In the lead-up to the historic United Nations Security Council vote that demanded an end to illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at one government in particular.
For days, he hit them with repeated threats.
He said their co-sponsoring of the resolution — which passed 14-0 last week — amounted to a “declaration of war” that would “rupture relations.”
He went on to deliver an ominous warning: “There will be consequences.”
The country currently in Israel’s crosshairs isn’t the United States, who in an unprecedented shift, abstained from the vote.
Nor is it Egypt, who, at the behest of US President-elect Donald Trump, backed down from its original role of co-sponsor and tried to withdraw the resolution before it could go to a vote in the 15-member body.
That nation is New Zealand, the two tiny Pacific islands home to just under five million people.
Tel Aviv also offered sharp rebukes the other co-sponsors of the resolution, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal. They even cut off all aid to Dakar.
But as the sole Western nation of the bunch, Netanyahu seemed to have reserved some of his harshest criticisms for New Zealand.
‘A bully’s antics’
When Mohammad Ali Jaballah, 31, first heard of Netanyahu’s threats, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“This has got to be a joke,” the PhD student based in Auckland, thought to himself.
“It’s a bully’s antics gone horribly wrong … He thinks New Zealand is like an Arab dictatorship, somewhere that has no weight internationally, he’s wrong,” said Jaballah, whose family moved from Tunisia when he was a teenager.
Caitlin McGee, a freelance journalist in New Zealand, said even hinting at a war between the two nations is impractical and improbable.
“It seems a bit far-fetched for Israel to go to war with New Zealand, given the vast distance.”
More importantly, McGee — who said most Kiwis agree that the expansion of settlements in the West Bank is in contravention of international law — argued that “New Zealand poses no real physical threat to Israel.”
Roimata Strumdog, a lawyer, says as the only Western sponsor of the resolution, an Israeli attack on New Zealand would amount to “an attack on the West.”
Golriz Ghahraman, 34, said there is no legal basis for Israel’s aggressive tone.
Calling Netanyah’s rhetoric “outlandish,” Ghahraman, a human rights lawyer and former UN prosecutor, said that by taking the issue to a vote in the UNSC, New Zealand operated entirely within international norms.
“It’s the antithesis of a declaration of war.”
New Zealand hasn’t been involved in an armed conflict since 2013 when their forces withdrew from Afghanistan, where they operated mainly as trainers and peace keepers.
Ghahraman said Netanyahu’s un-statesmanlike tone towards Wellington was proof that mounting international pressure on Israel, to “finally” abide by international law, is having a profound effect on the Israeli Prime Minster.
“It sounds like panic to me,” Ghahraman said.
Voting by Conscience
New Zealanders said the UNSC vote was merely a continuation of Wellington’s long-standing policy towards Palestine.
Netanyahu reportedly phoned New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, ahead of the December 24 vote.
Netanyahu called Wellington’s role in the resolution “a scandalous decision.”
McCully, however, refused to back down.
“This resolution conforms to our policy and we will move it forward,” he reportedly said in response to Netanyahu.
Even smaller parties in New Zealand have long supported the Palestinian cause.
Earlier this year, Marama Davidson, an MP in the nation’s Green Party, was one of dozens of women to make the 3,062-kilometre journey from Barcelona to Gaza on board the so-called “Women’s Flotilla.”
Ghahraman, the human rights lawyer, says New Zealand has consistently used its platform at the UN “to uphold the rule of law and promote peace.”
The last time New Zealand had a seat on the UN Security Council was in 1994. At the time, it was one of the only nations (along with Nigeria and the Czech Republic) to support international military intervention to prevent what would become the Rwandan genocide.
Despite the good intentions, the April 21, 1994, vote wasn’t enough to save the lives of one million people. For many New Zealanders, their latest stint on the Security Council — beginning in 2014 — was a chance to right the wrongs of the past.
Wellington has also historically taken a strong stance against nuclear proliferation. Since 1984, the country has barred any nuclear-powered or armed ships from entering its waters or docking at its ports. And for 56 days in 1981, more than 150,000 people took part in 200 demonstrations against the Apartheid-era South African Rugby team playing in New Zealand.
However, New Zealand’s own history is not without its dark periods, particularly concerning relations with the indigenous Maori people.
Israeli-American journalist and author, Liel Leibovitz used “the dark history” of the Maori people as a way to challenge the Kiwi narrative that their nation has always had the moral upper hand.
In an article for Tablet Magazine, Leibovitz said despite the people’s protests: “The deliberate destruction of a two-state solution in favor of an illegal land grab, are the bedrock on which the modern state of New Zealand was founded.”
Leibovitz went on to say that given the current status of the Maori people, “the country’s steering of a UN Security Council resolution pronouncing the Jewish connection to our historic homeland to be illegal passes well into the territory of historical denialism.”
However, New Zealanders said the country has worked to right the “devastating consequences” of the injustices suffered by the Maori people.
McGee points to the Waitangi Tribunal, a special court established in 1975 which deals specifically with land disputes and providing compensation to indigenous tribes who had their land taken wrongfully by colonising Europeans.
Though she admits it is not a perfect system, McGee says the tribunal is an effort to “acknowledge and right the wrongs of the past.”
So far, the total payout of the tribunal is just under $2.5 billion, along with its mandate to correct historic narratives and enforce increased cultural and linguistic rights.
“Is that something Israel will consider in the future for confiscated Palestinian land?” McGee asked.
Strumdog, a lawyer who has worked extensively on cases before the Waitangi Tribunal for compensation for Maori land, says most importantly, the tribunal has set a precedent.
“Maori entering into Treaty settlements redressing loss of their historical lands have accepted that others who have made their homes on the land since will not be dispossessed because this will create new injustice.”
Despite the criticisms lodged at their nation by Israeli politicians and media, all of the New Zealanders said that as a US ally, Wellington would never back the resolution without the tacit support of Washington.
“This decision didn’t come out of nowhere, there is no way they would have done this without the United States’ approval,” said Jaballah, the PhD student.
Netanyahu, too, seems to think that despite their abstention from the vote, Washington had a hand in the passing of the first UNSC resolution to criticise Israel’s illegal settlements in 38 years.
“The Obama administration not only failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN, it colluded with it behind the scenes.”
And closer to home, Australia, New Zealand’s largest trading partner and key ally, pointedly sided with Israel rather than New Zealand and the US.
“In voting at the UN, the Coalition government has consistently not supported one-sided resolutions targeting Israel,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement released on Thursday. (Australia is not presently a member of the Security Council and was therefore not eligible to vote on the resolution). Australia lags behind New Zealand when it comes to its own treatment of its indigenous peoples, and has never taken serious steps to redress historic injustices.
Still, despite the criticisms, New Zealanders say their country did the right thing and voted with the national conscience.
“I’m personally delighted that New Zealand’s final month on as a non-permanent member of the Security Council has seen us fall on the right side of history,” said McGee, the freelance journalist.