Senator Anne Urquhart – spoke of her recent time in Palestine

photo of Senator Anne Urquhart
February 13, 2018

I rise today to express my deep concern about the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the current global discourse which risks permanently ending any chance for peace. I visited Israel and the West Bank of Palestine late last year with the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. It was my first time in the region. What I saw was both horrifying and tragic.

Full speech

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (20:32): I rise today to express my deep concern about the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the current global discourse which risks permanently ending any chance for peace. I visited Israel and the West Bank of Palestine late last year with the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. It was my first time in the region. What I saw was both horrifying and tragic. Australia has been a friend of Israel since its creation. As a friend, we must respectfully tell our friends when their actions are wrong. We must not appease their actions. We must not stand idly by when our friends are taking deliberate actions that they claim promote peace but in fact undermine any chance for sustained peace. We must call them out and help them find a different path. Where Israeli law is clearly in breach of international law, we must be firm, because Israel is becoming increasingly isolated. As a friend, we must not allow the last chances of a long-term peaceful resolution to be lost.

Whether it’s the ongoing advance of settlements into the West Bank, the use of military courts to intimidate and denigrate young Palestinians, the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, or the complete loss of any freedoms that millions of Palestinians face because their lives are controlled by the Israeli military, the actions of the Israeli government undermine peace on each stage. It is not even repetitive action on an orderly timetable; rather, the Israeli government practises what could be considered deliberate chaos that is clearly designed to confuse, to limit opportunities and to eliminate hope. At their core, the occupation and actions of Israel are a theft of time. My experience reinforced this dilemma. Each day Palestinians of all ages face the gut-wrenching fear of the unknown. Their stop at the checkpoint may be quick or it may take hours; indeed, the checkpoint may not be open. Their utilities may work or they may not—every single day, the unknown. Yet they try to plan their day, their lives, try to hold down work, try to keep their families and communities together, and try not to get into trouble. With each day, the individual Palestinian can do nothing but do their best and try not to lose hope. But it is clear that, if the current trajectory is not slowed, any hope for a sustained peace in the region will be lost.

Fifty years after the end of the Six-Day War and the beginning of the occupation, we are at yet another tipping point. Some even say we are beyond the tipping point. Action from friends is needed now. On the visit we went to Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, the Bir Nabala enclave, the Jordan Valley and Tel Aviv. Through the tremendous on-the-ground contacts of APAN and the generosity of the people we met, we were able to gain a tremendous understanding of the tragedy—a tragedy that too few people outside of the occupied Palestinian territories are aware of. We met Palestinian and Israeli leaders, politicians, and, importantly, we met a number of extraordinary Palestinians who, despite all the adversity and all the chaos and control, keep living their lives as best they can.

The West Bank is divided into three areas. Areas A and B are under full and part control of the Palestinian Authority, but these areas are less than a quarter of the West Bank. Area C is under full control of the Israeli military. We had lunch with a family whose lives are surrounded by settlers and walls. They live in a tiny enclave surrounded by area C. Their every movement is watched and monitored, and to even purchase basic supplies they must pass through a checkpoint, which may or may not be open. For many families, it is impossible to visit a hospital after curfew. And, all the while, settlements are approved. Yet Palestinians can’t access water, medicine, safety—the basics of life. The walls are strategically placed around areas to isolate key natural resources—homes, roads and utilities. It is methodical and it is beyond cruel.

We visited a kindergarten. We learnt that children can’t play in the streets, and they must carry mobile phones—not for happy snaps, games, or contacting friends, but for security, to create a video record of any actions of the police and settlers. Even the toys for the children at the kindergarten had to be smuggled in piece by piece in the dark of night. We heard that children as young as six were threatened, intimidated and harassed simply for who they are. Despite the fact that they pose no security threat to anyone, this is a childhood of fear, of unimaginable uncertainty, and at a point in one’s life when you need security and safety, not guns in your face.

We heard from a family about their 22-year-old son. He was harassed by some settlers on his walk to work. He crossed the road to avoid the confrontation. They shot and killed him. Then they planted a knife on the young man’s body. Even though all of this was filmed, the perpetrators face no justice. The family had no recourse. They were left without a son—for nothing.

And yet the response of the new President of the United States, Mr Trump, is not to try and work with Israel and Palestine to find a way through this tragedy. No. Mr Trump has decided to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, up-ending decades of international resolve that embassies be located outside of Jerusalem to recognise the disputed nature of the territory. Mr Trump’s move has rightly been met with global condemnation. Clearly, it inflames tensions both within Israel and Palestine and in the broader region. In the days after, young Palestinians were protesting President Trump’s decision in the town of Nabi Salih in the West Bank. The process turned violent. A 14-year-old boy was shot in the face and severely wounded. His cousin, a 16-year-old woman, Ahed Tamimi, along with her mother and cousin, approached the two soldiers outside their family home. Tamimi slapped one of the soldiers in the face. A video of the incident was published on social media. Tamimi was arrested days later and, two months later, is still incarcerated. A 16-year-old girl has been in jail for two months. Tamini’s trial is due to commence this week. She is one of thousands of Palestinian children who are subjected to military courts. Tamini was unarmed. What she did was probably wrong, but Israel is clearly in breach of international law.

What I learnt in Palestine is that these children face intense interrogation sessions of at least half a day, of at least 10 to 12 hours, and while the youth is tired. Interrogation usually occurs for nine to 10 hours after arrest. They’re given no food or drink. Their wrists hurt after being tied with plastic cable ties. Their wrists swell and the ties get tighter. The pain is intense. They are alone, the child and an interrogator, for hours at length. And I was told that once a youth denies the charge, their interrogation starts again. The youth may be the recipient of multiple interrogations, and they face psychological interrogations where they are baited to rat on their mates.

After days of interrogation, they are brought before the military court. This is when they see their lawyer for the first time. Unfortunately, very little can be done at this time as the youth likely said too much during interrogation and faces months in jail. Of course, it’s quicker to plead guilty rather than challenge the charge, which can take up to six months without bail. I was told a majority of cases end in plea-bargains, months in jail, large fines and suspended sentences hanging over the youths’ heads. They are too scared to do anything. I was told quite firmly that the military court system is not pro-Palestinian and it is not pro-Israeli; it is a rule-of-law aberration.

Israel is breaching the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which it is a state party. The convention states that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child must be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. Months in jail, interrogation, no legal access: it’s wrong, it’s unlawful and it’s not justice. These are children.

My week in Israel and the West Bank was coordinated by Lisa Arnold and Wendy Turner from APAN. I thank them for their ongoing advocacy and for the seamlessness of the trip in what is a difficult place to negotiate. I have to believe that there is a way forward, but it is very clear that time is running out.

Link to parliamentary Hansard