Tuesday, 13 June 2017
I rise tonight to add my voice to many other Australians who care deeply about the Israel-Palestine conflict and to share my recent experiences of life in Palestine and Israel. In April this year I travelled to the West Bank, a land that has been occupied by the state of Israel for the last 50 years. I was on a cross-party delegation that enabled direct communication with a variety of NGOs, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, business and government ministers. I also had the opportunity to visit Tel Aviv and Bathsheba in Israel, the latter on Anzac Day to remember the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade in 1917. While in Jerusalem, I talked to the Knesset parliamentarians and representatives of the Israeli human rights groups, including B'Tselem.
Our delegation experienced the hard realities of life within the Palestinian occupied territories. We experienced the constraints on movement, the limits on access to water for business, agricultural and domestic use and on access to land for commercial, residential and industrial development. We understood the impact of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, which scorn the agreements reached in the Oslo accords. I would like to thank the Palestinian National Authority for organising the visit and their hospitality, as well as providing such insightful experiences and opportunities to meet a range of people. I remain impressed and inspired by the professionalism and the maturity of Palestinian civil society. Indeed, all presentations to the delegation emphasised a consistent desire for peace in a pluralistic democracy society supported by implementation of the peace accord so that the Palestinian state may deliver a future for the Palestinian people where a Palestinian child has freedom of movement within the state and across borders, along with access to water, to education, to health care and to employment—all without interference from Israel's occupation.
I acknowledge at the outset the historical significance of visiting this year, the year of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, and the 50th anniversary of the ongoing tragedy of Israel's occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is why it is important to this parliament to reflect on how this conflict's legacy continues in the life of Palestine and Israel today. I thought I knew enough about the military occupation, having listened for years to scholars, Palestinians, Israelis and politicians. But going to the West Bank made me realise that you really have to visit this part of the world to truly understand what is going on.
It certainly has given me a better picture of how people live in Palestine. It is hard to comprehend what I have seen. But I certainly learnt something of what it is like to be a Palestinian. It is like feeling every single emotion in one day. It is being confronted each day by one of the 300 Israeli army checkpoints that are scattered throughout the West Bank; the fear and intimidation of queuing for Israeli soldiers with big guns as they search cars and check papers; and seeing the profound limitations for Palestinians, who are deprived of many of their basic human rights—like an individual's right to freedom of movement and freedom of expression; a family's access to water or to their own land; access to health care or to a family's sick who are in hospital; access to children detained by Israeli military courts; or access to political prisoners in Israeli jails. These policies have resulted in violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
Visiting Bethlehem University was inspiring, yet disheartening. I met Palestinian millennials—a generation that has only known occupation. While they are full of hope for their future from the benefits of studying, their brutal reality was never far away—a reality that impacts every part of their lives. What was clear was that they wanted their voices heard. One student said to me, 'Most of our dreams end at a checkpoint.' But another said, 'Despite the conflict we still need to build community.' One young Palestinian recently wrote:
The occupation denies us any sense of normalcy or dignity. We are shaped by our experiences as children standing at a checkpoint and not fully comprehending why a soldier with a gun won’t let us pass; and to learn later in life that it was simply because we were Palestinian.
Whilst I was there, over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails were on hunger strike, protesting for their basic human rights, like medical treatment, family visits and access permits for visits. These demands were regarded by NGOs around the world as just, reasonable and grounded in international law that governs the treatment of prisoners and detainees. Over 600 Palestinian prisoners are behind bars in what is known as 'administrative' detention for an undetermined period of time. Some have been detained for 12 years without charge or a reason given for their imprisonment.
The UN Committee against Torture recently urged Israel to end the practice of administrative detention. When I met with Dr Riyad Al-Maliki, the Palestinian foreign minister, he said that this should be a concern to people and governments around the world. While I was there, the West Bank had a national day of strike in solidarity for the Palestinian prisoners. Every business, every university, every Palestinian participated. It was indeed a day of solidarity. Stalls were set up for family members to gather and show photos of their father or son in prison, many as political prisoners. Yet the cries of prisoners and their families fell on deaf ears: dismissed by the Israeli government until a recent deal was brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross—the ICRC.
In the face of all of this, I witnessed the incredible resilience of the Palestinian people and this amazing human spirit grounded in their culture and their nationality. I saw it when I had a chance to visit the artist Banksy's hotel in Bethlehem, opened a few months ago and built right next to the separation wall—regarded as the 'hotel with the worst view in the world'. Banksy's Walled Off Hotel's, as it is named, most interesting element was its small museum illustrating and explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If every tourist who came to Bethlehem and visited Bethlehem's holy sites went through that museum, they would be much better informed on the conflict. In fact, a future opportunity for jobs for young Palestinians is in tourism, where tour groups could stay overnight in the West Bank and visit the holy sites, rather than be bussed in and out of Tel Aviv. Yet while I was there, there were concerns that the Israeli government was issuing limits on tourists staying overnight in the Palestinian areas. If this is the case, it would affect Christian groups who want to spend the night as well as limit the employment opportunities that tourism would bring to those young Palestinians. I hope that that limitation does not occur.
The human spirit was on display when we visited souks in Nablus, where people were carrying on with their daily lives. It was on display when students in Bethlehem shared with me their stories of hope for the future. However, if at times that human spirit faltered, it was when conversations turned to settlements. There are nearly 800,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The ongoing constructions of illegal settlements and a huge wall right across the West Bank were never out of sight and always in our minds. Deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, it snakes through the West Bank, irrevocably separating Israelis and Palestinians from each other. I had never seen anything like it, and I cannot forget the psychological impact the wall imposed on me. I felt the despair, fear and hopelessness, the way that deliberate policies of occupation and separation have isolated Palestinian communities. This wall is three times as long and twice as high as the Berlin Wall was. It separates Palestinians from Palestinians and Palestinians from Israelis. It hides Israeli bypass roads that come with up to six-month jail sentences for any Palestinians caught walking or driving on them. And it annexes the aquifers and most fertile land from Palestinian villages to provide for Israeli settlers.
The separation wall is not built on the pre-1967 Green Line; it is built on Palestinian land: a forcible displacement confiscating Palestinian property, be it water, land or both. Could you imagine someone coming into your backyard and building on your land? My take on this wall is that it is not for security, but for land appropriation. It is about confiscating land and dividing Palestinian territories to ensure the unviability of a Palestinian state. It creates an isolation system, and it constrains freedom of movement. The result is massive racial discrimination. The only other country like this was apartheid South Africa. The continuous building of illegal settlements in the occupied territories is a roadblock to peace. That is why Labor came out very clearly opposing recent legislation passed in the Knesset which legalised unlawful settlements.
What I learnt from speaking to Palestinian people is that, in a way, borders are not as important as their human rights—it is their lives, like anyone's, that are important. For example, the Bedouins that are part of the diversity of the Palestinian population suffer demolition and displacement of their homes to make way for Israeli military bases or more illegal settlements. They are then forcibly transferred from their land. In fact, I learnt that, last year alone, Israelis demolished 1,114 houses—even houses funded by the European Union—to allow more illegal settlements to be built. Having experienced the reality on the ground, I feel like the possibility of a two-state solution exists in words only. With the separation wall, segregations, illegal Israeli settlements and ongoing decades of illegal Israeli occupation, I feel that a two-state solution will be difficult to realise. The failure of a two-state solution would not just be bad for Palestine; it would be bad for Israel. As Gareth Evans has noted:
Without a Palestinian state, Israel has a majority Arab population living under unequal laws and denied a right to vote.
However, everything I have learnt makes it clear that everything gets back to a political solution. In the absence of that, the development of Palestine is going to be a Gordian knot. Having met our DFAT representatives in Ramallah, I was encouraged to learn of Australia's practical support of the Palestinian water sanitation and agricultural sectors through our aid program, but I was disappointed that our support was deeply affected by the 40 per cent bilateral cut to the programs in the last budget. No doubt our DFAT representatives have a challenging job ahead, but I do want to give my thanks and appreciation for the work that they do do with such limited funds in our aid program.
I think many people in the West, including in Australia, are confused about the origins of this conflict. Where and when does this political and economic paralysis end? I feel it really boils down to a conflict that began with a group of immigrants attempting to displace a local people. On the 50th anniversary of Israel's occupation a week ago, Robert Piper, the UN coordinator of humanitarian aid and development activities, described the occupation as 'the most longstanding protection crisis in the UN's history'. Civil rights leader Desmond Tutu has described Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as equivalent to the apartheid regime that discriminated against blacks in South Africa.
It was a step forward when the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution, on 23 December last year, condemning Israel's expansion of settlement policy. But the Israeli government demonstrated its contempt for international law when, only four weeks later, it announced its intention to build another 2,500 illegal settlements across the West Bank and approved 20 permits for 566 settlements in East Jerusalem. My fear is that, the longer the world allows this reality to continue, the worse it will become. The Palestinian economy will be unable to function, Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley—the food basket of the West Bank—will barely survive and illegal Israeli settlements will continue to encroach, while Gazans will be in worse poverty than the current subsistence level that they exist in.
Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has articulated that, while the reality of colonisation and oppression becomes harsher by the day, it can only be stopped when as many people as possible give power to truth. That is why, as a delegation, we support the bipartisan approach within Australian politics to support the implementation of a two-state solution, so that the Middle East peace process can be realised with a strong, independent Palestine working in peace with its neighbour, Israel, in economic and strategic partnership. There are 4.5 million Palestinians who have been living under occupation for 50 years and there is no sight of when this will end. The peace process has stagnated and, perhaps, gone backwards in recent decades. We cannot let the next decade be the same.
Australia can show its commitment to peace by condemning Israel settlements as illegal under international law. It can show its commitment to the Palestinian state by increasing aid and development assistance, including supporting Palestinian access to Area C, in which, according to the World Bank, there is potential for a $3 billion injection to the Palestinian economy being prevented by Israeli restrictions. Australia could recognise both states, both Israel and Palestine. I commend former Prime Ministers and foreign ministers—Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Gareth Evans—who articulated why this is important for Australia. They asked: how can we move forward in support of the two-state solution without recognising Palestinian statehood? They have suggested it is time Australia did just that, just like 137 other nations that have already done so. At the very least, we can urge the implementation of the two-state solution before the process of settlement encroachment makes any Israeli disengagement from the occupied territories an impossibility or, at least, a hollow gesture. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its policies towards Gaza must be challenged at the international level.
Palestinians have lost their rights, their land and their water but they have not lost their hope for peace. It is my hope that peace comes to establish an independent sovereign and democratic Palestinian state based on the internationally recognised 1967 borders, which will coexist side-by-side peacefully with Israel. We must never give up that aim.