Israelis and Palestinians in Australia reflect on the week like no other

Oct 14, 2023

ABC News

“I personally would love people to understand both sides to the story… You cannot understand and interpret the events of the last few days in a vacuum – look up Gaza” – Ms Abdo Sultan, member of APAN.


Is this really happening? Has anyone I know been killed? Why aren’t they answering their phone? What can I do from Australia to help? Am I safe here?

These are just some of the questions swirling around the minds of tens of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian people living in Australia this week.

Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel last Saturday, with hundreds of gunmen pouring across the barrier fence from Gaza and rampaging through Israeli towns.

Israel retaliated by vowing to annihilate Hamas, putting Gaza under siege, and launching the most powerful bombing campaign in the 75-year history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The war is raging more than 10,000 kilometres from Australia, but there are strong Israeli and Palestinian communities here and it has been a tough week for them both.

Many know someone who has either been killed, injured, kidnapped, displaced or is in hiding – and every hour they fear more bad news.


‘Helpless’ as war rages

Tzipi Cohen Hyams, who is from Israel but now lives in Sydney, told the ABC her husband’s 80-year-old aunt who lived in Israel near the Gaza border was murdered by Hamas soldiers when she briefly stepped out of her shelter.

“She opened the door, she tried to let the cat in … and they shot her,” Ms Cohen Hyams, 52, said.

“Her husband had to stay with her for more than 24 hours until they were rescued, and he was [messaging relatives] saying ‘I’m kissing her’ and ‘I’m standing next to her’.

“He was shattered.”

Tzipi Cohen Hyams with Israeli flags at public vigil in Sydney, crowd gathered behind her

Tzipi Cohen Hyams said her family has felt vulnerable.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito) 

Ms Cohen Hyams said one of her nephews was buried under the rubble of his home for 28 hours after an attack, while more family members are living in fear.

She also worries for another nephew who is in the army.

Her husband flew from Sydney to Israel on Monday to help the family.

“I worry about [my husband] and I worry about the rest of my family,” Ms Cohen Hyams said.

“I feel helpless because I would like to go and help and [I feel] guilty that I’m here, supposedly safe.”

She added that following the anti-Semitic chanting by some people at the pro-Palestinian protest outside Sydney Opera House on Monday, her family has felt vulnerable.

“I put up an Israeli flag on our house to show my support and my kid was saying ‘no, don’t do that’, because my kid is afraid of hate crime.”


‘How are these people going to survive?’

Palestinians in Australia the ABC has spoken to said they were deeply disappointed to hear the anti-Semitic chanting, and wanted people to know those views are not widely shared in their community.

Many described feeling “dehumanised” this week, and as though the world had sided with Israel because of the actions of Hamas.

Forat Sultan, right, with his arm around wife Ramia Abdo Sultan inside their Sydney home

Ramia Abdo Sultan and Forat Sultan have family in Gaza.(ABC News: Fletcher Yeung)


Sydney couple Ramia Abdo Sultan, 40, and her husband Forat Sultan, 44, said it was important people “understood the history and context” of what was going on.

“I personally would love people to understand both sides to the story,” Ms Abdo Sultan, who is a member of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, said.

“You cannot understand and interpret the events of the last few days in a vacuum – look up Gaza.”

The couple has been checking in regularly with relatives in Gaza – 70 of whom evacuated their apartment complex earlier this week just minutes before the building was bombed.

“I fear what’s going to happen next – how these people, the collaterals of all of this, are going to deal with Israel’s response,” Ms Abdo Sultan added.


Ramia Abdo Sultan's family in Gaza, which has been the target of Israeli weapons

Some of Ramia Abdo Sultan’s family in Gaza.(Supplied)


She said she hoped a humanitarian aid corridor would be allowed into the blockaded Gaza strip as soon as possible to bring water, food, medicine, blankets, and shelter to the 2.3 million people trapped there.

“It’s a dire situation, there are shortages of everything … and everyone is quite anxious because we just don’t know what to expect next,” she said.

“How are these people going to survive?”


Fears for the future after ‘barbaric’ attack

Israel has said the siege on Gaza will not end until Hamas releases the 150 Israeli hostages it captured during last weekend’s deadly attack.

Speaking to the crowd at a vigil for the Jewish community in Sydney on Wednesday night, Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s president Jillian Segal described the attack as “barbaric”.

Jillian Segal, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, speaking at Sydney vigil

Jillian Segal, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said her community is “in mourning”. (ABC News: Keana Naughton)


“Not since the Holocaust have so many Jewish lives been taken in a single day,” Ms Segal told a crowd of almost 10,000.

“We are in mourning but we need to be strong.”

One Jewish man who came to the vigil with his six children told the ABC it had been “a really hard week” for two reasons – he was worried about his father and sister who both live in Israel, and also concerned for his family’s safety in Sydney.

The man, who did not want to give his name, said he told his children to hide their head coverings under baseball caps following the anti-Semitic comments at Monday’s pro-Palestinian protest.

Crowd with Israeli flags at Sydney vigil, sun setting in the background

Thousands attended a vigil arranged by the Jewish community in Sydney on Wednesday.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)


He added that Jewish people he had spoken to during the week at his workplace were so anxious about the war they were not sleeping.

“Every single one has friends or family or somebody that they know directly affected by this and everybody’s just so shocked by what’s happened [because] it’s just so appalling and disgusting,” he said.

“It’s the worst week of most people’s lives right now.”


‘Heartbreaking’ week waiting for news

Drone vision reveals the devastation wrought by Israeli strikes.


Palestinians in Australia told the ABC they have also been struggling to sleep this week as they wait desperately for updates from friends and relatives in Gaza.

“All you want to know is where are the bombs falling? You’re checking your phone, you’re checking the maps,” Gaza-born Melbourne playwright Samah Sawabi, 56, said.

Samah Sawabi with four female family members in Gaza with railing and buildings in city behind

Samah Sawabi enjoying time with loved ones in Gaza a few months ago.(Supplied)


“All emotion is completely focused on the movement of your loved ones and [wondering] are they still breathing?

“Every time we say goodbye [over the phone], we don’t know if we’re going to talk to them again.”

Ms Sawabi travelled to Gaza for the first time in many years in July to visit about 70 members of her family.

She told the ABC she wanted Australians to know what a “beautiful” place it was.

“It’s a place with cafes and music concerts and people hanging out at night … people with dreams, people with desires, people with humour,” Ms Sawabi said.

“People were so positive that they were moving forward and that Hamas was not interested in any more provocations with Israel, and that Israel was also not interested in provocations with Hamas.”

This week she said she has been looking back at the photos she took on her recent trip, and then finding out many of the buildings in them are no longer there.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Ms Sawabi said.

“And it’s even more heartbreaking because at the time these buildings were being bombed [by Israel], buildings around the world were projecting the light of the Israeli flag.”

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