I strongly commend Minister Wong; the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence; and the Prime Minister for their unwavering leadership throughout the past days. Our leaders’ swift condemnation of Hamas’s horrific attacks on Israel, their unwavering support of the Israeli state and its right to defend itself, and the empathy and humanity they have demonstrated in charting our nation’s course through this time have made me deeply proud to be a member of this government.
Senator O’NEILL (New South Wales) (12:15): I rise today to speak in strong support of the motion relating to the Hamas attack on Israel that was moved by Minister Wong. I had intended to give this speech last night when the motion was being formally debated, but I was absent from parliament and privileged instead to be in Sydney, as a representative of the government, welcoming those Australians home who had been in Israel at the time of the Hamas attack. I want to thank Senator Polley for giving me the opportunity to make this timely contribution today.
Let me tell you, my fellow Senators, that the sights of families being reunited after one of the most horrifying periods imaginable will remain imprinted on my consciousness forever. I want to commend Premier Minns and the public servants who made those 222 returning Australians so welcome. I also want to commend the efforts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who have already enabled so many Australians to return home. I acknowledge their ongoing efforts, in particular to repatriate the Australians who remain trapped in Gaza and who are at such immediate risk.
Distance is not an adequate measure of the closeness of this conflict to our nation. Many Australians have been directly affected because they were, or continue to be, within the region directly experiencing the fear and violence which define this conflict, because they are friends and family of those overseas who have tragically lost their lives, been taken hostage or remain in the region living in fear. And, having spoken to some who are the relatives of hostages, I want to convey some words which were spoken to me in the last 24 hours: ‘We grew up educated for peace. We are still donating to our friends in Gaza. We have nothing against Palestine, but we have a great deal against Hamas.’
I speak to Australians because we’re frightened of the grotesque displays of anti-Semitism that we’ve witnessed here in Australia and the Islamophobia and violence against Palestinians we’ve witnessed in other Western nations. I speak simply because we are human, and the witnessing of another human’s suffering, their pain and their loss, touches our hearts.
I strongly commend Minister Wong; the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence; and the Prime Minister for their unwavering leadership throughout the past days. Our leaders’ swift condemnation of Hamas’s horrific attacks on Israel, their unwavering support of the Israeli state and its right to defend itself, and the empathy and humanity they have demonstrated in charting our nation’s course through this time have made me deeply proud to be a member of this government. And I note the multipartisan joint statement on Israel-Hamas now carried in both the Senate and the House.
In a conflict which continues to be played by gross misinformation and the intentional objective of stoking confusion, hatred and false divisions, there are few things which can be stated with absolute certainty: Israel has a right to exist and a right to defend itself. All people deserve to live safe from fear and violence. The loss of every innocent life is a tragedy.
Hamas is a terrorist organisation, responsible for horrific, illegal and unjust violence against Israeli civilians. It’s an oppressor of the Palestinian people. Hamas’s attack on Israel involved the brutal murder of over a thousand Israelis—men, women and children—who were taken by surprise and had their lives viciously and ruthlessly cut short. I am personally sickened by attempts to justify that violence and the intentional act of seeking out and slaughtering civilians. In our attempts to navigate this conflict, some people have sought to abstract the violence that real people are experiencing. There are people who seek to politicise this issue to a point beyond recognition, to a point where the death, fear and psychological pain experienced by real people are forgotten.
Abstracted discussions of terror, war and politics do not account for the horror of these experiences on an individual level and the way that they are experienced by real human beings—the shock and fear of hearing gunshots or bombs dropping just outside the door; the thoughts in a person’s mind as they run through a field, watching their friends fall around them; the pain a person feels watching their loved ones die violently in front of their very eyes, knowing only that they cannot stop it and that they may very well be next. The experience of individuals, their fear, the way they grieve, the real tears which have been shed and the blood which has been spilled—these are not political concepts. They are tangible realities. It’s easier for us to ignore them and to speak in abstraction and obfuscation. That is the exact reason we must acknowledge the realities—because it is difficult.
This moment also demands acknowledgement that Hamas is distinct from the Palestinian people. More than half the population of Gaza are people under the age of 18. They are children. I support with all my being the efforts currently underway to establish humanitarian access and aid to those who are in need, and I pray for the protection of all innocent Palestinian and Israeli lives. I certainly pray for the protection of those who are now hostages under the watch of Hamas. I condemn it, and I call for the release of the hostages, along with every other decent person walking the planet. Palestinians deserve access to food, water, medication and safety. I echo Minister Wong’s determined and consistent call for the establishment of humanitarian access and safe passage for civilians. We must continue despite what has gone on already and what will come in the days ahead. We must continue to emphasise the protection of civilian lives and the observance of humanitarian law.
The viewing of people in categories is diminishing to all. In times such as this, the challenge is always to remind oneself of the uniqueness of each soul and to elevate our fundamental understanding of suffering and loss. In this darkness, we are in search of the light in our hearts. If we fail to recognise the experience of individual people and no longer emphasise the base humanity inherent in their experiences, we risk the loss of our own humanity. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, categorically documented his experience through the lens of psychiatry. He explained clinically how such immeasurable suffering and despair are reflected in the daily mind of a prisoner. Frankl tells of a mechanised evil that transported him to Auschwitz from Vienna. Upon leaving the cattle car, he was separated from the vast majority—some 90 per cent—of those he was with, who were immediately murdered. Viktor was forced into a room with others. They were given a strict two minutes to strip down to only their shoes and belts. In their nakedness they were lined up, whipped by SS guards and marched into a shower, their only relief coming from noticing real water coming out of the faucet.
The Holocaust demonstrated to the world how evil humanity can be given the right conditions. Day after day mass murders were executed with an efficiency and absence of unease made possible only by the dehumanisation of a whole category of human beings. On reflecting on his survival of one of the worst atrocities humanity has ever inflicted on itself, Viktor Frankl said:
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
Viktor was right. At best, humanity is capable of love, compassion and charity; at worst, humanity is cruel, sadistic and brutal. When we force people into faceless categories, when we cease to recognise our common humanity, we risk the worst that we are capable of. When we cannot feel empathy for any Palestinian or Israeli mother putting her child to bed at night, surrounded by explosions, unsure of whether they will make it through the night, we have lost our humanity.
It is reasonably well-known that I have a set of rosary beads and a copy of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The Holocaust was born of the greatest horrors known to man. Let us not forget the lessons.