Several hundred pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated in Sydney on Thursday against the first visit to Australia by an Israeli prime minister, branding Benjamin Netanyahu a “war criminal.”
A police helicopter hovered over the city as speakers slammed Canberra’s strong support of Netanyahu and his government.
“We are here to oppose Australia’s support for Israel, for a racist apartheid nation,” pro-Palestinian author and Australian lawyer Randa Abdel-Fattah told AFP.
“It’s disgusting to see that some of our Australian leaders have rolled out the red carpet and welcomed a war criminal into Australia,” she said.
“But there are so many Australians who are against this and we are raising our voices loudly and clearly today, to say (Prime Minister) Malcolm Turnbull, and (Foreign Minister) Julie Bishop, ‘not in our name’,” she added.
A large banner was unfurled depicting Netanyahu with a mustache as Hitler and the word “Fascist” written underneath.
Pro-Israel supporters were also on the streets and The Australian newspaper reported that riot squad officers removed a man who approached the crowd shouting “long live Israel.”
The demonstrators, organized by the local Palestine Action Group, tried to march on Netanyahu’s hotel but were cut off by police well short of the city center building overlooking the harbor.
Ahead of Netanyahu’s arrival Wednesday, some 60 business leaders, academics, members of the clergy and former politicians signed a letter saying Australia should not welcome Netanyahu, claiming his policies “provoke, intimidate and oppress” the Palestinians.
Earlier, Turnbull attacked the UN for “one-sided resolutions” against Israel’s push to build settlements on occupied land as he welcomed Netanyahu.
Ahead of the four-day visit, Turnbull wrote a newspaper editorial slamming the UN Security Council for a resolution adopted in December that called for an end to Israeli settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory.
“My government will not support one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel of the kind recently adopted by the UN Security Council and we deplore the boycott campaigns designed to delegitimize the Jewish state,” Turnbull wrote in The Australian newspaper.
Netanyahu welcomed the strong show of support, telling reporters he “was delighted” by the article.
“Australia has been courageously willing to puncture UN hypocrisy more than once,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Turnbull.
“The UN is capable of many absurdities and I think it’s important that you have straightforward and clear-eyed countries like Australia that often bring it back to earth,” he said.
Turnbull said he supported direct negotiations toward a two-state solution, but warned that Israel’s security needs would have to be met for any peace agreement to take hold.
“You cannot expect any Israeli government to put itself in a position where security is at risk, where its citizens are not safe. The first duty of every government is the safety of the people,” he said.
In a separate development, Netanyahu backed pardoning a soldier sentenced to 18 months in prison for shooting dead a wounded Palestinian assailant, media reported.
“I am still in favor of pardoning Private Azaria,” Netanyahu told reporters accompanying him on the visit, Israel’s Channel 10 said.
A poll published Wednesday by the Maariv daily found 69 percent of Israelis support a pardon, with 56 percent saying the punishment was too severe.
In Australia, Netanyahu expressed concern about the potential impact of the trial on soldiers facing violence who might hesitate to fire for fear of investigation, public radio reported.