minister’s mild concern here to his comments just over a week ago, when pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine allegedly shot down Malaysian Airlines MH17, killing 298, and then blocked access to the crash site. The shooting of this airliner was also a killing of civilians who, like the Palestinian children and other civilians in Gaza, had nothing to do with the conflict they were caught in. In fact, if anything, this was a less clear-cut case, because unlike Israel the separatists refuse to admit their responsibility for the killing. Nor does Russia acknowledge supplying the rebels with the weapons that took down the plane.

Key was “deeply concerned” about the ongoing blocking of the site, and called for Vladimir Putin to “stand up” and “show leadership,” so that those who were responsible could be held to account at “a time of enormous trauma and stress for the families involved.” Surely the same kind of outrage and verbal pressure could’ve been applied to Israel’s shelling of Gaza, which has killed many more innocents?

But criticising Russia is safe, because they are run by an ex-KGB agent, routinely violate human rights and antagonise the West, so of course they are ‘bad.’ Meanwhile, as New Zealand continues its pivot toward the United States under the Key government, it would be no good to criticise America’s most important Middle Eastern ally.

Our Prime Minister was not alone in this. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has roundly been praised for his leadership, his “grit and resolve,” and his “humanitarian concern” and “empathy and compassion” in his response to the MH17 disaster. Abbott had personally spoken with Putin about setting up an international probe into the crash, and demanded access to the site, threatening to block Russia’s attendance at the G20 summit in November if Putin continued to be un-cooperative. Abbott was rewarded by a much-needed jump in his personal poll ratings, which had been suffering since the release of the Australian federal budget.

By contrast, none of this leadership or humanitarian concern was on display when Abbott commented on Israel’s actions. The Australian Prime Minister simply reiterated his support of Israel’s right to self-defence, and said the Israeli government was “capable of making mistakes just like everyone else is.” As with Key’s “both sides” comment, Abbott implicitly removed the blame for the deaths from Israel, arguing that the problem was that “many people are not prepared to accept Israel’s right to exist.”

It’s easy to criticise human rights violations when it’s convenient to wider political goals, as it so clearly is in the case of our Prime Minister and his counterpart across the Tasman. But if we want the reputation for fair-mindedness and human rights we’re known for in this part of the world to mean anything, then we have to be consistent with our outrage. If our leaders can summon even half of the stridency for the Israeli government that they showed toward Putin, that’s a start.

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