Senator Lee Rhiannon – speech on demolition orders in Susiya, Israeli settlements, and the blockade of Gaza

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
June 26, 2012

Susiya residents, many of whom have lived in the community since 1948, face some of the worst living conditions in the West Bank. Since 1990 there have been a series of demolitions in Susiya and the Israeli authorities have never approved a master plan for Susiya, leaving residents unable to obtain permits for construction. In 2001 all structures were demolished and the residents were forcibly evicted.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (23:47): I seek leave to speak for 20 minutes.

Leave granted.

Senator RHIANNON: There is a view that one hears from time to time that local government should remain the domain of rates, rubbish bins and gutters, and that there is no role for council staff or elected councillors to play in the broader affairs of state and federal government. Yet many councils show their support for a wide range of state and federal issues though very diverse means, and in doing so make a genuine contribution to improving people’s wellbeing and enhancing and informing public debate.

One recent example of this is local councils showing their support for refugees. Last week was Refugee Week, with World Refugee Day held on 20 June. I learnt that there are around 75 local government areas across Australia that the Refugee Council of Australia recognises as Refugee Welcome Zones. There are 35 alone in New South Wales. I am proud that many of those councils have an elected Greens councillor who gave their support to the proposition. Rockdale council, in southern Sydney, is one such council. Lesa de Leau, a member of my staff, also serves as a councillor on Rockdale council. Last week Lesa was called on to give the opening address to launch the Refugee Week events jointly hosted by three adjoining councils in the St George district of Sydney—Rockdale, Kogarah and Hurstville councils—who worked collaboratively to commemorate and celebrate their support for refugees living in their communities.

On her way to the event Lesa heard the tragic news break on the radio that a boat carrying asylum seekers had capsized near Christmas Island, resulting in a terrible loss of life. She had to break the news to the waiting crowd, which was extremely upsetting for everyone, as you would imagine. Their shared grief served to strengthen their commitment to the value of coming together to mark Refugee Week.

There is a tremendous level of community goodwill and concern for refugees. It is fantastic that local councils take it upon themselves to reflect that concern and to show leadership to their residents by working in various ways to make refugees feel welcome and to assist them in their daily lives. I understand that Rockdale council works with several government agencies and NGOs to assist with communications, provide advocacy and ensure that refugees receive adequate services. At the moment Rockdale council has an increasing number of refugees from Bangladesh. The council organises a monthly English language circle, encouraging those refugees to come together to practise their English language skills and network with other people from both their first language community and the wider community at large. Their work is just one example of how dozens of councils are making a real difference by improving the lives of refugees and fostering understanding and acceptance.

Another topical issue that brings a federal focus to local government is when councils sign on to become nuclear-free zones. Some people may have thought that nuclear-free zones would become obsolete, but they are as pertinent today as they were when the nuclear disarmament movement was at its peak. There are still many nuclear issues on the environmental front which directly impact on local government and its residents, such as a national repository for radioactive waste, nuclear reprocessing facilities, the expansion of uranium mining and the transport and export of radioactive waste. The Fukushima disaster once again brought home to people across the world that nuclear technology is not, and never was, safe. European countries are closing down their nuclear power plants, along with Canada and the US, as those countries invest in expanding safe and clean renewable energy.

At home, the events at Fukushima have coloured the federal government’s unwavering support for uranium mining and federal government plans to build a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, a plan without the support or consent of the Aboriginal people who are the traditional owners of that land. The New South Wales coalition government will no doubt add its weight to the proposal by agreeing to the transport of nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in southern Sydney to the Northern Territory. In 2009 the New South Wales government transported nuclear materials from Lucas Heights through Sydney’s southern suburbs to the Illawarra’s Port Kembla for export in an operation whose details were shielded from the locals, causing community outrage.

New South Wales coalition leader Barry O’Farrell also placed the issue of uranium mining back on the agenda last year when he approved the resumption of granting uranium exploration licences in New South Wales, overturning the state’s 26-year uranium ban. That move further invigorated antinuclear sentiment in a state that knows too well from its experience of the burgeoning coal industry that exploration is merely the first stage of full-scale mining.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-nuclear movement in Australia was at its peak, drawing more than 50,000 marchers to demonstrations. I took part in many of those marches and I imagine there were others in this parliament who also did. I still commemorate Hiroshima Day each August. I find it quite extraordinary to reflect on what happened on that day so many years ago. In 1977, the City of Collingwood in Melbourne became the first Australian council area to make a declaration that it would be a nuclear-free zone. This local initiative soon morphed into an Australia-wide and global movement to create nuclear-free zones in local areas. Today, around 90 local government areas across Australia have signed on to the Australian Nuclear Free Zones Secretariat.

There are no easy solutions to Australia’s production of radioactive waste and its long-term safe storage, transport and management. We should never have produced it and any solution to manage it must be pursued through a transparent, deliberative, consensual, science based and evidence based approach. The Greens support a decision-making role for councils in the debate over whether nuclear waste should be transported within their local government area. It is another example of the important role that councils can play to influence national issues. There are many more.

Many Greens councillors have gained the support of their councils to endorse national sustainability measures, such as backing federal container deposit legislation. They encourage their councils to switch to using fair trade products in council—to help tackle poverty and create a better future for farmers in developing countries. They introduce climate change adaption measures—from large-scale initiatives, such as Byron Shire’s climate change strategy, to more modest measures, such as installing tidal markers in Leichhardt council’s harbourside areas.

I congratulate councillors and councils for their hard work and commitment to influencing decisions at all levels of government to get a better deal for their citizens and I congratulate them on the diverse range of their achievements. The Greens have a long history of representation in local government in most states. There have been Greens on councils ever since the first Greens were elected in 1991 to Marrickville Council and to the Newcastle council. There are currently more than 100 Greens councillors in Australia and more than half are women. Greens mayors have led local councils at Byron, Marrickville, Leichhardt, Randwick, Ashfield, Fremantle, Yarra and Maribyrnong.

I always encourage people to participate in local government. The potential for innovative local government actions on behalf of communities is considerable. I am proud of the contribution the more than 100 local Greens councillors across the country are making to raising concerns on refugees, to creating nuclear-free zones and in many other positive and constructive areas.

On another matter, overseas aid to Palestine plays a key role in assisting local communities. That part of AusAID’s website which covers its Palestinian program states:

The goal of the Australian Government ‘ s aid program to the Palestinian Territories is to reduce human suffering and poverty whilst promoting peace and development.

AusAID has identified that poverty levels in the West Bank and Gaza are currently 24 per cent and 56 per cent respectively, and that there are over 4.9 million Palestinians living as refugees in need of humanitarian assistance. Right now many projects financed by overseas aid programs in Susiya in the West Bank are under threat from demolition orders issued by the Israeli civil administration. This includes an AusAID funded health clinic constructed through ActionAid’s local partners. Other projects at risk include a dairy production facility supported by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the construction of four residential shelters funded with assistance from GVC, an Italian NGO; three animal shelters built in partnership with Save the Children UK and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; and two water cisterns funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Organisation and Action Against Hunger. Other aid projects which could be demolished include a community centre and a structure used to store sheep’s milk prior to sale, as well as granaries and shelters for sheep and chickens.

For many Palestinians, access to water and electricity remains a challenge. The German Ministry for Foreign Affairs has funded a solar electricity system through COMET-ME, an Israeli NGO. This organisation is trying to get around the restrictions placed on Palestinian development by harnessing Hebron’s abundant natural energy sources—wind and sun. COMET-ME is providing Palestinian villages with electricity from solar panels and wind turbines. But now these renewable energy projects are under threat of demolition. All these aid projects are fine examples of programs making a difference to people’s lives. If the Israeli administration proceeds with its demolition orders, however, all that could be lost.

Susiya residents, many of whom have lived in the community since 1948, face some of the worst living conditions in the West Bank. Since 1990 there have been a series of demolitions in Susiya and the Israeli authorities have never approved a master plan for Susiya, leaving residents unable to obtain permits for construction. In 2001 all structures were demolished and the residents were forcibly evicted. The residents’ appeal to the High Court of Justice against the action of the Israeli authorities was successful, allowing them to return to their land. In 2011 Susiya had four waves of demolition and, in 2012, the Israeli administration issued a new round of demolition orders. Hebron Governor, Kamel Hamid, in an open letter, has stated:

I would like to draw your attention to the intention of the Israeli authorities to demolish Khirbet Susiya, located south of the town of Yatta in Hebron Governorate. The so-called Israeli “Civil Administration” has distributed final demolition orders on June 12, 2012, to 51 structures in the Khirbet while giving the population only 3 days to object to the decision. The demolition will devastate the lives of at least 160 Palestinians including 60 children. The lawyers of the Palestinian residents of the Khirbet, Rabbis for Human Rights, managed to get a freeze on the demolition for a period of 14 days from the Civil Administration only to find the decision reversed on June 17, 2012.

From that letter from the Hebron Governor we can see these demolitions are now imminent.

Susiya village is in Area C of the West Bank and, although under Israeli administration, is recognised as part of the occupied Palestinian territories. Under international law and the fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is still seen as the occupying power and is therefore restricted from transferring its population to this area. However, an outpost—illegal under both Israeli and international law—has been constructed in the last decade and has not been subject to demolition. Since the settlement has been constructed around them, the residents of Susiya have lost two-thirds of their land used for residential, agricultural and herding purposes due to settlement expansion and settler violence.

There is also growing international concern about the impact settlers are having on Palestinian communities more generally. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that settler violence has increased 144 per cent in the last two years. A group of diplomats from the European Union and EU member states visited Susiya on Friday, 15 June to investigate the humanitarian impact and political implications of the recent demolition orders for the village’s 50 residential shelters. The visitors heard from Susiya locals who explained that access to their land has been progressively eroded by settler construction and settler violence. The EU statement on these developments reads:

The European Union has called upon Israel to meet its obligations regarding the living conditions of the Palestinian population in Area C, including halting forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure, simplifying administrative procedures to obtain building permits, ensuring access to water and addressing humanitarian needs.

UK foreign office parliamentary secretary Alistair Burt stated:

I share your … concerns about the threatened demolition of Palestinians homes in the South Hebron hills.

Another issue that is relevant is the announcement of settlement expansions this year. All settlements are illegal under international law and their expansion has been described by the UK foreign secretary this year as ‘illegal and provocative’. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner has said, ‘We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.’ Spokesperson to UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, stated:

The Secretary-General reiterates that all settlement activity is illegal under international law. It runs contrary to Israel’s obligations under the road map and reputed Quartet calls for the parties to refrain from provocations.

I urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, to make urgent representations to Israel’s ambassador in Australia to urge Israel not to put aid funded projects at risk, to lift demolition orders and to end the expansion of Israeli settlements. Australia needs to take these actions if the AusAID projects in Palestine are going to achieve their objective to—and this is a quote from AusAID’s website—’reduce human suffering and poverty whilst promoting peace and development.’

On a related matter, 50 international charities and United Nations agencies have unanimously called for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza. The organisations have published a simple, three-lined statement to mark the fifth anniversary of the tightening of the blockade of the Strip. It reads:

For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of International law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: “end the blockade now.”

I urge Foreign Minister Bob Carr to take note of this unanimous statement from some of the world’s most respected international aid and human rights organisations and United Nations bodies, and to consider adding Australia’s voice to this call to end the blockade. The international aid and development signatories include Amnesty International, CARE International, Christian Aid, A Different Jewish Voice, International Orthodox Christian Charities, Pax Christi and Oxfam. The United Nations signatories include UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Health Organisation.

Link to parliamentary Hansard