Senator Anne Urquhart – speech on 30 years’ commemoration of the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon

photo of Senator Anne Urquhart
September 19, 2012

Thirty years ago this week, militia stormed the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. It was 16 September 1982 and, in a deliberate, planned and overseen attack that lasted two days, the lives of between 800 and 3,000 refugees were taken. This was a massacre so awful that those who know about it can never forget. There are photos across the internet and in libraries across the world. These serve as real, gruesome reminders of the tragedy of conflict: photos of charred, decapitated and violated corpses.

Full speech

Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (13:26): I rise in this matter of public interest debate to talk about my hope for our multicultural society going forward. The events of Saturday in Sydney were deplorable. We have all seen the coverage. Just like Cronulla seven years ago this riot shocked the nation. Some people say that the events in Sydney on the weekend and in Cronulla years ago demonstrate the fragile nature of multiculturalism. I believe the response from many members of the wider community over the past days shows that we have quite a healthy multicultural society. While there may always be issues and flare-ups, the reactions we have seen, particularly yesterday from Muslim community leaders in Melbourne and Sydney, as well as the immediate comments from Muslim community leaders across the country, show that there is a strong well for multicultural Australia, an Australia were we celebrate that we are a nation of peoples from right across the world.

We can learn so much from each other through respect, through tolerance and by reaching out and trying to continue to increase dialogue, cultural festivals, awareness raising and support services to migrants, while continuing to strive to better understand where our friends and neighbours are from, where we have come from and how we can all take our Australia forward.

I am from regional Tasmania, and to be frank it is not a very multicultural place. That is really unfortunate. First-generation migrants bring so much life and enthusiasm into Tasmania, while second and third generations continue their family traditions. They continue to teach the proper way to make pasta and lamb kofta, and they continue their connection back to wherever their fathers and mothers came from while getting on with living life in regional Australia.

While there are seats in Western Sydney with over 50,000 and 60,000 people with non-Anglo-Saxon heritage, my seat of Braddon has fewer than 2,000. This lack of multiculturalism in north-west Tasmania has, for some, produced a culture of isolation. Because of not needing to engage with other cultures, apart from enjoying their food, there is not a great need to demonstrate tolerance and acceptance of people of non-Anglo-Saxon heritage. Then, when events like the riots on the weekend occur, some people turn to social media pages that promote hate and spread misinformation. The monoculture of such pages, where you must ‘like’ to be included, perpetuates fear and misunderstanding.

Today I place on record my support for the actions of Muslim leaders from Sydney and Melbourne yesterday. These leaders came together to call for calm and for all Australians to respect each other. They condemned the behaviour on Saturday and said that it was unacceptable in Australia, warning those who may want to participate in a second protest this weekend that they will have the support of their community only if they protest peacefully, silently and within the law. They claimed that violent actions from Saturday are not actions put forward by Islam, and they strongly urge people not to rally over this film, because it is not worth it. Importantly, they have resolved to work together to create a unifying group for all Australian Muslims to support each other, to provide guidance and to assist with engaging in Australian society.

It is disappointing to read that some Australians are quick to lay blame on people. Of course, I do not condone the actions of the protesters. However, language such as the following from columnist Gerard Henderson in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald does not help:

Australia is a viable democracy in which virtually all groups have prospered, including the vast majority of Muslims. If last Saturday’s demonstrators don’t appreciate this, tough. It is not our fault.

I feel that this is a totally wrong attitude. Muslim community leaders condemned the riot, and they have resolved to work together to move their community—our community—forward. It is our community that witnessed the riot. It is our community that must reach out to people.

One way we can achieve that is to acknowledge past instances of hurt, to commemorate the anniversaries of significant events for a group of people, to share the stories of why this anger may have developed and to be compassionate to our fellow citizens of the world. Having said this, I move to commemorate a tragic massacre. Thirty years ago this week, militia stormed the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. It was 16 September 1982 and, in a deliberate, planned and overseen attack that lasted two days, the lives of between 800 and 3,000 refugees were taken. This was a massacre so awful that those who know about it can never forget. There are photos across the internet and in libraries across the world. These serve as real, gruesome reminders of the tragedy of conflict: photos of charred, decapitated and violated corpses. For the victims and the handful of survivors, it was two days without mercy. It was deliberate, calculated and watched over, but to this day the killers go unpunished.

Before the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, the Israeli army had only recently invaded Southern Lebanon. Lebanon was the temporary home to the PLO and many thousands of Palestinian refugees. The massacre was in retaliation for an attempted assassination, an attempt that was actually carried out by a rival militant group and not the PLO. On 1 September, a ceasefire was mediated by the United States. Arafat and his men surrendered their weapons and were evacuated from Beirut. They were guaranteed by the United States that the refugees left behind in the camps of Sabra and Shatila would be protected by a multinational peacekeeping force. That guarantee was not kept. The security vacuum created then paved the way for the atrocities.

Using the assassination of the newly elected Prime Minister of Lebanon by a pro-Syrian terrorist as cover, the then Israeli defence minister, Ariel Sharon, moved to occupy the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The massacre of Sabra and Shatila began. The refugee camps were surrounded with tanks and soldiers. Sharon ordered the shelling of the camps. What followed was an afternoon and night of bombardment. By the dawn of 16 September, the Israeli artillery had completed their work. The Israelis then stood by, guarding the gates. They allowed Lebanese Christian militia, a gang called the Phalangists, to enter the camps and massacre unarmed civilians. This militia were supposedly hunting for the terrorists that had killed their leader days before.

Seeing an opportunity to have another group ‘finish the job’, the Israelis organised for the Phalangists to enter Sabra and Shatila. The Israelis knew that the assassination was carried out by the pro-Syrian terrorists and not the Palestinians, but, to rid South Lebanon of the Palestinians, they allowed this religious army to terrorise thousands of Palestinian refugees. The Israeli army supervised the entire massacre. They ensured that there was no escape from the camps. Most chillingly, they cast flares into the night sky to ensure there was no lull in the killings. The flares meant there was nowhere to hide for the thousands of innocent refugees. With the terror of constant daylight, the Israelis maintained a tight cordon around the camps to make sure that no-one could escape.

Thirty years on, the camp at Sabra is no longer there. It was wiped off the map during the carnage. The camp at Shatila serves as a chilling reminder of man’s inhumanity—man’s inhumanity to men, women and children. There have been a number of documentaries about the massacre. An account from British journalist Robert Fisk is particularly shocking. It demonstrates the extraordinary scale of the massacre. Robert was in the refugee camps during the massacre. He returned years later to visit and share his story of the massacre for a television documentary. He recalled, ‘It was quite a while before we realised that the Christian gunmen who the Israelis had sent in were still in the camp. We heard shooting. We all got very frightened. At one point, my two colleagues were somewhere nearby. I could hear them talking but did not know where. I shouted, ‘Carston! Lauren!’ and I still could not hear them. But I could hear the shooting. There was an earth embankment. I tried to climb over it. I got on top. Then it became all sort of spongy. It moved up and down. It wasn’t an earth embankment. It was a pile of bodies with a thin layer of earth over the top. When I looked down I saw a face, an elbow; they were all bodies. I held my breath and jumped off and ran as fast as I could towards the voices. I was so frightened at the time.’ This is an incredible account, and I encourage everyone to head to YouTube to view the full documentary and other documentaries by Robert Fisk on this massacre.

Israel’s commission of inquiry into the massacre did not find that the State of Israel was directly responsible for the slaughter. And, while it did find that Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of massacre, it took an international commission of inquiry, headed by Irishman Sean MacBride, to find that Israel was directly responsible because the camps were under its jurisdiction as an occupying power. In highlighting and commemorating this tragic event, I do not wish to attack the Jewish community. I do not wish to attack Mr Sharon, the Phalangist militia, the Israeli government or the Israeli soldiers. What has happened is one of a long list of tragedies in human history. What I seek to do here today is to highlight this tragic massacre, because we must increase our understanding of these events. We must learn, we must show compassion, and we must commemorate. We must remember Sabra and Shatila, 30 years on.

The massacre has been acknowledged in this place on a small number of occasions. The first instance of recognition of the massacre in this parliament was just days after that massacre. On 22 September 1982, Mr Lewis Kent, the Labor member for Hotham, gave notice that on the next day of sitting he would move a strongly worded motion commemorating the massacre and calling for the violators to be brought to justice. As far as I can ascertain, the motion did not make it back into the House for a vote during that Parliament, and lapsed. However, his strongly worded motion provides people today with the basic information about the event. The motion would have encouraged Australians then, as its place in the Hansard encourages people now, to find out more about the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. We must acknowledge and learn from the atrocities that were inflicted on innocent refugees in these camps.

We must also resolve to learn about tragedies from across past centuries. For if we do this and resolve to be better educated, we can grow into a more tolerant and accepting society. We can do this by telling these stories, including stories from the massacres of millions of Jewish people across Europe during the holocaust, stories from the massacres in Srebrenica and the Balkan wars, stories of the countless Soviet atrocities, stories of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge in Vietnam, and stories from the horrid civil war in Sudan. By working through these stories, it is my hope that we can appreciate the struggles we face in striving for a multicultural Australia. By conveying stories of past wrongs and by learning from and acknowledging these events, I hope we can all move forward.

On the weekend, such a small and vocal group so tragically marched through Sydney. From the comments of Muslim community leaders, and from our own dealings with Muslim Australians, we know that these people misrepresented Islam. While the action of a few is sad, what is even sadder is that such a small and vocal group of media personalities and politicians have kept the traditions of Hansonism alive and well. The majority of Australians are getting on with the job.

Every day we welcome new Australians, every day we have more unity and every day we are better for it. Migrants from across the world continue to be welcomed into Australia by many—migrants who are fleeing persecution and who are seeking to make a better life for their families. We are lucky for the tremendous work of the staff at our migrant resource centres who tirelessly help new Australians adjust to life here.

We have a rich, multicultural community in Australia. The actions of a few on the weekend have rightly been deplored. But if we take the time to learn about the situations, practices and world views of all Australians we will be better off for it. Let us not shut the door, let us not tell them they are not welcome; let us work together in welcoming those who long for a better life. By creating and fostering acceptance, events like Saturday will never be a norm, and we will counter the culture of ‘Go back to where you came from’ with a ‘Welcome to Australia, mate!’

Link to parliamentary Hansard

Sign up to receive emails from APAN

Available Mailing Lists

Keep up to date with what is happening in Palestine advocacy in Australia - all the latest events, campaigns and actions. Emails are irregular based on events, but on average are fortnightly.
Weekly email featuring three top news items - bite size way to keep up to date with Palestinian concerns.
Team who respond to stories about Palestine in the Australian media - predominantly letter writing.