Palestinian militant group Hamas recently announced a 24-hour ceasefire after Israel ended an earlier humanitarian truce amid ongoing rocket fire out of Gaza.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said there were 116 New Zealanders in Israel and two in the West Bank registered on SafeTravel. It did not provide figures for Gaza but there is believed to be five Kiwis in the area.
On their website MFAT stated that “New Zealanders currently in Gaza are advised to depart as soon as it is safe to do so. The New Zealand government has an extremely limited ability to provide assistance to New Zealand nationals in Gaza and the security environment in Gaza may deteriorate further”
Plight of the protesters
Protests have sprung up in Auckland over recent weeks in objection to Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza. Groups including Kia Ora Gaza, Global Peace and Justice Auckland, the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the Mana Movement have all participated in the demonstrations.
The main objection to Israel’s offensive has been the loss of life. More than 1,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed since Israel launched the Gaza offensive. Compare that with 42 Israeli deaths, which include two civilians.
On top of the death toll, the targeting of schools, hospitals and mosques by the Israeli Defense Force has added insult to injury for those Palestinian supporters.
On Saturday protesters marched down Queen Street, waving Palestinian flags and various banners, to express outrage at the loss of life.
Protesters also marched to the US consulate to show their opposition to the country’s economic and military ties to Israel. With their hands held up in the air, the protesters yelled “blood on your hands” and “Israel, USA, how many people did you kill today?”
Some of the protesters held banners calling for the Israeli ambassador’s eviction from New Zealand.
Some were angry at Prime Minister John Key, one protestor saying “shame on you John Key, bring back David Lange.”
All in all the protests have been peaceful. However, the protests have not been without their unpleasant aspects.
One man defaced an Israeli flag – replacing the Star of David with a swastika, malcontented youths burnt and ripped an Israeli flag, and reports of anti-Semitism have surfaced.
Another troubling aspect to the protests has been the use of young children in the frontline of the demonstrations – reading out pre-prepared speeches, holding ‘they kill our kids’ signs, and joining in on the chants.
Many New Zealanders would reject the politicisation of children, even if the protesters are righteous in their assertions.
Politicians’ respond to the conflict and protests
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully stated earlier in the week that New Zealand fully supports the United Nations Security Council’s call for an urgent ceasefire in Gaza. However, this neutral stance has not been embraced by all MP’s in New Zealand.
Green MP Catherine Delahunty addressed the protesters by saying her party supported the imposition of economic sanctions on Israel. “Let’s get real about this issue,” she said.
Labour’s Associate Foreign Affairs Spokesman Phil Goff said the Israeli retaliation is always disproportionate.
“Having been there many times I can understand why the Palestinian people are bitter.”
However, Mr. Goff said Israel also had a right to security against rocket threats.
“Israel is a fact of life, it has a right to stable borders and peace but so do the Palestinian people”
NZ First leader Winston Peters responded to the protests and in particular the flag-burning in a far more nationalist tone.
“We do not want people to import their problems from far-off lands into this country and cause any disruption and disharmony in the streets of New Zealand,” Mr. Peters said.
This was in total contrast to Shearer’s more multi-cultural affirmation. In regards to the flag burning Shearer stated that:
“I completely condemn what they’ve done. I completely understand why they want to march but let’s march in a way that respects everybody but at the same time makes the point,” Shearer said.
“I think what we have in New Zealand is a society where we all actually get on very well irrespective of what culture and what ethnicity we come from”
The view from both sides
Despite the protester’s confident claims, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a morally complex situation – one in which has polarized the international community for decades now.
On the one hand, Israel has a right to defend itself from constant rocket attacks and tunnel attacks aimed at killing Israeli citizens. If it wasn’t for the Iron Dome weapons defense system many of these rockets would have killed Israeli citizens.
Also, the tactic of Hamas to use schools, hospitals, mosques and even United Nations places of refuge as weapons depots and command and control centers is an atrocious tactic – indeed, one that is most likely a war crime and one that is exasperating the death count.
On the other hand, the response from Israel has been aggressive and in many cases careless – leading to high civilian casualties.
The targeting of schools, hospitals and mosques has been a human tragedy for the Palestinians – especially regarding the deaths of innocent children. The conflict has increased chaos, poverty and homelessness within the Gaza strip and may be leading to more Hamas recruits.
The Gaza conflict is likely to continue on into the distant future. The conflict is a predicament of the human condition and a tragedy of history. Can people of diverse ideology and contentious history live side by side in peace?
A lot of Kiwi’s will reject the claims of the protesters and will find the atmosphere of the protests unhealthy for New Zealand society, especially considering the nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
However, as long as the protests remain peaceful, and the nastier aspects are condemned and not encouraged, then the demonstrations are welcome on the streets of Auckland.
Hence, New Zealanders can live up to the political maxims of tolerance and freedom – notions of which are desperately needed in the Gaza conflict.
We can disagree with one another, but the support for freedom of speech and peaceful assembly must always outweigh any specific disagreement. This includes tolerating peaceful protests that may be deemed ‘undesirable’ for society.
Any display of free speech and peaceful assembly and protest is by definition a positive phenomenon.