Wednesday, 20 February 2019
70th Anniversary of Australia's Formal Diplomatic Relationship with the State of Israel
I will just make a brief contribution on this auspicious occasion, the 70th anniversary of our formal diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. I'll start by acknowledging what I think was a truly heroic achievement by Doc Evatt: to overcome what, at the time, was fairly institutionalised prejudice against the Jewish people, to push through the Australian parliament and the Australian government the recognition of the state of Israel. I think that was an enormous achievement for him.
Looking on the achievements of the state of Israel, they are many and enormous. They are a shining light for democracy and freedom in the Middle East. I was fortunate enough to visit Israel in May 2018. That visit was very kindly sponsored by AIJAC. It was a wonderful visit and gave me a much greater understanding of the situation on the ground. I will never ever claim to be an expert on Middle Eastern politics, but it certainly does help to visit, to meet with some of the players. My visit included a visit to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian people to discuss some of the issues that confront them and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East generally.
But today we're here to talk about the 70th anniversary of our diplomatic relations with Israel. Australia and Israel have been good friends and partners in the international community throughout that period. I would like to echo the Prime Minister's comments in the House yesterday regarding some of the disgraceful motions condemning Israel's human rights record that have been moved in the United Nations by countries that certainly have no claim to a squeaky-clean human rights record themselves.
I will return now to my visit to Israel, to touch on a few issues that I think were important for my understanding—and for others', I'm sure, if other members of parliament have had the opportunity to make that visit. As I mentioned, I made a visit to the West Bank to speak to Palestinians about their position, their dispossession and the challenges that they face. We visited refugee camps, and one of the things that struck me about the refugee camps, which I had not been aware of previously, was that refugee status is passed down through the generations. Some of the people in those refugee camps are, indeed, third generation, since 1948. They are the only refugees in the world who are able to access that generational refugee status. It seemed to me that this had the potential to perpetuate what is a very difficult situation into the future.
We visited Sderot, which is a small town of around 20,000 people on the border with Gaza. I think most people who have followed the news would be aware that Sderot has suffered many, many missile attacks over the years. The people of Sderot have an air raid warning system which allows them around 15 seconds to seek shelter. It was quite remarkable to see children's playgrounds where the caterpillar—a piece of playground equipment for children to climb and play on—was actually also a bomb shelter. This was in schools and other areas. That gave us some sense of the threat that the Israeli people live under, and it was quite an eye-opener. But what was also eye-opening was the character and courage of the Israeli people. There's actually a waiting list for people wanting to move to Sderot. Those people who aren't in the armed forces see moving to a town like Sderot as being in the front line and doing their bit for their country. As I say, it gave us some sense of the character of the people and their willingness to stand and fight for their country and the democracy that they have built in the 70 years since the formation of the nation of Israel.
It was a wonderful trip, and, as I say, I'd recommend that all members of parliament take the opportunity to visit Israel and learn a little bit more about the situation on the ground there. It will give them a somewhat better understanding of what it's like to live in a democracy in the Middle East, surrounded by many people who would like to see your demise. My congratulations to the nation of Israel! I'm very pleased to be able to recognise 70 years of diplomatic relations with their state. Thank you.