Big Issues

“We Are Absolutely Complicit”: Senator David Shoebridge On Israel’s Gaza War

israel gaza anthony albanese shoebridge

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Since Hamas launched its attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, Israel has decimated Gaza in retaliation, killing more than 29,000 Palestinians. As a result, Gaza is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, one that prompted the International Court of Justice to order Israel to take immediate steps to prevent genocide. 

With minimal aid getting into Gaza, people around the world have called on their governments to halt their support of Israel as the bombing continues and protect the people of Palestine. Here in Australia, there is growing resentment towards the Albanese government for its continual support of Israel and reluctance to call for a permanent ceasefire. Eventually, after Israel bombed the declared “safe zone” of Rafah, killing more than 117 Palestinians, the Australian government (alongside the Canadian and New Zealand governments) warned Israel of the “devastating” effects of a ground assault and called for a humanitarian ceasefire. Currently, hostage release and ceasefire talks are underway as Israel plans to evacuate the civilian population and prepares to attack Rafah.

Junkee spoke to Greens Senator and Spokesperson for Defence and Veterans’ Affairs David Shoebridge to get his perspective on Australia’s responsibility (and potential culpability) in the ongoing devastation caused by Israel’s conflict with Hamas.  

Ky Stewart, Junkee: On a practical and political level, what is keeping politicians from criticising Israel or coming down hard on tactics that are creating such a lopsided casualty rate? What is it about the nature of Australia and Israel’s allyship that makes this so difficult or complicated? 

David Shoebridge: You want to look at why it is that our political system is failing and why Labor in particular, but it’s the same for the Coalition, are failing to do what I think millions of Australians and any fair-minded observer would say they should do, which is call out the genocide that’s happening in Gaza and speak out against the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians. 

Why isn’t that happening? Well, in many ways, yes, this is Israel’s war but it’s also the United States. We’ve seen that with the most recent [proposed] provision of billions more dollars of US munitions to Israel. The United States sees Israel as its critical ally in the Middle East and they will, it appears, just ignore the genocide that’s happening now and continue to funnel support. That’s the United States’ position and I think people are wondering, ‘Why doesn’t Australia have an independent position?’ And the answer is both the Coalition and Labor have decided that Australia’s security is served by having nothing between us and the United States. Whatever action the United States takes, we won’t criticise and Australia has been absolutely attached to the United States. They think that that’s the way of keeping Australia safe and secure. Whether that involves us going to war in the South China Sea against China, or in this case, being totally uncritical of Israel. 

On a narrow political point, this is also the Albanese government desperately keen to ensure that the AUKUS deal remains on track. One of the risks to the AUKUS deal is the United States might say, ‘Well, why would we give some of our precious nuclear submarines to Australia? They may not use them when we want them to’. The Albanese government is desperate to convince the United States that whatever they want, we’ll give them — if they give us nuclear submarines, we’ll use it in any conflict they want. The end result here is we are just willing to ignore the reality of what’s happening in Palestine.

Why did Israel bomb Rafah, a declared “safe zone”? What is your understanding of how safe zones work in Gaza? Is the reality that nowhere is safe as long as Israel is going after Hamas? And how would that fact inform Australia’s position of support for Israel?

This pretence that Israel is suggesting there are safe zones and suggesting Palestinians move from Zone A to Zone B [and so forth] that somehow they’re safe … It’s an undisputed fact that the most dangerous place on the planet to be a child is in Gaza. These so-called “safe zones” were part of the propaganda that we saw from the Israeli Defence Forces at the outset … and now we can see as plain as night follows day that nowhere is safe. Now over a million Palestinians have effectively been kettled into this refugee camp in Rafah, many living under tents that have been shelled and attacked. They’ve been kettled in this place at the direction of the Israeli military and now that’s been bombed and there’s the threat of a ground assault. Nowhere is safe, yet we still have a pretence from our government that somehow the Israeli military is operating within some kind of ethical framework we can understand. It is one of the most gross breaches of international humanitarian law, rules of war, and as we’re seeing in the case brought by South Africa, the Genocide Convention too.

Do you think Israel planned the Rafah attack to coincide with the Super Bowl?

The United States is far and away Israel’s most important ally in this war. The Israeli government has shown itself to be utterly ruthless and targeted in how it uses propaganda, how it disseminates information when it chooses to time its actions, so how could you, in light of that history, not put one and one together and not make two. The commencement of the assault happened to coincide at the moment when the single biggest distraction for the United States people was afoot: the Super Bowl. This moment of maximum distraction for the US population, which is increasingly horrified by what they’re seeing, [is] when they go and target 1.2 million Palestinians living in a refugee camp at [Israel’s] direction. One and one could make eight, but I think it’s much more likely given the history that one and one makes two.

Australia pulled funding from the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) which was heavily criticised and Penny Wong has since said she didn’t have all the facts when she made the decision. Why were they so quick to pull funding without evidence?

Look at the timing. If you were the State of Israel and you wanted to have maximum distraction from an ICJ ruling saying there was a plausible case of genocide, what would you want to do in the face of that? Create some activity that gives maximum distraction. Then this dossier alleging a fraction of a fraction of a percent of UNRWA staff may have had some involvement with Hamas and with the appalling activities on the 7th of October is the stuff of maximum distraction. 

The allegations made to UNRWA about the staff that were mentioned in the report that hadn’t already been killed by Israeli airstrikes and invasion were immediately sacked by UNRWA. Now we find out that, in fact, UNRWA took that action without having any evidence, just simply the allegations given by the Israeli military and government. Those allegations were forwarded to Australia and Foreign Minister Penny Wong and apparently she also didn’t have any evidence and, as far as I know, still does not have any evidence and was never given that dossier yet Australia immediately suspended payments to UNRWA. 

[There] is still no evidence [of the allegations] to date in the public domain and one of the reasons may well be that if the evidence is shown, it may actually demonstrate that it was obtained under duress and torture. [We have] the Australian government saying ‘isn’t it terrible what’s happening in Palestine?’ and now we’re suspending aid. I think there’s a backstory to this too, from the Labor government. Penny Wong went to Israel and met with some people that I don’t believe she should have met with in the Israeli government who have been driving this appalling war against the Palestinian people and [later] said that she was doubling Australia’s aid to UNRWA. When you look at the history of Australian aid to UNRWA, all Penny Wong did when she said she “doubled” the aid was that she’d just restored the aid that was cut by the Morrison government. So, we’ve got these layers and layers and layers of gaslighting of the Australian people with pretending to care about Palestine and then (without any evidence on mere allegations against the tiny fraction of UNRWA staff) suspending payments for the one organisation that’s functioning and may actually save lives. 

What are the pressures being placed on the government? Why is Penny Wong saying the situation in Gaza is bad but still sending aid to Israel? It’s as if the most she can say is “Israel needs to be careful”.

I think it’s a fair question. When you look at the substance of it, what’s actually happening? Well, we only just found out in the last 24 hours [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on February 14] that there have been, in the short period from October 7 to October 28, two more export permits granted by Australia to Israel. It adds to the hundreds and hundreds [of defence export permits] that have already been identified since 2017. Australia continues to provide aluminium to Israel, which is a core component for the domestic manufacture of arms and ammunitions. Israeli defence suppliers like Elbit Systems and Rafael, whom Australia have multimillion dollar contracts with, are potentially getting record profits from the war in Palestine. The Australian government is comfortable with the Future Fund actually investing in these corporations. They have a $450,000 investment in Elbit Systems and they’re profiting from the war on Palestine. 

[Editor’s note: Since we conducted this interview, Elbit Systems was awarded a fresh $917 million contract with the Australian Army.] 

The Albanese government is fine with that as well as us continuing to be part of the supply chain for the F-35 fighter jet. Australia makes multiple series of critical components for the F-35 fighter jet, which the Israeli Air Force is using to bomb Palestinians, including the mechanism that opens the bomb bay doors and a whole series of other critical parts. So how can you take the reality of what’s happening and marry it up against the political statements and be anything other than deeply, deeply embittered by what our government is doing?

What does Australia get in return for aid? Are you aware if we have received funding, surveillance technology, weapons or military training? 

There’s no question about it. The Australian Defence Force had to order the removal of a whole lot of Elbit Systems equipment from the Australian Defence Force, because it had been found to be a credible spyware risk for the Australian military. Between 2017 and 2023, the Department of Defence had a contract with Elbit Systems worth over $250 million. Some of these weapons may have been tested on the Palestinian people. That sounds like a horrific thing to say but that is actually part of the sales pitch that comes from Israeli defence manufacturers. These have been tried and tested on the Palestinian people. That includes some of the most horrific weapons that are being used at the moment in the conflict. There’s this appalling thing called the Spike missile produced by Rafael, which is designed to punch through the concrete walls of apartment buildings and then when it gets into the room inside, explode with a shower of shrapnel to kill everybody within a 20 metre radius inside. Horrific weapon. Yet what has Australia done? The Albanese government signed repeated contracts to purchase those weapons from Rafael and entered a joint venture with Rafael to manufacture those missiles here. 

There has been some suggestion that countries supporting Israel could have genocide charges brought against them by the ICJ — could this happen to Australia? 

What is the international obligation that’s been established under the Genocide Convention, which the world signed after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, which happened in plain view? It says not only that you must not commit genocide, and that you must not be complicit in genocide, but parties to the Convention, which includes Australia, [must] do everything in their power to prevent genocide. We are so far from meeting our obligations under the Genocide Convention. We are, I believe, absolutely complicit in what is happening in Gaza and in this genocidal attack on the Palestinian people. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Getty