Senator Lee Rhiannon – spoke of the destruction in Gaza by Israel

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
November 20, 2012

During the Israeli military operation known as Operation Cast Lead, more than 1,400 people were killed, including more than 340 children. Much infrastructure—houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other buildings—was destroyed. Every effort needs to be made to ensure that similar death and destruction is not the result of Israel’s latest operation against Gaza, codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (23:54): Mr President, I seek leave to speak for 20 minutes.

The PRESIDENT: Leave is granted.

Senator RHIANNON: People, Palestinians and Israelis, are being killed. Most are dying in Gaza, a strip of land described by many as the world’s largest open-air prison. This issue is causing great distress to many Australians who have relatives and colleagues in this region. Some Palestinians with family members in Gaza have spoken to me about their concerns. Aid workers in this region have been in touch to speak of their anguish at the loss of lives and the destruction of development projects in Gaza. One of the recent emails I received from an aid worker described everyday life in Gaza, where they never know when or where a missile will land and they are living all the time with the humming of drones and the sound of jets overhead. People described to me feelings of dread and trauma. This person told me: ‘There is no comparison to what the Israelis face now and what the Gazans face every day.’

The tragic battle being waged in one of the most densely populated areas in the world due to Israel’s blockade is a David-and-Goliath battle. Palestine—the West Bank and Gaza—is a weakened and restricted economy under the illegal military occupation and blockade by Israel. The CIA website states: ‘Israel security controls placed on the Gaza Strip have resulted in high unemployment, elevated poverty levels and the near collapse of the private sector that had relied on export markets.’

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, speaking last year about food insecurity in Gaza noted that at least two-thirds of Gazan households lack secure access to food. He stated: ‘People are forced to make unacceptable trade offs, often having to choose between food or medicine or water for their families.’ Mr De Schutter also stated that about one-third of Gaza’s arable land and 85 per cent of its fishing waters are totally or partially inaccessible due to Israeli military measures—this is from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency report. The reality of daily life in Palestine is harsh.

For the last decade, the socioeconomic situation in Gaza has been in steady decline. Years of conflict and closure have left 80 per cent of the population dependent on international assistance. The tightened blockade imposed following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 has decimated lives and livelihoods, resulting in the impoverishment and de-development of a highly skilled and well-educated society. Despite adjustments made to the blockade by the government of Israel in June 2010, restrictions on imports and exports continue to severely hamper recovery and reconstruction. As of 1 January this year this agency, the UNRWA, was overseeing eight refugee camps within Gaza, and 242 schools for 218,048 pupils. Over 1.5 million people live in Gaza, a tiny area of only 365 square kilometres. Almost 1.2 million are refugees—Palestinians who have the legal right to return to their country of origin as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Israel is engaged in land and sea based bombing where these people live. There is now talk of a ground assault. Hamas is firing hundreds of rockets into Israel. I condemn the violence on both sides. Israel is the world’s fifth-largest military power. This year it will receive about US$3 billion in military aid from the USA. The disproportionate aspect of this war needs to be understood. The comments of Anglican priest Father Dave of Dulwich Hill in Sydney help explain this important issue:

I appreciate that there are casualties on both sides of this conflict, and indeed I grieve for the Israeli dead as I do for the Palestinian dead, but a war suggests that there are two armies involved in this conflict. There are not two armies. There is one army. It is a highly-trained and well-equipped army. Fighting this army are disparate groups of home-grown militia-men.

Father Dave then quotes Noam Chomsky’s comments, which are also useful:

Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques, and slums to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army…and calls it a war. It is not a war, it is murder.

When Israelis in the occupied territories now claim that they have to defend themselves, they are defending themselves in the sense that any military occupier has to defend itself against the population they are crushing. You can’t defend yourself when you’re militarily occupying someone else’s land.

Australia can play an important role in achieving justice and peace in this region. It is the Australian Greens’ position that our government should halt military cooperation and military trade with Israel. The government should have taken such action after the 2008 attack on Gaza. Now Australia is a member of the UN Security Council, there is a greater expectation that our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, and other key Australian representatives will take an independent position and not just vote en bloc with the US and Israel, as they have in the past.

Those involved in the conflict in Israel and Palestine should immediately cease all armed attacks so no civilians are under threat. In recent days, we have heard Israeli government spokespeople assert that no country, no people, should have to put up with the rocket attacks Israel is being subjected to. Interestingly, this statement could also be framed as: no people should have to put up with what the Palestinians have had to endure—eviction from their homes and land in 1948. In 1967, both the West Bank and Gaza came under military occupation by Israel. That occupation was accompanied by the building of illegal settlements or colonies for Jewish Israelis only.

At present, Israeli authorities know that the international community affords them a high level of impunity. The Israel Defense Forces engage in repeated violations of international law. The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict found that, in the lead-up to the Israeli military assault on Gaza in 2008-09, Israel had imposed a blockade amounting to collective punishment and carried out a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation of the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli military operation known as Operation Cast Lead, more than 1,400 people were killed, including more than 340 children. Much infrastructure—houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other buildings—was destroyed. Every effort needs to be made to ensure that similar death and destruction is not the result of Israel’s latest operation against Gaza, codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense.

The mission report on the 2008-09 assault concluded that the Israeli military operation was directed at the people of Gaza as a whole. The report states that Israeli acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, and that limit their rights to access a court of law and an effective remedy could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, was committed. Head of the UN fact-finding mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, told the Human Rights Council:

The Government of Israel has a duty to protect its citizens. That in no way justifies a policy of collective punishment of a people under effective occupation, destroying their means to live a dignified life and the trauma caused by the kind of military intervention the Israeli Government called Operation Cast Lead.

Justice Goldstone also commented on the impact of the armed conflict associated with Operation Cast Lead on young people, who:

… grow up in a culture of hatred and violence, with little hope for change in the future. Finally, the teaching of hate and dehumanization by each side against the other contributes to the destabilization of the whole region.

The failure to implement the recommendations of the report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, and the willingness of Australia, the USA and other countries to overlook Israel’s repeated violations of international law, have resulted in the de facto sanctioning of Israel’s disproportionate use of force in the Gaza Strip by the international community. Many Palestinians fear that there is nothing to prevent the crimes of Operation Cast Lead from being committed again. These fears are being borne out by the current escalation in violence, which closely mirrors the lead-up to the 2008-09 military assault on the Gaza Strip.

As the occupying power, Israel is under an obligation to take all necessary measures to protect the civilian population of the occupied Palestinian territory. According to the rules of international humanitarian law, the Israeli military must at all times distinguish between civilian and military targets. In addition, Israel must adhere to the principle of proportionality, which states that any attack that may be expected to cause loss of civilian life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated is prohibited.

Despite the grossly asymmetrical nature of the conflict, Palestinian armed groups are also under the obligation not to target civilians. We need to remember that violence perpetrated against Palestinian people is not just with rockets. The apartheid wall or separation barrier enclosing much of the West Bank is causing hardship and suffering. Banksy—the graffiti artist—on a visit to Palestine said the wall essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.

Ten years after construction began on the separation barrier, a report by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, on the impact of the wall adds a further dimension to understanding the injustice and discrimination that Palestinians live with on a daily basis. The main conclusion of the report, Arrested Development, is that since the construction of the barrier Palestinians in nearby communities have lost the ability to make profitable use of their lands—their major remaining resource. The wall is two-thirds completed and the agricultural economy has shrunk drastically in the West Bank areas once considered stable. The report found that prices of goods and services in some areas rose following the institution of lengthy security checks on goods and persons. In some areas, agricultural production dropped as a result of the lack of permits granted to farmers and the need to frequently renew them, while farmers shifted from affordable and competitive crops to those not requiring continual daily cultivation. One town, Bir Nabala, isolated from adjacent East Jerusalem, has seen commercial activity paralysed. This injustice and the violence must end.

As I speak here in secure, peaceful Australia my thoughts are with the people of the Middle East. Let us all add our voices to the growing call for an immediate end to the violence from both sides; for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli military from all Palestinian cities, refugee camps and transport routes; for an end to the blockade of Gaza; and for the dismantling of the separation wall. Peace can only be achieved when justice is restored.

Back in Australia, on a critical local issue, last week I found myself asking the question: which is more precious, a koala colony or a new coalmine? In New South Wales the state government’s Planning Assessment Commission has given the go-ahead for the new Maules Creek coalmine. In doing so it has approved the destruction of large tracts of valuable koala habitat in north-west New South Wales from a massive open-cut coalmine proposal that would destroy 2,000 hectares or around 2,800 football fields of forest, even though the area is mapped as tier 1 biodiversity land in the New South Wales government’s own strategic regional land-use policy and the project’s ecological impact assessment states that the mine could have a substantial impact on local biodiversity and threatened species. It has given the mine the go-ahead. The Leard forest is the largest remaining biodiversity refuge on the already heavily cleared Liverpool Plains. It is home to a koala population that will have nowhere else to go if the proposed Maules Creek coalmine goes ahead. Now only the federal government stands in the way of the bulldozers.

Across Australia, koalas and the forests they call home face growing pressure from logging, mining and developments that are destroying koala habitat piece by precious piece. They need stronger federal protection than ever before. Koalas in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT have been listed as a vulnerable species. They are under threat because their habitat is fast diminishing. Each new development and mine on or near koala habitat threatens the future of the species. My colleague Greens New South Wales MP Cate Faehrmann recently visited the Leard forest and saw firsthand just why this forest is too precious to lose when she spotted a koala sitting low in a tree. Ms Faehrmann said despite overwhelming health and environmental arguments against it, the New South Wales Planning Assessment Commission approved the mine on 25 October. This disgraceful decision demonstrates the New South Wales planning system is weighted heavily in favour of big mining.

This represents a serious test for Mr Burke, the federal environment minister.

These koalas deserve our care and our foresight to protect their habitat for the future survival of their species. Along with the koalas, 25 other threatened plant and animal species are also at serious risk of losing their habitat if the Maules Creek mine goes ahead, especially the critically endangered white box gum woodland. Minister Burke could reject the proposed Maules Creek mine under our federal environment laws. But, as we know, he is preparing to trash most of his own powers at a Council of Australian Governments meeting on 7 December.

Big business and mining giants think it should be easier for them to dig, chop down and build whatever they want wherever they want, and sadly it looks like Minister Burke and the Labor party agree. We need stronger federal environment laws to protect koalas and their precious native forest habitat. Many koalas have the great misfortune to live in native state forests that are still being heavily logged to feed the dying woodchip industry. People are rightly horrified when they learn that vital koala habitat is still being felled to create woodchips, even though the bottom has fallen out of the international woodchip market.

The native forest logging industry still holds extraordinary and undue influence over state governments. Because of the federal government’s toothless regional forestry agreements, the states can continue to approve logging in forests that provide precious koala habitat. The recent listing of the koala in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT as a vulnerable species does not give them protection from logging. We need people in power to push koalas to the top of the government’s agenda. I am sure there are senators in both Labor and the coalition parties who care deeply about the future survival of the koala. I believe saving koalas can be an issue for cross-party action. I hope we can work together for better protection for koalas and their habitat, for nationwide listing of koalas as a vulnerable species, for ending native forest logging in state forests where koalas live and for providing federal funding to better monitor koala habitat and populations to ensure their long-term survival.

Link to parliamentary Hansard