New Zealand’s decision to send defence personnel to Yemen makes us a partner to the brutal defiance of a truly “rules-based international order”, writes Ngāpuhi journalist Glen Johnson.
From the settlement’s hilltop perch, the fences and razor wire and guard towers gave way to a panoramic sweep over the territory on which a Palestinian state was meant to be established.
Dotted with dozens of illegal settlements and outposts and carved up by Israeli checkpoints, it was clear that talk of a two-state solution was empty, rendered impossible by deliberately created facts on the ground.
I was staying with a Zionist settler in Migdalim, in the heart of the West Bank, summer 2009.
Former US President Barack Obama had just given his famous Cairo address in which he vowed a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, one based on “mutual respect”. Within two years, US and NATO warplanes would be bombing Libya on entirely false pretexts.
Israel had just finished its searing assault on the Gaza Strip, known as Operation Cast Lead, killing some 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, over a 22-day ground and air campaign.
At the time, Migdalim — which grew out of a pioneer military outpost from the 1980s — was inhabited by secular Jewish settlers attracted by the low cost of living.
The settlement’s administration had just decided that I was no longer permitted to walk down the hill to the nearby Palestinian village of al-Qusra, which I had visited twice to drink tea with a local storeowner. The storeowner had spoken about what it felt like to live in the shadow of the settlement, how he was always forced to look up at the occupiers who had come to his land and claimed it as their own.
An Israeli reservist who guarded Migdalim came to visit that evening. Apparently al-Qusra was not safe.
“What you need to understand is that Arabs only speak the language of violence,” he said, as he sat on my host’s sofa, which his assault rifle rested against. “We don’t want to, but they force us to speak their language.”
It was a sentiment I would hear repeatedly, a dehumanising narrative tool used to justify the systematic violence that the Israeli state, established in1948, had for decades inflicted upon the Palestinian people.
During the six months I spent travelling around the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, I never got the sense that Palestinians only spoke “the language of violence”. I did frequently hear the language of resistance, dispossession and, at times, despair.
There was the former Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) fighter, limping from a bullet wound sustained during the First Intifada, who explained, in a hostel near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, the best way to deal with tear gas, something I had never previously experienced: “Do not panic, it will pass. Just keep breathing.”
There was Saleh, from the West Bank village of Ni’lin, who organised weekly demonstrations against Israel’s “security barrier”, which appropriated some 50 percent of the villagers’ land, deviating significantly from the Green Line.
“Guns didn’t work. Diplomacy didn’t work. With non-violent protest maybe things will change,” he said, during one march, before high-velocity tear-gas cannisters whistled through the skies. “Look at South Africa, how protest got apartheid to end.”
There were the paramedics in the city of Qalqiliya, which was completely surrounded by the “security barrier”, with one small entrance, controlled by Israeli soldiers — just another example of the matrix of control the occupying forces had over everyday life.
And there was little Mohammed Hannoun.
At 5.30 am on August 2, 2009, Israeli forces stormed his family’s home of 53 years, in Jerusalem’s (Al-Quds in Arabic) Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. They dragged Mohammed outside, passing him from soldier to soldier.
They left him on the sidewalk outside his home.
He saw his father, Saleem, a gentle man with grey hair, being made homeless. He saw his uncle dragged outside.
He watched as his family’s possessions were loaded onto a truck and taken away. And, from the sidewalk, he saw Jewish settlers carry their belongings into his East Jerusalem home.
Two Sephardic Jewish settler organisations had successfully registered the land in 1972 — using documents allegedly from Ottoman times — and the Hannoun family, initially displaced during the Nakba, had been fighting to keep their home ever since.
“What will happen to my boy if they evict us?” his father had asked in the days leading up to the eviction. “He will grow up a refugee and he will learn to hate.”
I was in the city of Bender, in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic — better known as Transnistria — when Hamas fighters launched their punishing attack on October 7, 2023, paragliders carving through the skies, gunmen pouring through breaches in Gaza’s “security perimeter” before slugging it out with Israeli forces and booting it to Gaza with some 250 hostages.
It was a breathtaking, brutal operation. I assumed, as was so often the case, that the Israelis would retaliate with massive, disproportionate force and, after a few weeks, everything would settle down — before another bout of extreme violence in a few years.
It soon became apparent that, this time, things were different.
Hamas had shattered Israel’s aura of invincibility, exploiting its over-reliance on AI — and the apparent indifference of its intelligence leadership, who ignored warnings from human border monitors — to enforce its severe blockade of the Strip.
“[Israelis] are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 28, as Israeli forces prepared a ground invasion of Gaza. “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”
The statement, referencing biblical verse, was quickly, and rightly, interpreted as a call to genocide. In it, the prophet Samuel instructs King Saul of ancient Israel: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
It would not be the final incitement to genocide by prominent Israeli officials and figures.
It takes about an hour, across steppes dotted with ramshackle villages, to get from Bender to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. After more than eight years in the Middle East, I had relocated to the city at the beginning of 2017.
With Russia’s illegal, and entirely provoked, invasion of neighbouring Ukraine in February 2022, I spent a good deal of time watching as the administration in Chisinau began unsubtly promoting Romanian ethno-nationalism and militarisation throughout 2023, a dangerous prospect in a multi-ethnic nation consisting of Bulgars, Gagauz, Jews, Roma, Romanians and Russians.
The Jews know very well where unrestrained ethno-nationalism can lead.
On Easter Sunday, 1903, mobs of Moldavian (Romanian) men began a days-long rampage against the Jewish people in Chisinau. Media had issued a blood libel, that a Ukrainian boy had been murdered, his blood used in the preparation of flatbread ahead of Passover.
Some 50 Jews were murdered in the ensuing riot, with a further 100 badly injured.
The Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa asked the then 30-year-old Zionist poet Hayim Nahman Bialik — now Israel’s national poet — to author a report. It remains a searing piece of writing, titled On the Slaughter.
Heaven, beg mercy for me! If there is
a God in you, a pathway through
you to this God — which I have not
discovered — then pray for me! For my
heart is dead, no longer is there prayer
on my lips; all strength is gone, and
hope is no more. Until when, how
much longer, until when?
You, executioner! Here’s my neck — go
to it, slaughter me! Behead me like a
dog, yours is the almighty arm and the
axe, and the whole earth is my scaffold
— and we, we are the few! My blood is
fair game — strike the skull, and
murder’s blood, the blood of nurslings
and old men, will spurt onto your
clothes and will never, never be wiped
. . .
In the poem, Bialik expressed the Zionists’ frustration with the Messiah, whom it was prophesied would guide the Jewish people back to Israel, following the sacking of the Second Temple by the Romans some 1,900 years earlier.
He was also lamenting supposed Jewish passivity throughout centuries of oppression.
Functionally, the Zionists were abandoning their Messiah and seeking a return to Israel on their own accord, believing that the only means to guarantee their survival was to establish a Jewish state. They settled on Ottoman Syria — then a province in a collapsing empire.
Nationalism was deified.
The first wave of Aliyah (ascent) began in 1882, two decades before the Chisinau slaughter. Some 24,000 Jews lived in Palestine at the time. Nearly 30,000 Jews, principally from Romania and Russia, along with several thousand Yemeni Jews, migrated to the promised land, establishing agricultural settlements.
A further four waves of Aliyah followed, creating the social fabric of modern-day Israel. It was during the second wave of Aliyah that Jews began organising militias: Bar-Giora and the Hashomer, the IOF’s antecedents. By 1939, the Jewish population of what was then British Mandate Palestine had grown to 475,000.
Establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was always a fraught proposition, despite the apocalyptic Christian Zionists’ claim of “a land without a people for a people without a land”.
Yet the 1917 Balfour Declaration committed to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, regardless.
For the British, such a state would secure the Suez Canal, the principal link to its Asian colonies, and form an outpost in historic Syria. Britain additionally wanted America to commit far more resources to the Allied cause, with the Zionist leadership promising to rally Jewish American support.
For many Jews, their persecution in Europe — and later, the frenzied violence of the Holocaust — made the Zionist project an attractive prospect.
Imperialism and Zionist ethno-nationalism were fusing.
The crisis of 1956, following Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalising of the Suez Canal Company, illustrated Israel’s imperial value.
Following the 1967 Six Day War, Washington became Israel’s key patron, coinciding with Israel’s overt expansionism — occupying the West Bank and Gaza — and what would become a decades-long descent to the right and, ultimately, into the fascism of the current coalition government of ultra-orthodox and religious Zionist parties led by Benjamin Netanyahu, himself from the revisionist current of Zionism.
The rights of the Indigenous population, the Palestinians, around one million people, were met with apparent disregard.
While being questioned during the 1937 Peel Commission, Winston Churchill, a racist and imperialist who was in charge of British colonies from 1921, said: “I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time.”
In the dystopia, genocide is livestreamed.
An endless stream of videos highlights the misery being inflicted upon Gazans, a deranged spectacle of human degradation and suffering. It is made worse, if that is even possible, by the gleeful abandon which IDF soldiers go about their work.
It’s not unreasonable to wonder if this grotesque display provides a present-day view to how other genocidaires — the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists or the Latvian Legion — behaved while going about their crazed slaughter of Jews during World War Two.
In one video, a soldier knocks on a wooden door and asks why nobody is home. The cameraman steps back to reveal a bombed-out home, all shattered concrete and debris.
In another, a soldier trashes a local giftshop. Another reveals soldiers goofing around in a Palestinian home that they’ve occupied. They joke about there being “no meat” in Gaza while one of them prepares coffee. One soldier tells his companions to “get away, I want to demolish the house”. Standing outside the home — which has been set ablaze — another soldier says: “My brother, I already burned it.”
One soldier even dressed up in a T-Rex costume, before launching bombs into Gaza and celebrating atop his vehicle. It is routine to see Israeli soldiers dancing like fools, swept up in fevered, genocidal mania.
Numerous videos capture proud soldiers, smoking cigarettes and laughing, as they blow up residential blocks, hospitals and universities. There are the scenes of Palestinian men stripped to their underwear and blindfolded. The scenes of the graveyards that the Israelis have bulldozed.
Livestock is routinely shot on sight. Arable land — the crops of olives and figs and apricots — destroyed.
The mass graves, bodies wrapped in shawls and laid out by the dozen. The protruding limbs of those crushed beneath the rubble. One photo depicted a young girl, her eyes red with blood from a subconjunctival haemorrhage: the pressure her bombed-out, sandwiched home bore on her, as she waited in the dark for rescue, made the blood vessels in her eyes burst.
By February 5, Israel had killed 27,365 Palestinians in Gaza, wounding more than 60,000. The overwhelming majority of those were women and children. By early February, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimated that some 1.7 million Gazans were internally displaced, while UNICEF reported that this included some 17,000 unaccompanied minors.
“Our gravest fears about the reported numbers of children killed becoming dozens, then hundreds and thousands were realised in just a fortnight,” said UNICEF spokesperson James Elder at the end of October. “Gaza has become a graveyard for thousands of children. It’s a living hell for everyone else.”
The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of December that some 80 percent of north Gaza’s buildings had been damaged or destroyed. The newspaper quoted the political scientist Robert Pape, of the University of Chicago, and the author of a history of aerial bombardments: “The word ‘Gaza’ is going to go down in history along with Dresden and other famous cities that have been bombed.”
A month earlier, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported that the Strip’s central archives – housing thousands of historical documents – had been destroyed by Israeli bombardments according to the head of the Gaza municipality, Yahya Al-Sarraj.
It was, said Al-Sarraj, an attempt “to destroy everything beautiful, to erase Palestinian memory, and to impose a policy of obscuring the people, making Palestinian cities uninhabitable”.
Humanitarian aid has leaked into the Strip, but it is not enough, as fears of famine mount.
One aid organisation’s accounting of deliveries illustrates how dire the situation is; how Gazans have been reduced to category and kilogram: Canned Protein, Delivered (KG), 643,409; Dry Goods, Delivered (KG), 1,040,888; Flour, Delivered (KG), 816,250; Water, Delivered (L), 934,000; Fresh Veg, Delivered (KG), 20,000.
That’s for some two million people. Over four months.
“A fuel shortage could halt our operations, and protests on the Israeli side slow us down. Recently, one of our trucks got shot at by the IDF as part of a UN convoy,” said one contact from France, presently delivering aid to Gaza, and speaking on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to speak to the press. “It feels weird seeing Rafah as you arrive from the Sinai. It feels like a city in a prison. I can hear the bombs now. It’s bad. People are desperate, hopeless.”
There is an almost total block on communications. Staying in touch with people in Gaza is difficult.
The International Court of Justice has ruled that Israel is plausibly engaged in genocide and ordered it to take “all measures within its power” to avoid civilian casualties and acts that could be deemed genocide.
The Israelis, predictably, have given the court the middle finger, continuing the slaughter while shifting the focus on to the supposed Hamas problem within UNRWA, the United Nations’ relief agency for Palestine refugees. Tel Aviv’s campaign against that body is no mere deflective device in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling.
Rather, UNRWA has played a key role in ensuring the Palestinians’ post-Nakba survival, particularly the cleansed agrarian class and their descendants. By targeting UNRWA, Israel is sending a clear message: We are going to destroy an organisation central to Palestinian survival. We are committed to destroying the Palestinians.
Senior figures in Netanyahu’s regime have clearly telegraphed genocidal intent.
One member of his Likud Party, Tally Gotliv, demanded the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Gaza, while another, Nissim Vaturi, called for “erasing the Gaza Strip from the face of the Earth”.
According to Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant: “We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly.”
Most frighteningly, Ariel Kallner, again from Likud, demanded another Nakba: “One goal: Nakba. A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of ’48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join.”
In Israel, unrestrained genocidal fascism is the order of the day. And that fascism is deeply embedded within the logic of the Israeli colonial project. It should come as little surprise that as Palestinians mark the Nakba (which saw 700,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed), Israel celebrates its independence.
And what has been the response of the collective west, of the “international rules-based order” to this outrage?
Near total complicity.
One that New Zealand’s government has made the country a partner to.
There were five Iranians in my cell. They had been imprisoned some 30 months.
Detained incommunicado after bribing traffickers to take me across the Bab al-Mandab Strait, I was concerned that, after a week or so of being juggled between prisons — Lahaj, Taiz, and finally a notorious political prison in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa — I was in for a long stay. One man from Cameroon was said to have been held there for two decades.
“Don’t worry,” said one of the Iranians, “they don’t hold people like you here for long.”
I played him at chess. Repeatedly. To the point where he removed half his pieces from the board. His brother was a grandmaster, he said.
We played chess and waited for the daily meal (a boiled potato each, spiced up with a few ingredients bought from the guards). One of the Iranians, Ali, showed me the salt-dough pendant he had made for his daughter. He had fashioned it into a love heart and carefully emblazoned her name. Blushed it with fruit juice.
The Iranians were scooped up while docked along Yemen’s western coast.
Their vessel was laden with small arms, though they denied any knowledge of the cargo. Clearly, they were Iranian Revolutionary Guard, running guns to the Houtheen (Ansar Allah) in Yemen’s north.
The other cells were filled with Salafi jihadists from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP: Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, Moroccans, and Yemenis.
It was June 2011, and the “Arab Spring” was in full swing. Yemeni protesters sought to depose President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’d led North Yemen for a dozen years before the nation’s 1990 reunification. He would serve a further 22 years as unified Yemen’s president.
Not that unity comes easily in that fractious country, which Saleh (who somehow survived the assorted upheavals) famously described ruling as akin to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.
The Houthis put an end to Saleh, blasting his vehicle with an RPG while he attempted to flee to Saudi Arabia in 2017. A Houthi sniper finished him off.
The Houtheen are not to be taken lightly.
Mixing Zaydi revivalism with a strong contempt for austere Saudi Wahhabism, US imperialism, and outrage at Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, they gave the Yemeni government numerous black eyes throughout the 2000s, absorbed seven years of bombing by the Saudi-led coalition, and managed to navigate Yemen’s unfathomable (to an outsider) tribal negotiations while de facto ruling over some 80 percent of the population.
One wonders how Christopher Luxon would fare in that environment.
Far from being an Iran proxy, Ansar Allah is an autonomous node in the loose “Axis of Resistance” comprising most crucially: Hamas, the Hezbollah, and Iran. It’s never mentioned, but they all fear that Israel will ultimately demolish al-Aqsa Mosque in al-Quds (Jerusalem), among Islam’s holiest sites.
Regardless, given the scale of suffering in Gaza, it’s hard to find fault in the Houthi position of attacking Israeli-flagged — and now US and British — vessels in the Red Sea.
I felt a gut-deep disappointment as New Zealand’s government announced on January 23 that the country would send armed forces to assist the US in bombing Yemen.
It went against some of the New Zealand’s prouder moments: the demonstrators who opposed apartheid South Africa, culminating in the countrywide campaign against the 1981 Springboks’ tour; the Fourth Labour Government’s nuclear-free legislation; Helen Clark’s principled decision not to support the illegal invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.
But Luxon’s administration wasn’t acting as a mere Washington vassal.
It was signalling that it’s a willing participant in America’s imperial architecture, in the so-called “rules-based international order”, and that it can be viewed as a trusted regional manager.
It’s ugly to see, especially as Washington turns the Asia-Pacific into a staging ground for its entirely unnecessary confrontation with China, New Zealand’s largest trading partner and one which poses no military threat to the country.
A moral approach, in light of the ICJ ruling, would be to suspend diplomatic relations with Israel. Additionally, intelligence sharing with Five Eyes should be halted and a total boycott of Israeli products implemented.
The American imperial moment is coming to an end; the Israeli genocide lays waste to whatever values the collective west claims to hold. As it does, the resort to Keynesian militarism and corporate totalitarianism is apparent.
The question is: Are they going to take us all with them?
Keffiyeh adorn heads and drape around shoulders. The pan-Arabic colours of the Palestinian flag flutter. Placards telegraph outrage. A minute of silence is observed for the tens of thousands of dead and wounded in the Gaza Strip.
“There is a difference,” said a speaker, Maher Abu Shamala, from Gaza, to the crowd gathered in Auckland’s Aotea Square, late-January, “between what the Israeli officials say and what we see.”
One placard reads: “Bombing kids is not self-defence.” Another, replete with a bloodstained palm print, said that the “USA funding genocide is not ok”.
One demonstrator, Julia (Te Roroa), a community funding director, spoke of different values, of a western system that cares too much for power and money.
“It goes against all my beliefs and values,” she said, speaking to New Zealand’s Red Sea troop deployment. “The path to peace is not through war.”
It is an old house on a little hill in Piopio.
It is Dad. It is Mum.
It is memory.
Nana-Ma planting her big pink lipstick kisses on us kids as we visited Flaxmere each year.
Summers down at the beach in Mōkau. Nana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa) putting a bandage on my foot after stepping on a broken shell.
It is sliding down the bank and racing friends across hot black sand to the Flowerpot. Laughing. Into cool water.
Glen Johnson (Ngāpuhi) is a reporter who spent 15 years working in foreign news. He is a specialist in Turkish and Moldovan politics.
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