Senator Lee Rhiannon – spoke about her recent trip to Palestine

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
August 8, 2017

The violation of international laws and human rights abuses carried out by Israel are not new and they are not unknown. We cannot say that we do not see. The Australian government continues to be on the wrong side of history in the failure to recognise and address this ongoing catastrophe. It’s getting worse with every year, and we do have a clear responsibility to speak up.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:21): I recently returned from a self-funded fact finding trip to Palestine. As well as visiting Australian aid projects in the West Bank, I met with organisations and Palestinians living inside the 1948 borders of Israel. This was a very informative visit. I do thank Union Aid Abroad and EuroPal for their assistance.

This was not my first trip to Palestine and Israel. In 2013, I visited and met with Palestinians enduring the hardship of decades-long military occupation. The separation wall was already starting to snake its way through the West Bank, dividing communities from their lands and from each other, grabbing even more land for the illegal settlements and for Israel. In 2013, I recognised and admired the resilience of a people who had long been denied justice and who continued to struggle for their rights. What I sensed this time was a growing sense of hopelessness with the peace process, with the rule of international law and with, sadly, the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians have been left to try and find their own way.

The plight of Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank is something I began to follow closely during the mass hunger strike that took place in April this year. Thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are incarcerated, interrogated and tortured by Israel. Tragically, the Palestine Authority, the PA, also incarcerates, interrogates and tortures political prisoners and shares the obtained intelligence with Israel. The violation of prisoner rights by Israel is endemic; only one of which is the Israeli practice of administrative detention.

Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the Israeli military to imprison individuals indefinitely without charge and without legal recourse. The army can apply for a sentence of six months without having to apply evidence, and that six-month sentence can be renewed and renewed and renewed. There have been cases of prisoners being held for up to eight years under this practice. In July 2017, there were over 6,000 Palestinian political prisoners and, shamefully, 320 were children. Four hundred political prisoners were detained under administrative detention orders. Ten of the prisoners were members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

I was scheduled to meet Khalida Jarrar, one of the directors of the prisoner rights group Addameer and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. A vocal critic of the PA, Khalida was arrested during a pre-dawn raid on her home a week before I arrived. I have since heard that she was sentenced to six months administrative detention due to her membership of a political organisation—a political organisation that Israel has deemed illegal. Almost all political organisations, however, are considered illegal by Israel.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the wall being constructed by the Israeli state in the West Bank was illegal. The ruling determined that the wall was unjustified on security grounds and constituted a violation of human rights. No stranger to violating international law, Israel has continued building the wall and annexing even more land for the illegal settlements that continue to spread. While I was there looking at the wall, I also found Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel. I recommend that people who go to Palestine visit this area, because, very quickly they will get a sense of the crimes that are being committed in this area and will be extensively informed.

Al-Walaja village, originally part of the Jerusalem district, was seized by Israel in 1949. The village was seized by Israelis in 1960, and the Palestinians re-established their homes on their agricultural lands. In 1948, the village was around 1,800 hectares. It has subsequently shrunk to 450 hectares. Nearly half of that will be cut off from the villagers by the separation wall—and I have to say: the word ‘wall’ doesn’t do justice to how offensive it is and the damage and crimes it commits by the way it separates villagers and robs people of their land. The wall runs close to the houses in al-Walaja and, once complete, will completely encircle the village. Over 2,000 villagers will be cut off from their farmlands and from access to Jerusalem.

I visited the home of Omar Hajajleh. He is a local at the al-Walaja village. Sitting in his village overlooking the valley, the sounds of the large machinery pounding the cement panels into place for the wall could not be ignored. Omar’s home is the only house in the al-Walaja village that will remain on the side that Israel has claimed. His papers date back to the Ottoman Empire and his home was built before 1967, which usually affords some form of protection, even under Israeli law. But not here. After refusing multiple offers from Israeli authorities to sell his home—which is quite understandable—Omar and his family were subject to repeated intimidation by the Israeli authorities and army in an attempt to get him to move.

Omar’s children were hit by Israeli police, and his eight-year-old son suffered a wound when he was hit by the butt of an Israeli soldier’s gun. He required 13 stitches. The boy’s mother suffered a miscarriage after she was beaten by an Israeli soldier. This is from what some describe as the world’s ‘most moral army’. For Omar the intimidation did not end with those attacks on his family. Explosives were intentionally detonated close to his house, damaging the foundations. One morning Omar woke to find his home flooded with water from an Israeli-built pipe, which caused even more damage. This was the description Omar gave to me and other colleagues who visited his home. Israel refused to allow the family to repair the house that was near collapse. But the Israeli authorities were not successful.

But despite all the hardship you see and, at times, the hopelessness you feel, when you tour this area, there are times when you are inspired. The story of Omar, Omar’s family and how he has stood up to the Israeli authorities and kept his house—his most beautiful garden with the goats underneath was just delightful—is a story that shows how the world is standing up to the crimes being committed against Palestinians and to stop Palestinian self-determination. French supporters came and lived in Omar’s house while the necessary repairs were being carried out. That was a wonderful act of solidarity that has given Omar and his family a new lease of life. The Israeli authorities, however, continue to go to extraordinary lengths to get Omar out of his house. They’ve put all this pressure on him to relinquish his home, but they have not succeeded.

However, the outcome is still not good for Omar’s family. Yes, he’s got his home, and it has been rebuilt in a very safe way, but a separation wall will be built to encircle Omar’s house. This means Omar and his family will be cut off from their village. Supporters and villagers have agitated that they be given access to the village. What that has resulted in is a tunnel. Believe it or not—it is an extraordinary story—the Israeli authorities have built a tunnel so that Omar can get access to the village. But once the wall is complete, the tunnel will be blocked off with a gate. Yes, Omar will be given a key, but he cannot have any visitors, apart from his sister. Nobody can stay at his home. He has to use that tunnel to gain access to his own village—a ridiculous situation. So the outcome still is isolation. Any capacity for a normal life, as normal as one may have under a brutal military occupation, will be lost. Omar told me that an occupier cannot understand the meaning of ‘homeland’, that a coloniser cannot understand how deep his relationship is with the land and that it cannot be understood through money. He described this to me has we were standing on his verandah, looking over a huge expanse of land and a valley, where he pointed out where the olive groves and orchards of his family and his village used to be, which have now been taken by the Israeli authorities.

I also visited a Palestinian Bedouin village in the Negev valley, under imminent threat of demolition. This was a terrible experience. Despite being citizens of the Israeli state, these Bedouins are afforded little in the way of citizenry rights. According to Israeli law, 50 families can establish a town. This works in favour of illegal settlers establishing new settlements in the West Bank. The 1,500-strong village I visited is not recognised. That’s the official language, ‘Not recognised’. This means they are not connected to any water or power grids and are under constant threat of demolition. I saw for myself the demolished houses. It is shameful to demolish anybody’s home, we know that. But under these circumstances, when people already have so little—what a crime! The Bedouins have been in the region since before the Ottoman occupation, yet the Israeli practice of ethnically cleansing the land continues. At the Bedouin village I visited, protests had been ongoing for months. Sadly, I saw so many of these demolished houses. The Bedouins I spoke to told me the Israeli authorities are trying to force them to change their lifestyle and traditions, to have all the Bedouin communities live in one village. Where that village would finally be located, the Israeli authorities have never disclosed.

The signs of an impending settlement being built were all there where you were standing in this Bedouin village. Land in the village had been cleared and flattened, the roads leading to the village are being resurfaced. That may not sound unusual when I speak about it here, but sealed roads and Palestinian villages do not go together. It is an unusual sight, as roads going to any Palestinian villages inside the 1948 borders of Israel are rarely surfaced. When you visit Palestinian villages, the thing you would remember is how dusty they are because of the unsealed roads. We also saw pipes leading to the village, which we suspected were water pipes about to be connected. The village has been there for over 60 years, without services being provided. Now that they’re being forced to move on, it is hardly likely that the infrastructure is being put in for the Palestinians, the Bedouins. One of the Bedouin representatives I spoke to viewed this infrastructure as more proof of Israel’s intention to take their land and demolish more homes.

I met with Subhi Shaban, who lives in Dahmash, a small village 15 kilometres out of Tel Aviv, not far away from the centre of that city. Despite being Israeli citizens and paying taxes, the residents of Dahmash receive no services from the Israeli government. An organisation actually built a playground there in 2006 for the children, who have no green space, but, not long after, the playground was demolished by Israeli authorities. Subhi Shaban is from Beisan, a village that was forcibly depopulated and occupied by Jewish militia, weeks before the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. In the 1950s, the Israeli authorities granted the land of Dahmash to the Palestinians. By now, they were actually Israeli citizens. This land was given to them as a means of compensation for the lands they had been forced off and were not allowed to reclaim. However, the Israeli government now claims that, as the land of Dahmash is zoned agricultural land, the villagers cannot construct their homes there. The authorities are demolishing homes one by one.

What a saga! You lose your village. You move on. You’re given land. You become an Israeli citizen. But then your homes are demolished. I saw the homes demolished. I saw the worry. That day, this wonderful elderly man’s daughter was getting married. He’d given some time to talk to us in the morning. He started to cry when he was so worried about the future for his children. Israel carries out house demolitions on a regular basis. Over 20,000 Palestinians are currently subject to house demolition orders. Subhi and his family live and run a business from their home in Dahmash. A 20-year court battle has now reached the High Court. The case has been postponed, but for Subhi and his family the looming threat of losing their homes and livelihood is very real.

It was shocking to see the remnants of homes already demolished in the village. Two years ago, Israeli police arrived in the village at 3.00 am. That’s so often the time Israeli military and police raid homes and villages. They sealed off the homes of the other residents, forbidding them to leave. Within two hours bulldozers had torn through five homes. Eighty members of one family were left homeless in a few hours. This is how Israel carries out home demolitions. This has been happening to thousands of Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, and this is still happening.

In 2013 I was able to visit Gaza, already six years into a gripping siege. This year I put forward requests to the foreign minister’s office to assist me to enter Gaza to visit Australian-funded aid projects. I was ultimately given a blanket no, which was disappointing. I was, however, able to meet with organisations that run projects inside Gaza. The reports I received were devastating. Gaza, rightly referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison, is the most extreme example in our time of collective punishment. Two million Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees from the 1948 occupation of Palestine, have been subject to large-scale military assaults from Israel that have killed thousands and permanently injured thousands more. The assaults in 2009, 2012 and 2014 destroyed over 220,000 homes, and many Palestinians in Gaza remain homeless to this day.

In March 2017 the UN warned that 97 per cent of Gaza’s water was unfit for domestic use. Fifty per cent of children are now exposed to parasites in the water. The high salt content of the water significantly increases the risk of kidney disease and associated cancer, and there are so many children who have kidney stones. The trauma of living under this 10-year siege is very real. The mental and physical health of the entire population of Gaza is impacted by the Israeli blockade. In June 2017, at the request of the Palestinian Authority, Israel began to cut Gaza’s power supply. The disruption to power has been an ongoing problem for the besieged strip for the past 20 years, but this current escalation is deadly—and I use that word most emphatically. Israel now supplies only three hours of electricity to Gaza each day, and sometimes it is even less than that. That is three hours or less of electricity for two million people.

Speaking to the ABC in June this year, Robert Piper, the UN’s top humanitarian official for Gaza, said:

A further increase in the length of blackouts is likely to lead to a total collapse of basic services, including critical functions in the health, water and sanitation sectors …

Piper continued, saying that more and more untreated sewerage is entering the sea because there isn’t enough energy to treat it properly. This was in June. Nearly two months on, I understand the situation is deteriorating further. Two million Palestinians are being held hostage in this dirty form of warfare. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power must respect the fundamental human rights of a territory’s inhabitants and ensure sufficient hygiene and public health standards, as well as the provision of food and medical care, to the population under occupation. According to the United Nations, regardless of the 2005 so-called withdrawal and the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border, Gaza is considered occupied by Israel. It does not matter that Israel does not have soldiers based inside the strip; Israel retains effective control, and under international law is therefore responsible for the population inside Gaza. And look at how they’re living. Consider how little we hear about it. These crimes are extreme.

There was so much more that I saw and learnt of the violations carried out by the state of Israel in the days I spent in the region: the crippling of the Palestinian economy, the withholding of bodies from families as a form of collective punishment, the destruction and desecration of sites holy to the Palestinians, the imprisonment of children as young as eight, stories of protesters being shot and killed with live bullets, and charging Palestinians in the West Bank three times more for water than the illegal Israeli settlers.

The violation of international laws and human rights abuses carried out by Israel are not new and they are not unknown. We cannot say that we do not see. The Australian government continues to be on the wrong side of history in the failure to recognise and address this ongoing catastrophe. It’s getting worse with every year, and we do have a clear responsibility to speak up.

Link to parliamentary Hansard