Last April, during my study tour of Palestine, I visited the Commonwealth war cemetery in Gaza again. It is still a haven, and I was happy to see that the hundreds of gravestones that had been damaged by Israeli bombardment in 2006, and again during the war on Gaza in early 2009, had been repaired.
Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (19:35): I want to make some comments about the desecration of Australian war graves that occurred on 24 and 26 February when two separate Commonwealth war cemeteries, including the Benghazi War Cemetery in Libya, were attacked by men believed to be militants. This was a senseless act of disrespect towards the remembrance of people who have fought and died in another country, a long way from their families and their native soil.
I very much welcome the statements of serious regret from the National Transitional Council in Libya, and I welcome their commitment to a full and thorough investigation. I know that the vast majority of Libyans would condemn the actions of the vandals. Of the 1,100 Commonwealth troops buried in the two cemeteries, more than 200 headstones were damaged, including approximately 50 that marked the resting place of Australian soldiers. One of the headstones belongs to Private Sydney Richardson, whose family lived in Alma Street, Fremantle—a street that is only a block away from my electoral office. Private Richardson was killed in action on 26 January, 1941, Australia Day, in Dernas, a port town on the Mediterranean coast in the north-east of Libya.
The Australian military contribution was an integral part of the Allied North African campaign during World War Two. Soldiers from the 6th, 7th and 9th divisions of the 2nd AIF fought with early success against the Italians and held out against repeated German attacks on the Libyan port of Tobruk, where they were besieged for five months. As it currently stands, in the Middle East the Commonwealth War Graves Commission plays a critical role in looking after 185 cemeteries, from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, which house the graves of more than 165,000 Commonwealth servicemen.
When I worked for the UN in the Middle East, I was based in Gaza for three Anzac Days in a row during the years between 2002 and 2004. There is a Commonwealth war cemetery in Gaza that is an oasis of beauty and peace in an otherwise dust filled conflict zone. The cemetery has been tended with love and care by Ibrahim Jeradeh and his family since 1958. Ibrahim Jeradeh was made a member of the Order of the British Empire for his years of service to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
In the years before I arrived, Anzac Day had been celebrated by officials coming to Gaza from the Australian Embassy in Israel. But when I was there the security situation was so bad that the Australian Embassy people could not make that visit. So a few of us Australians and New Zealanders in Gaza took it upon ourselves to commemorate Anzac Day during those three years by conducting our own personal ceremony of remembrance at the Commonwealth war cemetery. When you are in such a difficult place and you see the headstones of so many young Australians, it strikes you as incredibly sad to think that there is not much chance that their families will be visiting their graves. Last April, during my study tour of Palestine, I visited the Commonwealth war cemetery in Gaza again. It is still a haven, and I was happy to see that the hundreds of gravestones that had been damaged by Israeli bombardment in 2006, and again during the war on Gaza in early 2009, had been repaired.
While I lived in the Middle East in 2007 I also travelled to Cairo and visited the grave of an Australian soldier, Victor Charles McIntosh, regimental No. 23, of the 10th Battalion AIF, who was buried in the Cairo Commonwealth war cemetery. I was there on 13 January, exactly 92 years after he died in 1915 at the age of 21. A member of Victor’s family in Australia—a friend of mine—had mentioned to me that no-one in the family had ever been able to visit the grave of his dad’s uncle. I found it incredibly sad to think that not a single person had been able to attend Victor McIntosh’s grave in 92 years, so I went there and took photos of the grave and of the site and sent them to his family.
The damage done to the graves of Commonwealth servicemen in Libya, including Australian servicemen, was a pointless and dishonourable act that is not only rejected by Australians but just as strongly disowned and condemned by the vast majority of people in the Middle East, who have participated in looking after Commonwealth war graves for decades and who are, like us, largely respectful and peace loving.