Senator Claire Moore – report on trip to Palestine and how the settlements, separation wall and water are all major problems

photo of Senator Claire Moore
May 12, 2011

The settlements are surrounded by no-go zones that vary in size from a couple of hundred metres to, in some cases, around one kilometre. They are connected by settler-only highways, which also have no-go zones for Palestinians. With almost 60 per cent of the West Bank now annexed by settlements, settler-only roads, closed military zones and separation barriers, Palestinian people and families who have long histories in this area are increasingly squeezed into a small number of districts.

Full speech

Senator MOORE (7:23 PM) —This evening I wish to talk about a trip that a group of my friends did with others to visit Palestine in March 2010. This was a trip organised by the Union Aid Abroad group, APHEDA, of which I am a member and have been for many years. APHEDA is the Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad, and it was started in 1984 as the Overseas Aid Agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

APHEDA actually started in the Middle East. In Lebanon in 1982, a young nurse trainer, Helen McCue, was working for the World Health Organisation. She saw the damage which was caused by the war and desolation in that area, and she worked with Norwegian trade unionists and volunteers there. She came back to Australia with the idea that a similar kind of organisation could be formed in our country, and it was. From that time onward, the Australian trade union movement was involved in overseas aid.

They have regular trips to encourage people to see what exactly is happening on the ground so that the stories and the things we hear in the press can be humanised. We hear about what is going on, but too often it is somehow sanitised or people take the position that it could not really be true because it was in the media and was obviously biased. That is not always true, but through overseas trips with APHEDA people can really visit and talk to people who are living the experience.

Three of my own friends and comrades—Evan Moorhead, who is an MP in the Queensland parliament, Wendy Turner and David Forde—were part of this trip, and they were particularly keen that the kinds of things they saw could be shared with the wider community. Since they have come home they have been doing a range of community talks and visits so that they can share the experiences and the knowledge they have gained. They hope that more people can find out what is going on in Palestine and take an interest in the issues, not necessarily to get into an open debate or conflict but at least to understand a little bit more about what is going on.

The trip engaged with a large number of people. It visited Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. It examined APHEDA’s aid projects; assisting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, food security and agricultural projects with Palestinian families in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and medical assistance projects at the El Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital in Gaza.

We have heard about these issues before in this place, and I well remember hearing Senator Lyn Allison talk about the experiences she had when she went on a visit as well. Of course, in a short time we cannot talk about all the issues that were raised but I thought I would mention a few of them—things they actually wrote in the report that they have been circulating. This is not new for people, but one of the issues which they talked about with people on the ground was the Israeli settlements, which have been going on for a long time. They are ongoing, and they are being extended in areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This has been the issue of conflict for a long time; exactly where the settlements are placed, the impact on Palestinian families who lose their land and their homes and the process of rehabilitation, as it is called—but it is actually removal of people from their belongings, their family and their homes.

It is not just the fact that new houses and new buildings are being established. Around the houses there is the Palestinian dispossession of their land. The settlements are surrounded by no-go zones that vary in size from a couple of hundred metres to, in some cases, around one kilometre. They are connected by settler-only highways, which also have no-go zones for Palestinians. With almost 60 per cent of the West Bank now annexed by settlements, settler-only roads, closed military zones and separation barriers, Palestinian people and families who have long histories in this area are increasingly squeezed into a small number of districts. This creates division and isolation, and also raises a real concern about dispossession. We know that this is an issue which has been taken to and handled by the UN. Discussions continue, and the consistent message is that discussions must continue because silence and open conflict will not be the answer. But the issue which the tour found was that this was happening. It was not something you saw in a documentary, it was not something you heard in the media—they saw the expanding settlements and they saw land that used to belong to one group was being settled by others.

We have often heard in this country about the separation barrier, the wall and the structure which has been built since 2002. We have seen pictures, but according to the tour there is nothing quite as confronting as being there and actually seeing the size, the fortification and the electrified fence arrangements that are being constructed through the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There continues to be debate about whether the lines of division are accurate or not, but still the construction is there and the division occurs.

The team visited the Palestinian town of Qalqilyah, which has a population of around 45,000. It is almost entirely enclosed by the barrier, with only one entry and exit point for the whole community, which is an Israeli military area. The people who were going through said that at times the access point is closed, so there is no way in or out of the town, which suffers terribly from poverty and unemployment. The only way to get medical help and access to employment is to leave your community and go to that place. If your own town is completely surrounded by a wall or a barrier, this again creates a sense of dispossession and a sense of isolation. There seems to be a process which is quite deliberate to make it hard to get through the area. This was also reflected when the team visited areas where there were checkpoints. One of the more confronting things that came out of the community discussions we had later was looking at a map and seeing the number of checkpoints that people who were just going to their normal workplace on a daily basis had to pass, the number of times they had to prove their credentials and the difficulty with which that occurred. Again, this creates a feeling of disempowerment and a growing sense of rejection and anger.

One of the things that I was unaware of before the discussions about it was the important issue of access to water in the West Bank. We know that the whole area is extraordinarily dry and we understand the issues of water restrictions, but it was raised that in the area of West Bank there is a limit to the amount of water that Palestinian settlers are able to use. Amnesty International, who have been reporting on this issue for many years, have said that the average consumption for Palestinians is about 70 litres a day per person, which is below the 100 litres per capita daily recommendation of the World Health Organisation. Of course, it is always difficult to confirm these numbers, but in the discussions that the APHEDA group had with people who had been living and working there, on average the Israeli settler daily per capita consumption is more than four times as much, at about 300 litres. There is a real issue with obtaining and carting water. Over the years of warfare and disruption many Palestinian water wells and pumps in agricultural areas have been destroyed. It has a real impact on community livelihoods and is something that has been reported on at times internationally. Again, the value of the APHEDA trip is that people could actually go into the communities and see what is happening on a daily basis with the things that we take for granted—drinking, washing, bathing and just surviving.

Because it was a union trip, there was a focus on the issues of Palestinian workers. The group met with the three Palestinian union federations: the General Union of Palestinian Workers, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Independent Unions of Palestine. They also met with the Israel Histadrut Federation, which is a worker advice centre that operates in both Palestine and Israel, and with a number of Palestinian workers who were in the area. There are genuine concerns about conditions and wages for Palestinian workers and about the lack of representation when they work in the Israeli area. A large range of issues about health and safety, access to work and wage conditions were raised. Again, people were open and willing to speak, and there seemed to be from the group that were touring a real desire to talk about what is going on and to offer their insight into what is happening in the area.

There is much more in the actual report, and I will be seeking leave to table it. Certainly, in a small trip, no-one is able to understand the complexities and the horror of what is going on in that region. What we can do, though, is to learn more from the people who are living there and to encourage visits, even though it is quite difficult in terms of visas and travel in the area for some people. We can and must learn more, and we must look to what I think we all share, which is a commitment to have a peaceful solution in the area. Mr President, I seek leave to table the report.

Leave granted.

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