Fire extinguishers, not guns

by Emma Shortis
The hands of a protestor dressed as a Palestinian prisoner are seen in plastic handcuffs wearing a ‘save Gaza” wristband during a Pro-Palestine demonstration in Sydney, Sunday, February 11, 2024. (AAP Image/Mark Evans) NO ARCHIVING
AAP Image/Mark Evans


The Australian Government should be using its unique position to leverage our close relationship with the United States over the ongoing conflict in Gaza, writes Dr Emma Shortis.

Australia is not powerless on the international stage. We have significant agency.

Australians are right to be ashamed that this agency is not being fully exercised to stop the indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza.

While the decision to reinstate funding for UNRWA is a welcome development, we could be doing much more. The Australian Government can and should, for example, immediately halt arms and ammunition exports to Israel and revoke funding agreements with Israeli weapons manufacturers.

More importantly, the Australian Government should be using its unique position to leverage our close relationship with the United States.

While news that the US has drafted a new security council resolution calling for an “immediate ceasefire” is an important step, the Biden administration continues to hedge.

By not taking more decisive action, President Biden is ensuring needless death and a dangerous deterioration in regional security; he is also risking his own democracy. Australia has a significant stake in avoiding both of those outcomes and given our closeness to the United States, considerable ability to make our concerns known to those with the power to address them.

In his State of the Union address this month, President Biden said that he has “been working non-stop to establish an immediate ceasefire “and that the United States military will “lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the coast of Gaza that can receive large shipments carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters.”

The United States has apparently been forced into this position by Israel – Israel’s use of American bombs is blocking access. To many Americans, the hypocrisy is unbearable. In Washington, D.C. last month, a young man set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy. 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell’s “extreme act of protest”, as he called it, was a rejection of “complicit[y] in genocide”.

As he yelled “Free Palestine!” and succumbed to his trauma, Bushnell had a gun trained on him by first responders to the scene. In the video recording, one can be heard yelling, “I don’t need guns, I need fire extinguishers!”. Bushnell later died from his injuries.

This young man’s horrific death is indicative of the depth of feeling in the United States. Young people, in particular, feel deeply betrayed by the Biden administration’s unwillingness to make a significant enough intervention to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of Palestinians, particularly children.

They are confronted every day by the horrors of what bombs, rockets and guns are doing to the people of Gaza. They are begging the President for fire extinguishers. But that is not what they are getting.

In Gaza, the death toll has now surpassed 30,000 people and continues to climb.

Those who have not been killed are being starved. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2.2 million Palestinians are facing “crisis” levels of food insecurity, “or worse”. 83% of groundwater wells are not operating. No wastewater treatment systems are working. Only 12 of Gaza’s 34 hospitals remain even partly functional.

This situation is untenable. It is unendurable.

Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023.
CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons / Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages

Israeli officials and military have said they are attempting to limit civilian casualties. In January, the International Court of Justice required that Israel take “immediate and effective measures” to protect civilians in Gaza. According to Amnesty International, “Israel has failed to take even the bare minimum steps to comply”.

If destruction of Hamas is the measure, the Israeli approach is not working. Only one high-level Hamas official has been killed, and according to American officials, about 80% of the tunnel network under Gaza remains intact.

Hamas is not destroyed. And Israel’s actions are in fact doing precisely the opposite – radicalising a generation of Palestinians enduring unspeakable collective trauma.

Since the horrific attack of October 7, the Biden administration – with the support of the Australian Government – has engaged in urgent “shuttle diplomacy” in an attempt to broker the release of hostages and a ceasefire. Biden continues to assure Americans that he is working hard behind the scenes.

In December, the Australian Government rightly voted for a humanitarian ceasefire, and the language is getting stronger: in mid-February, Foreign Minister Penny Wong warned that Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah would have “devastating consequences” and that it would “cause serious harm to Israel’s own interests”.

Benjamin Netanyahu has said that a ceasefire would not change his invasion plans – it would only delay them. Netanyahu’s intransigence is visibly frustrating to the Americans, who nonetheless have continued to veto UN Security Council resolutions for a ceasefire.

The truth is that the Biden administration has significant power to mitigate the extraordinary suffering happening in Gaza, and the vicarious suffering that is happening domestically – a growing resentment that is now so strong it is leading to “extreme acts of protest” and is fracturing the voting coalition that brought Biden to power. Given Biden’s opponent and the threat he poses to our “shared value” of democracy, this has critical implications for the future of the Australia-US partnership.

United States President Joe Biden and Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after a bilateral meeting during the The Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Sunday, November 13, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

This should be the uncompromising message of the Australian Government to the United States.

While the history of the region and this conflict are complex, this question is not. The international response, particularly the response of open democratic societies like Australia, should be based on the principles of humanitarian law as it applies to all peoples everywhere.

Fire extinguishers, not guns – especially where children are concerned – should be the underlying principle of our “shared values” with our closest ally. The Australian Government has the capacity and the responsibility to make that clear.

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