Australia: Occupied East Jerusalem a matter of grammar

Why is ‘occupied’ a difficult word for the Australian government to say?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that he refuses to refer to 'occupied' East Jerusalem [Getty Images]

The Australian Government’s decision to cease using the capitalised descriptor “Occupied” in relation to East Jerusalem flouts international law and domestic convention, and is the latest in a series of moves highlighting the government’s support for Israel and its settlement programmes. 

During a June 4 Senate committee hearing, in which the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was asked what the department’s view on the legality of Israel’s settlements was, Attorney-General George Brandis took issue with the use of the term occupied East Jerusalem.

Brandis, a barrister appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2013, labelled the proper noun Occupied as one that passed judgement on an issue that was in dispute. He repeatedly described the term as being “tendentious”, as well as a “very, very controversial assumption” and “loaded”.

The Attorney-General was adamant it was not the practice of either the current right-wing government or the former left-wing government to refer to East Jerusalem as being occupied, despite senators pointing out that was, in fact, not the case.

In the face of references to various United Nations and International Court of Justice documents stating East Jerusalem is part of the West Bank, and therefore an occupied territory, Brandis refused to back down. He reiterated his position in a statement the following day:

“Australia supports a peaceful solution to the dispute between Israel and the Palestinian people, which recognises the right of Israel to exist peacefully within secure borders and also recognises the aspiration to statehood of the Palestinian people. The description of areas, which are the subject of negotiations, in the course of the peace process by reference to historical events is unhelpful. 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 negotiations in such judgemental language.”

Brandis baldly made this statement despite the United Nations Human Rights Council explicitly stating in February this year that: “The Human Rights Council affirmed that Israeli settlements and activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, were illegal under international law … and undermined international efforts aimed at invigorating the peace process and the realisation of a two-State solution.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott followed up by saying that while there had been no change in policy, “We absolutely refuse to refer to ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem”.

The comments were variously praised by supporters of Israel and criticised by Arabic groups, as well as Australian farmers fearing live export trade sanctions from the Middle East.

But in the face of international and domestic condemnation for the shift in terminology, the government was forced to accordingly shift its stance. In a June 19 letter to the Moroccan ambassador, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Brandis’ statement “was about nomenclature, and was not a comment on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories”.

In an attempt to mollify Arab leaders in Australia, the head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, Izzat Abdulhadi, told Haaretz newspaper Bishop “emphasised that he [Brandis] meant that the government will not use the term ‘Occupied East Jerusalem’ with capital ‘O’ as a proper noun but will continue to use small ‘o’ in describing the legal status of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied'”.

A calculated change in rhetoric

The change in language used by the Australian Government to refer to occupied East Jerusalem seemed to come out of nowhere, but it’s indicative of the conservative party’s increasingly pro-settlement agenda.

US church takes vote to pressure Israel on Palestine

Following the government’s election in September, Bishop quietly directed staff at the UN to withdraw support for various resolutions relating to the Occupied Territories, including one ordering a halt to all Israeli settlement activities, and another condemning “all acts of violence, including all acts of terror, provocation, incitement and destruction, especially the excessive use of force by the Israeli occupying forces against Palestinian civilians” as well as concern at Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians.

In a subsequent interview with The Times of Israel, Bishop said of Israeli settlements on land annexed in the 1967 war: “I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal.” Bishop went on to say it wasn’t “helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re trying to get a negotiated solution. And by deeming the activity as a war crime, it’s unlikely to engender a negotiated solution.”

It is of concern that Australia’s Attorney-General, foreign minister and prime minister so poorly understand the international law and resolutions the government is signatory to and the vast majority of the international community acknowledges.

When the Australian government reneges on the occupied status of East Jerusalem – even Israel’s closest ally, the United States opposes the construction of settlements in the territory – it lends legitimacy to Israeli moves to further bind the east of the city to Israel. On the first day of Ramadan, Israel announced a five-year plan aimed at preventing the division of the city. It is apparent the Australian government will not intervene in any such moves by Israel to secure Jerusalem as its capital.

It seems for Brandis, Bishop, Abbott et al., the lives and futures of Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem come down to a matter of grammar and the determination of Israel.

Fiona Broom is a freelance journalist. She previously reported on legal, political and multicultural issues for Australian newspapers.

Follow her on twitter: @Fiona_Broom