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In the Middle East a word can mean a lot

By Graham Cooke - posted Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The fact the Australian Government is surprised at the international reaction to what Prime Minister Tony Abbott now refers to as a "terminological clarification", over the word 'disputed' rather than 'occupied' regarding the status of East Jerusalem, reveals an appalling lack of knowledge of the sensitivities around the terms when used in the context of lands captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.

Even worse, this appears to have emerged from some domestic spat between the Attorney General, George Brandis, and the Greens which Mr Abbott, half a world away on his overseas tour, jumped into with both feet.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who appears to have been a spectator to the imbroglio, has been left with the repair job, blaming the media (as usual) for its "overreaction".


If the media is overreacting it is certainly not alone. Israeli lobbyists have been virtually dancing jigs over the Prime Minister's announcement while Arab countries throughout the Middle East are now giving serious consideration to what kind of sanctions they can apply against Canberra.

An American diplomat and close friend, recently in charge of a well-funded program to strengthen Palestinian institutions in preparation for statehood, has written to me expressing incredulity at Mr Abbott's comments.

He now tries to say that nothing has changed and Australia continues to support United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 aimed at finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. However 242 specifically refers to territories 'occupied' by Israel in 1967 while 338 simply refers back to 242 on the question of occupation.

Mr Abbott cannot have it two ways. The very fact he has highlighted that Australia regards East Jerusalem as 'disputed' rather than 'occupied', puts Australia firmly in Israel's camp. It cannot, can never, be simply a question of semantics.

To explain further, I will quote the words of Robert Fisk, a multiple award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, first for The Times and subsequently the Independent newspapers for 38 years.

Writing in his book The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk recalls that in 2001, George W. Bush's Secretary of State, Colin Powell, issued instructions to US Embassies in the region that they were no longer to refer to occupied Palestinian territories as 'occupied' and should henceforth refer to them as 'disputed' – a ruling that was followed by most American publications and some British.


After Fisk continued to use the term 'occupied' he was asked to contribute to a BBC World Service program along with an Israeli Government spokesman.

"The moment I referred to the Israeli-occupied territories an Israeli voice boomed back: 'But Mr Fisk the territories are not occupied by Israel!' I waited for a second. Aha, I countered, so you mean that the soldiers who stopped me on the road to Ramallah and Jenin last week were Swiss! Or were they Burmese?"

But as he continues, this is no laughing matter.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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