House debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023



4:42 pm

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the unfolding tragedy in the Middle East. We must condemn all forms of violence and the killing of innocent civilians on both sides, without exception. It is on the basis of a fundamental principle, respect for international humanitarian law. It is this principle which guides our promotion of peace and justice. It is this principle which underlines our condemnation of Hamas's attacks on innocent Israeli civilians. The death of every single one of the over 1,300 people is painful. It was a crime and it's tragic. But we must also mourn and condemn the loss of life of innocent Palestinians. The scale of the death and destruction in Gaza is painful and tragic.

We mustn't just imagine, like passive observers, what the unfolding catastrophe will bring but actively seek to see what we can do to put an end to the horror that is unfolding before us. If we don't try to immediately address it now, it is an issue which will force itself even further upon the international community. I want to today highlight what we face in the coming period if we do not put a halt to this unfolding tragedy. What is most tragic is that Israel's offensive has yet to even begin. If Israel's attacks so far have meant the deaths of over 2,800 innocent Palestinian civilians, over 1,000 of which were children, what will the beginning of this incursion bring? If 600,000 Palestinians are already displaced, 500,000 of whom are in UN shelters, what will the beginning bring? If tens of thousands of homes and dozens of medical centres and schools have already been destroyed, what will this beginning bring? If there's no food, water, electricity, fuel or medicines, what will this beginning bring?

This conflict has hit home for me—like other colleagues—but particularly in my electorate. I have constituents who have lost immediate family members in Gaza. The father of one of my constituents from Roxburgh Park in my electorate was killed, the extended family buried amidst the rubble and family homes destroyed. The death of my constituent's father was not within the rules of war. The death of my constituent's father was not legal. The deaths of my constituent's father and family members is a crime. They are not collateral damage. They are also hurting. My constituents deserve a voice, to be heard as equals, joined in solidarity and joined in grief. I also have a constituent trapped in Gaza, with a terrifying uncertainty as we look to try and get them safely back into Australia. Australia must do everything it can for the safe evacuation of Australians, and I thank the government and DFAT officials both overseas and in Australia for their tireless efforts and engagement with the families in this regard.

Australia is providing an initial $10 million in humanitarian assistance for civilians affected by the conflict in Gaza. Australia will provide $3 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to fund urgent needs like restoring essential services and providing medical support to victims of the conflict. Through United Nations agencies, Australia will provide $7 million to deliver critical support, including emergency water, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene services, as well as child protection.

My community is fearful. I have had people in the community say to me that they are afraid to speak out. We must continue to work with and give voice to our local communities across Australia with connections to the region. We mustn't stifle the legitimate, peaceful voices of the people seeking to engage with an issue that directly impacts them. They are our answer to ending the rhetoric of hate and division, of the scourge of antisemitism and Islamophobia, which has never had any place in this conflict and no place on our streets—or in the world, for that matter.

Our local communities and local organisations have direct connections to the area. The Australian Foundation for Palestinian Children, Olive Kids, a 100 per cent volunteer-led organisation, has helped thousands of children, primarily in Gaza. Olive Kids works with Al-Amal Institute—Arabic for 'hope'—an institute for orphans. The majority of the 400 children residing at the orphanage relying on Olive Kids, sponsored and supported by Australians. As Israeli strikes levelled entire neighbourhoods, the orphanage was severely damaged and its children evacuated, with 10 reported injured. The work of all NGOs in Gaza is now crippled. I acknowledge the work of Amin Abbas, for leading Olive Kids' efforts, and for his support for some of the world's most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable of places.

I've spoken on the principles of peace and justice, and of the fundamental legal principle of international humanitarian law. It is this principle that underlies our condemnation of Israel's attacks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel policy of the forcible displacement of an unknown civilian population, many of whom are already refugees, falls outside the rules and norms of international law. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, expelling Palestinians into Egypt is a non-starter. How can it be otherwise? UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, whose organisation has already lost 14 staff members, says that UNRWA operations in the Gaza Strip on the verge of collapse. He says:

There is not one drop of water, not one grain of wheat, not a litre of fuel that has been allowed into the Gaza Strip for the last eight days.

He says that soon there will be no food or medicine. He also says:

Thousands of people have been killed, including children and women.  Gaza is now even running out of body bags.

He says:

In fact, Gaza is being strangled and it seems that the world right now has lost its humanity.

He goes on to plead:

In fact, an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding under our eyes.

And already—and we should always remember that—before the war, Gaza was under a blockade for 16 years, and basically, more than 60 per cent of the population was already relying on international food assistance. It was already before the war a humanitarian welfare society

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Every story coming out of Gaza is about survival, despair and loss. 

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Entire families are being ripped apart.  

The bombing of homes, hospitals and civilian infrastructure in Gaza is not within the rules of war. Collective punishment is not within the rules of war. And we must never accept a situation where the lives of the people of Gaza are seen as collateral damage. Let's be clear: 'not within the rules of war' is doublespeak for illegal, doublespeak for crime. The indiscriminate targeting of an unarmed civilian population, 40 per cent of whom are under 15 years old, is not within the rules of war. The occupation of Palestine, the longest ongoing military occupation in modern history, and the siege and blockade of Gaza is illegal. And as US President Biden said, any move by Israel to reoccupy Gaza would be a big mistake.

Fifty thousand women in Gaza are pregnant; 5,500 are due to give birth in the coming weeks. With hospitals being given military orders to shut down and evacuate, the very same hospitals that have children attached to ventilators and are treating the endless influx of injured, what hope is there for the unborn? And if they survive childbirth, what will they be born into?

We cannot be unwavering and selective in our commitment to international law and the value we place on human life. I call on Australia and the international community to do whatever it can to put an end to the violence which threatens to engulf the whole region. It is time to redouble our efforts and push for a peace and justice that gives hope to all. In the decades that have passed since Oslo, we have seen Palestinians give their cause over to the international community in the hope that we can assist in helping them realise Palestinian statehood that would bring about a peace for both sides. We have failed them. Now more than ever this crisis unfolding before us is another warning bell that only self-determination for the Palestinian people and the establishment of a Palestinian state will guarantee a lasting peace for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the region. We've had quartets, summits, processes, roadmaps and accords—all of which have produced no outcomes, no peace and delivered no justice to the Palestinian people. If there continues to be the absence of bold moves by the international community, we will have enabled the triumph of violence and despair over hope, over peace and over justice.


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