Senator Janet Rice – spoke of her trip to Palestine

photo of Senator Janet Rice
November 14, 2017

We observed the massive impact of the military occupation of the West Bank—the huge military presence; the illegal Israeli settlements; the massive number of homes that are being demolished; the huge number of arrests of children and adults; the harassment, the violence and the control; and the jailing of Palestinian children. I took the opportunity to be the first Australian federal parliamentarian to visit one of the Israeli military courts, the Ofer military court, which is near Jerusalem. There had been no Australian federal politician—not even a diplomat—who had visited these courts.

Full speech

Senator RICE (Victoria) (20:58): Tomorrow, 15 November, is Palestinian National Day. It is the day that the state of Palestine was proclaimed in 1988. I’m moved to make this speech tonight not just because it is Palestinian National Day tomorrow; it also follows my visit to Palestine earlier this year, when I witnessed firsthand the struggles and the oppression of the Palestinian people by the government of Israel. I want to make this speech tonight having done my best to put myself in the shoes of others—in particular, the people of the Jewish faith. I know what a touchstone Israel is to Jewish people. The Jewish homeland is somewhere to be safe and cherished as a Jew after millennia of persecution. I can only try—and fail—to imagine what the prospect of settlement in Israel must have been like after the horrors of the Holocaust: having lost so many, having survived through unimaginable horrors, having been liberated from Nazi Europe, having been the sole survivor of one’s family, having been rejected as refugees from around the world and then having to find a safe haven in Israel. I know many Jewish people in Melbourne who are the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors—my first serious boyfriend, my brother-in-law and many dear friends inside and outside the Greens and progressive movements. In fact, my university years in the early 1980s seemed filled with friends who had spent time in Israel, worked on kibbutzim and were committed to what they believed were socially progressive policies and a society that was developing in Israel. I remember hearing of Palestine around the same time and being confused. ‘But Palestine doesn’t exist, does it?’ I thought. I thought that Palestine existed in biblical times. It wasn’t part of modern-day geography. I knew vaguely that injustices were occurring but, hey, the Middle East was a complex, complicated place. And it was the Jews, wasn’t it, who were the persecuted people? Story after story and novel after novel about the Holocaust confirmed that.

It was a decade later that my sister lived in Palestine for a year, living and working in Nablus and Tulkarm, and that’s when the issue of Palestine became real to me. That’s when I properly began to realise that of course Palestine existed, that of course Palestinians existed, that the wars being fought—the conflicts, the attacks—were deeply rooted in the takeover of their land by Israelis and that the Israelis always came off best. They were stronger, more powerful, more supported by the international community. Yes, Palestinian terrorist attacks would take Israeli lives and were to be condemned, but the provocation and the reprisals were always a magnitude more extreme.

I facilitated the development of the Greens policy on Israel and Palestine in the early 2000s. It calls for recognition of Palestine, an end to the occupation and an end to the settlements that are illegal under international law. It also calls for a two-state solution based on the 1967 border. It condemns violence from both sides. I still think that facilitating that policy and reaching consensus on that policy was one of the most significant facilitation tasks I’ve ever done. It has stood the test of time, but, sadly, it’s increasingly aspirational. In the 15 years since, the prospect of a two-state solution is further away than ever. Settlements have become entrenched, and this year has marked 50 years of military occupation of the West Bank.

Palestine has stayed a touchstone issue for the Greens. We know that there are many Jewish people, including Jewish members, who think our position is too pro-Palestinian, doesn’t sufficiently recognise the importance of Israel to Jewish people and doesn’t acknowledge sufficiently the threat to Israel’s existence from hostile forces. They think that we focus too much on Palestine. ‘There are so many other places in the world where human rights are being abused. Why just pick on Israel?’ the argument goes. Then, equally, there are probably more people who are deeply moved by the ongoing, deep injustices being wrought upon innocent people—aided and abetted by Australia and the US in particular. Those people think that we, as Greens, should be speaking out much more, taking much more strident action, and supporting and calling for much greater action against the Israeli government, including through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

That was the context in which I visited Israel and Palestine for the first time earlier this year. I’ve previously spoken in the Senate about this trip briefly but not at length. So this speech tonight is topical not just because of Palestinian national day tomorrow but because of our Prime Minister’s recent trip to Israel and Palestine. I was saddened and angered by the insensitivity of our Prime Minister—my representative—to the plight of Palestinian people on his trip and by his kowtowing to and his appeasement of the Israeli government in the appalling human rights abuses that they are meting out to innocent people. The twisting of the significance of the Battle of Beersheba was another prompt, as was the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration just two weeks ago.

But the main driver for me making this speech tonight, some six months after my trip, is that what I experienced in Palestine has stayed with me. Once seen, once experienced, it is never forgotten. I’ve sought out more knowledge and information since my return, and the plight of the Palestinian people is literally keeping me awake at night. My trip was organised by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, and I’m pleased to see that there has recently been another APAN trip. This time some of my Labor Party colleagues attended, including senators Claire Moore and Anne Urquhart, who are both here in the chamber at the moment.

When looking at Israel and Palestine and thinking about why I’m speaking here tonight, I mentioned Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration, because history matters when you are looking at the current-day Israel and Palestine. From the Palestinian perspective, it is their land and their homes. From a Jewish perspective, the claim is that historical ties and religious traditions link Jewish people to the land of Israel. But, from that historical perspective, we then move to the 1948 Palestinian war where, with international support, the Nakba, the catastrophe, occurred when 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, and 80 per cent of the Arab inhabitants of what became Israel left or were expelled. Then we jump forward to the 1967 war, when a further 300,000 Palestinians fled the West Bank and the military occupation of the so-called Palestinian Territories began—50 full years ago. Since then we’ve had ongoing wars, skirmishes and peace talks, and everyone seems to have ended up with more areas being designated as Israeli and smaller and smaller areas being in Palestinian control.

I don’t want to give a historical treatise here tonight or try to say what might have been different if different actions had been taken; I just want to set the context of why. When I was in Israel and Palestine we spoke to many people. We spoke to Israelis and Palestinians and people who were working to end the illegal military occupation of Palestine and to remove the illegal Israeli settlements. We spoke to the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem. We spoke to the New Israel Fund and to Gerard Horton, an Australian lawyer, who heads up Military Court Watch, which has a focus on trying to get justice for Palestinian children who are being imprisoned and trying to make sure that even what is set out in Israeli law is actually being followed.

We observed the massive impact of the military occupation of the West Bank—the huge military presence; the illegal Israeli settlements; the massive number of homes that are being demolished; the huge number of arrests of children and adults; the harassment, the violence and the control; and the jailing of Palestinian children. I took the opportunity to be the first Australian federal parliamentarian to visit one of the Israeli military courts, the Ofer military court, which is near Jerusalem. There had been no Australian federal politician—not even a diplomat—who had visited these courts.

I met some of the families of the children who had been arrested and were serving time in jail. In fact, I met with a number of mothers of children who were there, waiting for the trials of their 12- or 14-year-olds, and they described to me the process that they were going through. They’d been there since six o’clock in the morning, because they were not given any particular time when their child’s trial was going to be heard. Sometimes if the weather was bad they would have to wait out in the boiling sun or the pouring rain because of inadequate facilities for the families. We talked to mothers—there were about half a dozen of them the morning we were there—and we heard the same story from each of them. They told us of their teenage sons being arrested at gunpoint at about two o’clock in the morning and the arrests occurring with 10 to 15 Israeli soldiers bashing down the doors of their home, coming into the house with their machine guns pointed at all members of the family and saying that they were going to arrest this young person. In many circumstances, they told us, they were not even told what this young person was being charged with. One of them said that all they were told at that stage was that he was a troublemaker, and she told us that she was admonished: ‘Why don’t you stop your son being a troublemaker?’

What then happens is that, given half a chance, these soldiers drag off this 12- or 14-year-old in their pyjamas. Often the parents have to struggle to even get their child properly dressed before they are dragged away in the middle of the night. They are then taken off, often in very violent ways, in the back of a truck to be taken into detention. The two charges that we heard about them being charged with were throwing stones or incitement on Facebook. They were being charged with putting a comment on social media that was critical of the repressive regime that the Israeli government was keeping them under—of the oppressive military occupation that is recognised internationally as needing to end.

We attempted to attend one of the trials of one of those teenagers, but we were barred from doing so, even though Israeli standing orders for the trials say that, if there’s support from the family, the trials of juveniles can be open and observers can be present. But the judge said no. It was his ruling that, because it was a juvenile, we weren’t to be there, so we were barred from attending his trial.

We did, however, manage to attend the trial of a 23-year-old. The story of this 23-year-old is typical of the stories of what young people in Palestine are up against. He had already served six months in prison, and his six months had been served because of incitement on Facebook. He’d served his time and had managed to get back to his studies and do his exams—he was studying accounting at a local university. Then he was arrested again, and the charge this time was that he had been talking to some friends. He was not even accused of leading the conversation. He was just talking to some friends who, it was alleged, had been talking about acquiring weapons. That was enough for him to be arrested again, in the middle of the night, and taken off to prison, and he was now there shackled in the military court.

I think the fact that we were there at the court hearing actually had a significant bearing on the trial. We heard that the Israeli military courts have a 99.7 per cent prosecution rate. That is because, if you’re a 14-year-old or a 23-year-old who is being accused of something like incitement on Facebook, you’re encouraged to plead guilty. If you plead guilty, you’re likely to get a prison term of three to four months, but, if you don’t plead guilty and you contest the charge, you’re likely to be in detention for over six months. But we were there, and the judge, I think, knew that there were observers in that courtroom, and there was what seemed to be a blue-moon miracle—that 0.03 per cent of circumstances where the charges are dismissed. The family was extremely happy about our presence there as observers in that military court.

That is the context as to why it’s important for observers to be present and why other countries, but not Australia, send observers to be present—to let the Israeli government know that the world is listening and that their human rights abuses and complete abrogation of international law are being seen and being watched. This is something that Australia can do.

The ongoing harassment of young people by this military state is doing its job. The Israeli military forces are very good at picking out any young person who shows any leadership, who is showing that sense of not wanting to just acquiesce to the military occupation that they are under. With anyone who is identified like that, the military forces will find the opportunity to arrest them very early on and let them know that it’s not worth protesting.

We of course observed the illegal settlements—the Jewish settlements that are illegal under international law that are spreading across the West Bank. The expansion of these settlements has continued in the six months since I was there. In fact, in the last month there have been more settlements approved by the Israeli government, including settlements in Hebron and in Jerusalem, in extremely contested Palestinian neighbourhoods. Of course, with these settlements come the roads that connect up the settlements—the apartheid roads that are only open to the Jewish inhabitants of the settlements. The Palestinians who live in surrounding villages aren’t allowed to use them. There is a separation of people, with more and more areas off limits to Palestinians.

We visited Hebron and the sterilised Shuhada Street, which used to be the main street of Hebron and is now closed to Palestinian people, and the checkpoints. Palestinians living in Hebron cannot get around their own town. We met the activist Issa Amro, who is fighting for Palestinians to be able to continue to live in and access their home of Hebron. He is now on trial for his activism. We saw the separation wall—the wall that is set up to divide Palestinians from land that the Israelis want to have control over; the wall that cuts people off from their agricultural land if they live in villages and cuts them off from their work if they are going to access work on the Israeli side of the wall. We saw the checkpoints that they have to be corralled through. This is all about control. It’s all keeping people under military occupation and making life as difficult as possible. We didn’t get to Gaza. Nobody gets to go to Gaza. Nobody is allowed in, so we could only imagine the horrors that are unfolding in Gaza.

Australia is one of the very strongest allies of Israel in the world. So, as one of Israel’s very best friends in the world, we are in a position where we can do what other nations can’t: we can be honest with our best friends and tell them, when they’re doing something that is not appropriate, that it should cease. I think it’s of critical importance that our diplomats take up that opportunity. Our Prime Minister, when he visited, should have taken up that opportunity. It’s something that we can do to keep the pressure on Israel, to tell them that they have to be true and serious about their expressed intent.

The state of Israel says that they support a two-state solution. My visit to Israel and Palestine, and everything I have learnt since, shows me that the only way to get Israel to the negotiating table and seriously negotiating for a two-state solution is through international pressure, and Australia has a critical role to play in that international pressure. We should recognise Palestine as an independent state and join the majority of countries in the world that have done so. It’s a particularly important thing to be calling for on the eve of Palestinian National Day tomorrow. We should be calling for an end to the illegal settlements, not just saying, ‘Oh well, they’re there,’ and just acquiescing. We should be calling for an end to the 50-year military occupation of the West Bank. We shouldn’t be co-operating with military sales and military agreements. I’m horrified to think about what this government has been talking about in recent months: increasing military ties and increasing military sales with Israel—connecting Australia with the horrors of the military might of Israel. But, above all, we as Greens are asking that Australia be critical publicly, not just in private conversations. Israel has to know that we are watching, that we care and that human rights matter to us.

Link to parliamentary Hansard