Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


Special Olympics, Shalit, Mr Gilad

7:01 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on two very important issues. One is a very positive one; the other is a terrible tragedy. The first matter I wish to speak about is the 13th Special Olympics World Summer Games, which recently concluded in Athens. More than 7,500 athletes from 185 countries came together over the last week in Greece to compete in 21 sports across 30 different venues. Our colleague Senator McLucas was fortunate enough to join Australia's 131 athletes who travelled to Athens to compete—and they certainly did compete. Australia won a total of 46 gold medals, 43 silver medals and 32 bronze medals, which placed Australia 8th in the medal tally.

But of course, these medals only tell part of the success story. The real success of the Special Olympics is that they put the focus back on to people's abilities and emphasise what they can achieve, rather than the obstacles they face. Take, for example, the six Australian swimmers who swam personal bests on the first day of the games, kicking off Australia's medal tally with one silver and two bronzes; or, the Australian women's basketball team, who saw off fierce competition from Russia to post a 27-9 win.

There are many tales of the outstanding efforts of the Australian athletes, but there is not time to do justice to them all. I will simply say that I would encourage Aust­ralians to find out more about these inspira­tional athletes. Special Olympics Australia's media partner, News Limited, has estab­lished an online World Games News Hub. It has photo galleries, athlete profiles and a lot of news and is well worth a visit.

The fantastic thing about the Special Olympics is the way that they encourage every athlete to strive for their personal best, no matter their ability. Every Special Olympian takes an oath which I think sums up the attitude of the athletes. The oath reads: 'Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.' It is a fantastic oath to strive to live up to.

The Special Olympics World Games has provided a venue for each Australian athlete who attended to perform to the very best of their abilities. This week, many athletes and proud families will be returning to Australia from Athens, having experienced the joy of pushing themselves to the limit and reaching goals that may have in the past seemed simply unattainable. I congratulate each and every Australian athlete who competed last week. I hope that each of them found new strength, new inspiration and, above all, something new about themselves and something to be proud of. Well done to all of those athletes.

I turn now to the other issue I referred to earlier, a matter which is a terrible tragedy. Last week marked the five-year anniversary of the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. I have raised this matter in the chamber because I think that it is important that Australia stands strong in its support of his struggle to be freed. On 25 June 2006, Gilad Shalit, then 19 years old, was taken captive by Hamas terrorists in a cross-border attack on Israel. Using automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, the attackers injured three soldiers and killed two others. Kidnapping a wounded Corporal Gilad Shalit, the attackers were seen dragging him into Gaza, where it is believed he still remains.

It has been 1,826-odd days since his family last saw him and since Gilad was free to walk among his people. Since that day, Gilad has remained a hostage of Hamas, kept alive to be used as a pawn in negotiations with Israel. The only signs of life have been three letters and a short video released in 2009, which was gained only because Israel released 20 Palestinian prisoners convicted of fatal terrorist attacks. Based in a tent outside the Israeli Prime Minister's resi­dence, Gilad's parents vow to stay until their son is returned to them. Mail and aid packages cannot reach Gilad and the International Red Cross is refused access. His treatment by Hamas demonstrates that organisation's contempt for the rule of law. Gilad was captured while defending his home against those waging a violent war against Israel. To Hamas, he is merely collateral to be used to compel the Israeli government to meet their demands.

It is important to remember that it was Israel that was attacked in that cross-border raid and is now forced to make concessions. It was Israel that withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in an effort to build peace, and it is Israel that is held to a standard no other country is expected to meet. Israel is often condemned for availing itself of the right of every nation state to defend itself. The state of Israel has the right to defend itself and, more than that, the Israeli government has a duty to do everything in its power to protect its people.

We should not be mistaken in our assessment: Hamas is a terrorist organisation. It took power in Gaza by force following Israel's withdrawal, executing hundreds of its political opponents in cold blood It has fired thousands upon thousands of missiles at heavily populated areas in Israel and it has the temerity to launch those missiles from land from which Israel withdrew in pursuit of peace. Hamas does not seek peace. Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel.

Those who claim to fight for human rights around the world are notable only for their silence on the issue of Gilad's captivity. Human rights activist Yelena Bonner spoke in 2009 at the Oslo Freedom Forum about Israel and Gilad. Of her colleagues, she asked:

Why doesn't the fate of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit bother you in the same way as the fate of the Guantanamo prisoners?

…   …   …

He is a wounded soldier, and should fall under the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

Concluding her speech, she said:

Returning to my question of why human rights activists are silent, I can find no answer except that Shalit is an Israeli soldier, Shalit is a Jew.

Gilad's continued captivity by Hamas mirrors how all Israelis are, in a sense, captive to the demands of that terrorist organisation. How can an Israeli family feel safe and free knowing that, less than an hour's drive away, an organisation exists that is plotting their nation's demise?

Australia must not be complacent in its support of Israel. Our relationship is built on common democratic values and it must—and I know it will—endure. We cannot stand idly by while Gilad is denied freedom. We must not look the other way as this fundamental injustice continues. Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit is no longer just another soldier; he is a symbol in Israel—a symbol for Israeli families; a symbol for Israeli parents; a symbol of the hopes of Israelis that Gilad, like the nation itself, can be truly free and secure. I hope that the Australian people will stand with Israel in support of a son, as we know the Israelis would for an Australian in a similar circumstance. Gilad Shalit must be freed.


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