Senator Lee Rhiannon – speech regarding her recent trip to Palestine, talking about the importance of Australian aid and calling for further support for Susiya

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
February 26, 2013

In January I had the opportunity to visit this project and other aid projects in the occupied Palestinian territories. What I saw highlighted to me why the Australian government needs to add its voice to help safeguard this project and advocate for Palestinian human rights. I visited Susiya with Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli soldier who had trained at a military camp in South Hebron. The harassment by Israeli military personnel and settlers has driven away some of the once 400-strong community. Mr Shaul explained this was a deliberate tactic of the Israeli military.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:26): I seek leave to speak for 20 minutes.

Leave granted.

Senator RHIANNON: Overseas aid for the people of Palestine plays a critical role in reducing the hardships and inequality that so many face on a daily basis. Last year, Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, spoke to the Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, about demolition orders issued by the Israeli civil administration for 52 temporary structures in the Palestinian village of Susiya in the South Hebron hills of the West Bank classified as Area C. This classification means that Susiya is on land occupied by the Israeli military. One of the projects under threat of demolition was an AusAID funded health clinic constructed through ActionAid local partners. When the demolition orders became widely known last July, there was an outcry from donor countries and from aid groups around the world. The Greens added their voice to those concerns. The Australian funded aid clinic and many of the other aid projects in this village are still operating, thanks to this show of public concern. As far as I am aware the Australian government did not publicly speak out on this worrying trend by the Israeli military to demolish Palestinian buildings. Senator Milne has still not received a response from Minister Carr to the issues she raised about Susiya.

In January I had the opportunity to visit this project and other aid projects in the occupied Palestinian territories. What I saw highlighted to me why the Australian government needs to add its voice to help safeguard this project and advocate for Palestinian human rights. I visited Susiya with Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli soldier who had trained at a military camp in South Hebron. The harassment by Israeli military personnel and settlers has driven away some of the once 400-strong community. Mr Shaul explained this was a deliberate tactic of the Israeli military.

The Palestinians who still live in this village are working hard to maintain it. Their children go to school, thanks to local dedicated teachers and with assistance from the Spanish arm of Action Against Hunger and the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees. There is a functioning health clinic, thanks to the AusAID funded project. Thanks to a German Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded solar energy project, run by the Israeli NGO Comet-ME, Susiya does have an electricity supply. This is an essential project, as the villagers have been forced to live off the grid even though the electricity transmission lines that service nearby Jewish settlements and unauthorised outposts are only about 200 metres from the village.

Mr Jihad Mohamad Al Najeh, Mayor of Susiya Council, presented me with a letter setting out the hardships his villagers face and their request for assistance. Mr Najeh said that most of the village land had been ‘confiscated by Israeli occupiers and settlers’. They requested assistance to improve their agricultural resources and to help the many families living in tents.

I could see from my visit that international assistance is welcome, but it does not mean life is normal. Mr Shaul and the local Palestinians showed me around their village. I was shocked by what I saw. In one of the Israeli military operations a car was forced into a well that the locals had once relied on for fresh water. The well is now unusable. Most buildings have been destroyed. The Susiya villagers live in tents and caves. The health clinic tent and all the tents I saw were tied down with ropes, plastic sheeting and tarpaulins.

The threat of demolition remains. I strongly urge Minister Carr to speak out publicly on this issue and consider visiting Susiya. European Union diplomats visited this area last June at the height of the demolition threat. A statement issued at the time said that the visit was undertaken by the diplomats to ‘show their concerns over the humanitarian impact and political implications of the recent demolition orders’. The visit of the EU diplomats followed a meeting of 27 foreign ministers of the European Union in Brussels last May held to discuss Israeli actions in the occupied West Bank.

The threat to Susiya is not an isolated incident. The Displacement Working Group has undertaken a detailed study of aid projects destroyed or under threat. This body is an interagency organisation under the auspices of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Protection Cluster, chaired by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This body has over 100 members, including UN agencies and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. The Displacement Working Group identified 62 projects funded by France, Netherlands, Britain, Poland, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and the European Commission that had been destroyed by Israeli actions. These include people’s homes, water cisterns and animal shelters. They found at least 110 structures at risk of demolition.

The EU foreign ministers have called on the Israeli government to remove restrictions on Palestinian construction and economic development projects in Area C. The ministers also took up the issue of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians and called on the Israeli government to initiate prosecution when the law is broken. A number of the Palestinians I spoke to said that Australia’s role as a donor country to Palestine would be more effective if Australia also spoke out on these issues.

Life in Susiya is very different from that in nearby settlements. Known as National Priority Areas, the Israeli government provides subsidised housing and education along with tax breaks, security and other incentives to settlers. The Israeli Supreme Court has found these areas to be discriminatory against non-Jewish communities. The United Nations, and by far the majority of countries, recognises that these settlements violate international law.

The Separation Wall, built by the Israeli government, is another factor impacting on both effective aid projects and the local economy. The Israeli government have said that the wall is needed to provide security for settlers and residents. The International Court of Justice, however, found that ‘the construction of the wall, and its associated regime, are contrary to international law’. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, 8.5 per cent of the West Bank area is on the Israeli side of the barrier.

The Australia-Middle East NGO, Cooperation Agreement Phase II, which is supported by AusAID, has projects in the Tulkarem district in the northern West Bank. The Separation Wall has cut off many of the Tulkarem villages from their rich agricultural land. This is resulting in hardship for local Palestinians and presenting challenges for the delivery of local aid projects.

I received a very informative briefing from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. One of their investigations found that more than a quarter of all Palestinian structures demolished in 2011 were funded by international donors. The European Commission has estimated that the cost of EU funded projects damaged or demolished by the Israeli army from the beginning of 2001 until October 2011 adds up to US$65.6 million.

Israeli military representatives explain that the wells and other structures are destroyed because they are illegal. Major Guy Inbar, an Israeli army spokesperson for the civil administration of Area C, has said that the demolitions occur after the inhabitants are given the chance to present their claims to the relevant committee. If they did not do this, Major Inbar said they are asked to remove the tents and buildings themselves and, if they refuse, ‘Only then did the Israeli security forces take action.’ Many workers in Palestinian civil society groups and in aid groups explained to me that the Israeli authorities rarely issue new building permits to Palestinians, and so now many Palestinians do not even bother applying for a permit. An Oxfam spokesperson, Willow Heske, describes the permit regime as one that ‘is discriminatory and is in contradiction of international law’.

The difficulty obtaining permits is particularly problematic for the Palestinian education system. One of the key Millennium Development Goals is that, by 2015, children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. In 2011 in Area C, including East Jerusalem, 10,000 Palestinian children had their classes in tents, caravans or tin shacks because no permits to build or renovate classrooms were issued. I thank Civic Coalition Jerusalem and Grassroots Jerusalem for the briefings they provided me on these issues.

After the West Bank I visited Gaza. In my few days on this narrow strip of land I saw the enormous resilience of people and the very finest of efforts to build a future in the face of extreme adversity. However, the day-to-day reality is harsh. The level of humanitarian assistance in Gaza is massive: 80 per cent of the population are dependent on international assistance. Three out of four Gazans are refugees and the majority are children and young people.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, was created as a result of the mass expulsions of Palestinians from Israel in 1948, and the USA is UNRWA’s largest single-state donor.

UNRWA reports that the blockade imposed on Gaza since June 2007 is causing unprecedented poverty levels. The insecurity and uncertainty of daily life, particularly in the immediate aftermath of bombing, is enormous. There is a lack of adequate sanitation, clean water, electricity and secure food sources. The briefing I had with the UNRWA director of the Gaza office, Robert Turner, was very informative. UNRWA’s workload covers eight refugee camps, 243 schools with more than 200,000 students, two vocational and technical training centres, 21 primary health centres, six community rehabilitation centres and seven women’s program centres. And on top of this the UNRWA staff undertake extraordinary work when the Israeli government attacks Gaza. During the conflict last November, Mr Turner informed me that UNRWA staff provided assistance to more than 50,000 Gazans who took shelter in UNRWA schools. Basic food, water, blankets and mattresses were provided to displaced families and individuals.

A report, Failing Gaza: no rebuilding, no recovery, no more excuses by Oxfam, Amnesty International and 14 other European human rights and aid agencies found that during the 2008-09 offensive 18 schools were destroyed and at least 280 were damaged. Many of these were UNRWA projects. In the case of one of the ruined UNRWA facilities, the Israeli government paid US$10 million to the United Nations in compensation for the destruction of a warehouse and all its contents. In the November 2012 conflict the Israeli air strikes were at three times the rate of the 2008-09 attacks, 1,500 in 2012 compared to 500 in the 2008-09 attack.

While I was in Gaza city I spoke to two Palestinians about the impact the Israeli government’s most recent attack had on them and their children. A father of five told me that the bombing of Gaza was like living in a constant earthquake. The buildings shook frequently and there was little relief from loud noise. Every night of the eight days of bombings he slept with his children with the windows open. People do this so if a bomb goes off nearby the windows will not blow in, shattering glass everywhere. He slept with his children to comfort them. The children spent much of the time screaming.

As it was winter, sleeping with the windows open meant the children became sick. When they became sick with chest infections, he wanted to take them to the hospital. He said this added to his shame as he knew that there were children, some dying and others with serious injuries, who needed urgent attention at the hospital and so he did not feel that he could ask the doctors to treat his children. His children now scream when they hear thunder as they think the bombs are returning. His two-year-old knows the Palestinian words for drones and bombs.

A young mother spoke to me about the impact of the attacks on her two boys who are four and six years old. She told me that she had been happy to hear them cry as she then knew they were alive. Her four-year-old regularly draws war scenes showing a rocket heading towards a house with a kite flying in the sky. The house has no windows or doors. Her son explains that windows and doors are not needed because the house will be bombed and destroyed.

Over the week of conflict last November, 103 Palestinian civilians were killed, including 33 children, and 1,400 Palestinians were injured. Over the same period, four Israeli civilians were killed and over 220 injured. It is estimated that more than 15,000 Palestinians were displaced and a total of 8,450 homes destroyed or damaged. The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture estimates damage to agricultural assets at US$20 million.

I had the opportunity to visit a number of Australian funded aid projects in Gaza and to see firsthand how this work has improved food security and boosted incomes. It was particularly impressive to learn how female headed households are being assisted. Women and their dependents are particularly vulnerable as it is much harder for women to find employment. In the areas I visited close to the border I saw how the buffer zone that Israel has declared on the eastern border of Gaza robs agricultural land from the Palestinians.

I congratulate Ma’an Development and Union Aid Abroad for the constructive work they are undertaking in Gaza. It was disturbing to learn of the damage to some of their projects and the loss of life resulting from the Israeli attacks. One of the saddest days of my visit was when I met Ibrahim Saleh Qdeih. who lives in Abasan village. Ibrahim told us about the rabbit farm, a Ma’an-APHEDA project funded by AusAID and set up by his wife, Najah Harb. In 2011, Najah and her daughter were killed when the Israeli Defence Forces used a drone to bomb this area. Shrapnel killed these two women as they were cooking dinner in the cleared area outside their small cement house. Ibrahim told me what happened as we sat in the sun together on the very spot where this tragedy occurred. One of Ibrahim’s other daughters saw the carnage that killed her mother. For many months she did not speak. Another daughter has shrapnel in her skull and requires further operations but, because of the blockade, she has not yet received the medical assistance she needs. Ibrahim has continued managing the rabbit farm that his wife set up and the good news is that it is bringing him and his family a steady income.

I also visited another aid project consisting of various greenhouses that had been damaged by Israeli bombs and now have to be rebuilt. These greenhouses enable the farmers to boost the capacity of their crops enormously. But the cost of rebuilding and the loss of production create an added burden.

On my last day in Gaza I visited the Al Ahli Arab Hospital and wish to warmly thank the director, Suhaila Tarazi, for the thorough briefing she provided. Al Ahli Arab Hospital runs a free-of-charge program for early detection of breast cancer among women above 40 years of age. I have spoken about this program before in the Senate. We have passed a cross-party motion in support of this program. I congratulate Anglicord for this work. Breast cancer is one of the biggest killers of women in the Gaza Strip. In Australia, a woman who is treated for breast cancer has an 80 per cent survival rate at five years. For a woman in Gaza it is 40 per cent. To receive the necessary treatment women with breast cancer must leave Gaza. Palestinians can only leave if the Israeli authorities agree. Many women are not given permission to travel.

I met many doctors, nurses and other hospital workers and wish to congratulate them on their outstanding work. One of the doctors showed me the X-ray of a patient that revealed a number of kidney stones. I was shocked to find out that the patient is a young boy. The doctor explained that because of the high levels of salt in the drinking water more young people are being admitted to the hospital with kidney problems. The salty water comes from sea water penetrating the Gaza aquifer, which has been damaged due to the Israeli government extracting excessive amounts of water.

The Palestinian Ministry of National Economy, in cooperation with the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem and funded by the United Nations Development Program, assessed the future of this region in a 2011 report. It found:

The total costs imposed by the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian economy which we have been able to measure was USD 6.897 billion in 2010, a staggering 84.9% of the total estimated Palestinian GDP. In other words, had the Palestinians not been subject to the Israeli occupation, their economy would have been almost double in size than it is today.

It is interesting therefore to reflect on some comments from the multilateral organisations. I do note that it is vital that the Australian government speaks up to protect aid projects in Palestine. But sustainable development in this region will not be achieved by foreign assistance alone. Key multilateral bodies—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development—have identified that it is the conditions of the occupation that are impeding any prospects of sustainable economic growth in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Link to parliamentary Hansard