Senator Anne Urquhart – speech on the launch of the UN International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People; talks also of APAN’s contribution to Parliament

photo of Senator Anne Urquhart
March 26, 2014

As a middle power with a position on the United Nations Security Council, Australia has a responsibility to foster this debate, to highlight issues of concern and to independently support the ongoing peace talks.

Full speech

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (12:57): I rise to make a small contribution in this the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. It was designated by the United Nations late last year as a year to promote solidarity with the Palestinian people and to contribute to international awareness of the core themes regarding the question of Palestine after the resumption of peace talks in July last year and ahead of the first deadline of 30 April this year.

Today I add my name to those of many other Australian federal politicians from all persuasions and many other politicians from around the world in recognising that 2014 is a critical year for the peace talks between Israel and Palestine. As a middle power with a position on the United Nations Security Council, Australia has a responsibility to foster this debate, to highlight issues of concern and to independently support the ongoing peace talks.

The international year seeks to highlight the core obstacles to the ongoing peace process, including: the illegal settlements in the occupied territories; the question of Jerusalem; the blockade of Gaza; and the humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. A recognition of the difficulties is vital in the process of reaching a two-state solution and securing an independent, viable and sovereign Palestine living in peace and security with the state of Israel where each recognises the other’s legitimate rights. We must mobilise our nation as a part of the global action towards the achievement of a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine

In doing so, we must have regard for the almost 70 years of United Nations history and for the centuries of history before that. In launching the international year on 16 January this year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Ban-Ki Moon, issued a clear statement that this year of solidarity is critical in the resolution of the aforementioned issues, critical in the formation of a state of Palestine, critical in the continuation of the state of Israel and critical in our world’s journey to ongoing peace in the Middle East. I quote:

Today marks the launch of the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. This will be a critical year for achieving the two-State solution, bringing an end to the occupation that started in 1967, and securing an independent, viable and sovereign State of Palestine living in peace and security with the State of Israel where each recognizes the other’s legitimate rights.

The Secretary-General stressed that the international community must work together and that the leadership of both Palestine and Israel must both display immense political will and live up to their commitment to a negotiated two-state solution. I quote:

I call on all members of the international community and, in particular, Israelis and Palestinians, to work together for justice and a durable peace. Israel and Palestine need to live up to their commitment to a negotiated two-State solution and resolve all permanent status issues, in accordance with Security Council resolutions, the Madrid principles, the Road Map, the 2002 Arab Peace initiative and existing agreements between the parties.

The leaders of Israel and Palestine will need political will, a sense of historic responsibility and a clear vision for a better future for this and future generations. I pledge to do my utmost in support of their efforts.

The Secretary-General’s statement highlights that this international year is not partisan. It places significant emphasis on the security of both the Israeli and the Palestinian populations and the importance of leadership from both sides. What would be tragic for our country—for Australia, as a home to many Israelis and many Palestinians—would be for little or no progress to be made over this year of solidarity.

For our government to adopt a position would be out of step with other nations on the United Nations Security Council, out of step with other nations in the Western European and Others Group and out of step with the Australian community. Our opportunity to contribute to these peace talks, by fostering debate and recognising the serious wrongs committed by both sides, would be lost. It would be lost not through an articulation of our clear position on the matter, but lost through our silence. It would be lost through our government adopting an approach of making a decision, but not taking the time to explain this to this parliament and not taking the time to explain it to the people of Australia.

We need to view the Year of Solidarity as an opportunity for us as a parliament and for us as a nation to look at how we can assist this process for the benefit of both Israeli and Palestinian communities both here and in the Middle East. That is to not dismiss it as an attack on the Israeli people, but to use the opportunity to look at how Australia can effect a fair and balanced approach on this very important matter.

I was pleased to attend the Australian launch of the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on Monday afternoon here at Parliament House. The launch was organised by the member for Calwell, the member for Reid and the member for Fremantle under the auspices of the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine group and the United Nations Parliamentary Group. The launch was attended by over 70 people, including members of parliament and senators from all parties, ambassadors, DFAT officers, members of the local Palestinian community and advocacy groups, as well as representatives from the international Australian charity the Global Gardens of Peace.

Speakers included Ambassador Izzat Abdulhadi, the head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific; Mr Christopher Woodthorpe, the director of the United Nations Information Centre for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific; and Bishop George Browning, the president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. Every speaker made a valuable contribution to the event.

But I want to highlight Bishop Browning’s response to a question about political will on the question of Palestine in Australia. Bishop Browning was emphatic that Australian politicians are out of step with the views of the vast majority of our community and the vast majority of the leadership of like-minded countries. He was emphatic that there was a clear majority of Australians who supported a two-state solution, who supported an end to the conflict and who supported ongoing peace.

On that, I point to the work of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. It is a multi-faith, non-political organisation headed by a small secretariat. Many of us have met with APAN on a number of occasions. I encourage others who have not to log on to their website, to give them a call and to have a discussion with its members who comprise Australians of Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths, as well as non-religious Australians, as they go about their tremendous advocacy work.

Sadly, when the matter of the designation of the international year came before the United Nations, Australia was one of just seven nations to vote against the motion. While 110 countries supported the motion and 57 abstained, Australia moved to seek a defeat of the motion. On the question of settlements, instead of continuing to condemn this illegal occupation as Australia had done under the Labor government, the government joined only eight countries in abstaining from the vote to defy the 158 countries, including many conservative, Western governments.

The government was one of just five countries to abstain and six to vote against the motion that Israel, as an occupying power, should be forced to comply with the Geneva Conventions of 1949. One hundred and sixty nations supported ordering Israel to comply scrupulously with the conventions. A section of the Geneva Conventions, which this government has moved to no longer support in regard to Israel and Palestine, states:

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

The changing of our vote on Israeli settlements in Palestine by this government does nothing to help that process.

What concerns me deeply is why we are changing our vote. Why are we backing away from taking a bold, independent stance? So far, I do not believe the government has outlined its case to change Australia’s position, especially at such a crucial time in the peace negotiations and at a time when Israel continues to expand its settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. It is settlement activity that the United Nations condemns as against international law and settlement activity that must cease for peace to occur. Australia, under this government, is changing its position and condoning these moves.

Members of this government use this chamber as an opportunity to make divisive, aggressive comments about the question of Palestine. Last week, Senator Seselja used some terrible logic in seeking to criticise members of this place who support a Palestinian state. I quote:

When you look at the treatment of gays and lesbians, and women, in Israel in comparison to other parts of the region, you see they get support from those who claim to be strong supporters of gay and lesbian rights and of women’s rights.

After the senator’s speech, Ms Samah Sabawi, an Australian-Palestinian writer, wrote an open letter in response, of which I would like to share a part. She said:

Sir, you also fall into the trap of mentioning women’s rights and gay rights in Israel.

You ignore the countless women under Israeli occupation who are forced to have their babies at checkpoints,

You turn a blind eye to the thousands of children who are arrested, some as young as five, by Israeli soldiers and tried in military courts,

You ignore the dearth of human rights abuses committed by Israel every single day,

And let me tell you being gay is not some super power that allows Palestinians to fly over checkpoints …

Ms Sabawi’s words clearly rebut Senator Seselja’s assertions, and I thank her for her efforts. As a country we need to be better than casting those types of aspersions and we need to be better than stringing together false logic to slander one side or the other. That is why it is wonderful to conclude this speech with a positive story, a story of hope, a story of the Australian spirit at its best.

Yesterday was the parliamentary launch for the Global Gardens of Peace, an initiative of Moira Kelly AO, who is famous for her work in assisting impoverished children in developing or war-torn countries to gain access to First World medical care. In 2004 Ms Kelly was on a trip to Gaza and visited the Commonwealth war cemetery. During her meeting with the Palestinian authority she remarked that the cemetery was the only beautiful space in the area and that Australia would build the children and families a garden. Three years later Ms Kelly was visited by a Palestinian representative who gave her a title to a small parcel of land in a former settlement. At the time her priority was caring for the conjoined twins that had captured so many of our hearts, Trishna and Krishna, as they underwent their operation, and the garden project was put on hold.

In 2012 Ms Kelly began recruiting a team of experts, and by the middle of last year 20,000 square metres of land was secured in Khan Younis, a board was appointed and workshops were underway with the local community to identify their exact wants and needs. The staff at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne have been tremendous leaders in this project with Mr Andrew Laidlaw, the chief landscape architect, and his team designing the garden as a replica of the children’s garden at Melbourne with appropriate alterations as requested through consultation.

Ms Kelly and the committee are determined that this garden be a gift from the Australian people to the people of Gaza. The fundraising task is large—$5 million is required—and I would encourage all Australians to give generously. It is a tangible project that epitomises the good in Australians and, in a small way, the international year. This humanitarian project is breaking barriers between people and breaking barriers between borders and, so far, the Israeli government have provided no impediment to the movement of supplies into Gaza for the garden. While debate ensues between politicians, the work on this garden is giving children and families in that region some peace.

I thank all who are working towards a peaceful solution in the region. I call on our government and I call on the Israeli and Palestinian governments to do everything they can to continue the negotiations and to find a resolution—a resolution particularly in this year, the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Link to parliamentary Hansard