Senator Lee Rhiannon – statement on Gaza hostilities, wave of arrests of Palestinians in the West Bank, abduction of three Israelis in the West Bank, killings of Palestinian children and illegal Israeli settlements

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
July 9, 2014

The silence from Labor and the coalition around the atrocities of the Israeli military towards Palestine is shameful. … The Abbott government’s decision to break from previously bipartisan recognition of the occupied territories as illegitimate not only undermines the international rule of law and our international obligations but also compromises Australia’s own interests.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:14): The silence from Labor and the coalition around the atrocities of the Israeli military towards Palestine is shameful. Earlier today, news reports said that 25 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces, with 130 wounded. Five children were among those killed. The Israeli cabinet has authorised the calling up of 40,000 army reservists ahead of a possible ground offensive into Palestinian land. At least 1,500 soldiers have already been deployed around the perimeter of Gaza. It is unacceptable to remain silent on the more than 270 Israeli military air strikes against Gaza that have occurred this week and the threat of a ground invasion.

The Israeli and Palestinian conflict is not one of equal partners: there is an oppressor and there are the oppressed. We should all condemn all acts of violence by both Israelis and Palestinians and ask that they cease. We should all support those working to end the blockade of Gaza and for the withdrawal of the Israeli military from illegally occupied Palestinian territories. The international community, including Australian politicians, must not allow Israeli forces to unleash another bloodbath in Gaza and in the West Bank. The people of Gaza, who live in the world’s biggest open prison, endure much hardship every day in the face of Israeli military aggression. I was there just over a year ago and saw how extreme it was. These bombings are occurring now and will be causing extreme suffering. We must add our voice to ensure they end.

We are also very concerned that more than 400 Palestinians have been arrested in the last few weeks in the West Bank. Prior to this latest round of violence, there had been international interest in the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers who were settlers in the area. The deaths of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel are undeniably tragic. Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper after these three teenagers went missing. That operation saw thousands of Israeli soldiers fan out across the West Bank, ransacking homes, arresting hundreds and taking an estimated $3 million worth of cash and property from Palestinians, according to the Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights. The military campaign has been criticised by human rights groups in Palestine and in the US as collective punishment.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has rightly offered his condolences on the deaths of the three Israeli settlers. He offered those condolences to the Israeli government on behalf of Australia. However, Prime Minister Abbott has been silent regarding the killings of four Palestinian teenagers, Yussef Sami Shawamreh, Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh Salameh, Nadeem Siam Nawara and Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who were killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories. Two of these young men were shot by Israeli snipers. One of these boys, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was beaten over the head before being burnt alive. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has condemned the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, but no official condolence has been offered by Australia for the deaths of these young people.

Mohammed is but one of many victims of this conflict. He is one of seven Palestinian children and young people to have been killed so far in 2014. This adds to a total of more than 1,400 Palestinian children killed since the year 2000. On Monday this week we saw video evidence that Mohammed’s cousin, 15-year-old US national Tariq Abu Khdeir, had been brutally beaten by Israeli police during protests in Jerusalem. Allegedly in possession of a slingshot, Khdeir was detained by Israeli authorities and has now been placed under temporary house arrest. However, he is one of the lucky ones. As of May this year, 214 Palestinian children remained in detention.

These events are just the latest in ongoing violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories. Attacks on Palestinian people and their property are commonplace, encouraged by a widespread sense of impunity. The United Nations has identified the systematic failure of Israeli authorities to properly investigate such incidents and hold perpetrators to account, finding in 2013 that there is institutionalised discrimination against the Palestinian population in terms of the application of law. Even more alarming are the casualties inflicted by Israel’s police and defence forces. The symbolism of Palestinian stone throwers facing heavily armoured military personnel—ingrained in the minds of the international community by the first intifada in 1987—remains ever potent. Images like that of young Tariq being dragged and beaten by three armed Israelis are all too familiar. The UN reports that the number of Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli forces in 2013 was in excess of those for 2011 and 2012 combined. Four of those killed last year were children.

More young Palestinians died on May 15 this year, the day known by Palestinians as Nakba Day. It commemorates the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes during the creation of Israel. On that day, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem noted:

… four Palestinians were shot with live ammunition in the West Bank town of Bitunya, close to Ofer Prison, during a demonstration marking Nakba Day. Two of them, both minors, died of their wounds: Nadim Siyam Nawarah, 17, from Ramallah, and Muhammad Mahmoud Salameh (Abu Daher), 17, from the village of al-Mazra’ah al-Qibliyah.

Given this context of the ongoing injustice faced by Palestinians in the occupied territories, George Brandis’s comments denying the occupied status of East Jerusalem are an embarrassment. Contrary to Senator Brandis’s belief, the term ‘occupied’ is not pejorative or judgemental but an objective legal description. This government apparently disagrees with the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice that settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories ‘have been established in breach of international law’ in favour of a view espoused by a right-wing minority. The Abbott government’s denial of the occupied status of East Jerusalem and the West Bank represents a major departure from the approach of previous Australian governments and puts us out of step with the majority of the international community. Former coalition Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in 2004 that the Israeli government had an obligation to freeze settlement construction. This government clearly disagrees with their own former Foreign Minister.

In late 2013 Australia was one of only eight nations which abstained from voting in favour of UN resolution L18, which affirmed that Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan are ‘illegal and an obstacle to peace’, and 158 nations voted in favour of ending Israeli settlements. Senator Brandis’s denial of the historical and legal reality of the Israeli occupied territories as ‘unhelpful’ in fact puts Australia at odds with some of Israel’s closest allies. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that ‘we consider now, and have always considered, these settlements to be illegitimate’. One of Israel’s closest partners in the UN, Canada’s foreign affairs department, states that ‘Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the 4th Geneva convention’.

Senator Brandis’s comments have rightly drawn criticism worldwide from at least 18 countries—including Indonesia, a country with which this government claims to want positive relations. The Abbott government’s decision to break from previously bipartisan recognition of the occupied territories as illegitimate not only undermines the international rule of law and our international obligations but also compromises Australia’s own interests. Trade with countries in the Middle East accounts for more than $6.5 billion of Australia’s exports every year. Of this, Israel represents only an estimated $200 million.

Australia must reassert its recognition that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories remain illegal and pose a fundamental barrier to the peace process. They are certainly part of the reason for this latest outbreak of violence. We must condemn Israel’s heavy-handed response to Palestinian protests to end violence against civilians, particularly children. Only then can we promote a culture of justice, dialogue and peace between the peoples of Palestine and Israel. The needless deaths of civilians, whether Israeli or Palestinian, deserve proper media attention, investigation and justice. The lives of one side are not worth more than the lives of the other side. Let’s not allow these high-profile cases, deemed to be newsworthy, to overshadow the everyday injustice and violence perpetrated against Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories.

Link to parliamentary Hansard