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REFLECTIONS ON PALESTINE - Senate Adjournment Speech, Tuesday 14 June 2017

Reflections from Palestine

I rise tonight to add my voice to those of others in Australia who care deeply about the Israeli Palestinian conflict and share my recent experiences of life in the West Bank and Israel.

In April this year, I travelled to the West Bank in Palestine – a land that has been illegally 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 Beersheba 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 a Knesset parliamentarian and representatives of Israeli human rights groups, including B’Tselem.

Our delegation also 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 or access to land for commercial, residential or industrial development, and we understood the impact of illegal Israeli settlements into Palestinian lands which scorn the agreements reached in the Oslo accords.

I would like to thank the Palestinian Authority for organising the visit and for their hospitality, as well as providing such insightful experiences all across the West Bank and Israel.

I remain impressed and inspired by the professionalism and maturity of Palestinian civil society. Indeed, all presentations to the delegation emphasised a consistent desire for peace in a pluralistic democratic society, supported by implementation of the peace accord so that the Palestinian State may deliver a future to the Palestinian people where a Palestinian child has freedom of movement within the state and across borders, along with access to water, education, healthcare and 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 for this parliament to reflect on how the 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. And 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 Palestinian. It's like feeling every single emotion in one day.

Being confronted each day by one of the 300 Israeli Army check points that are scattered throughout the West Bank, the fear and intimidation of queueing for Israeli soldiers with big guns as they search cars and check papers, seeing the profound limitations for Palestinians who are deprived of many of their basic human rights like individual freedom of movement, individual freedom of expression, families’ access to water, access to their own land, to healthcare, to their sick in hospital, to their children detained by Israeli military courts or to political prisoners in Israeli jails.

These policies have resulted in violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.

Visiting Bethlehem University was inspiring yet disheartening. I met Palestinian millennials, a generation that has only known occupation.  While they were 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 is 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." (Salem Barahmeh).

Whilst I was there, over 1000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli gaols were on a 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 the international law that governs the treatment of prisoners and detainees.

Over 600 Palestinians prisoners are behind bars in what is known as 'administrative detention' for an underdetermined 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. Riad Malki, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, he said this should be a concern to people and governments around the world.

Whilst I was there the West Bank had a national day of strike – in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners. Every business, every university, every Palestinian participated.

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 the 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.

But in the face of all of this I witnessed the incredible resilience of the Palestinian people. This amazing human spirit grounded in their culture and 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 most interesting element was its small museum illustrating and explaining the conflict. If every tourist who came to visit Bethlehem’s holy sites went through that museum they would be much better informed of 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 bused in and out of Tel Aviv. Yet while I was there were concerns that the Israeli government was issuing limits on tourists staying overnight in Palestinian areas. If this is the case it would affect Christian groups who want to spend the night as well as limits the employment growth that tourism would bring to the Palestinian people.

Human spirit was on display when we visited souqs in Nablus where people are carrying on their daily lives. It was on display when students in Bethlehem shared with me their stories of hope for their future.

However, if at times the human spirit faltered, it was when conversations turned to the settlements.

There are near 800,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The ongoing construction of illegal settlements and a huge wall right across the West Bank was 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 cannot forget the psychological impact the wall imposed upon 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. It separates Palestinians from Palestinians and Palestinians from Israelis. It hides Israeli bypass roads that come with up to a six month gaol sentence for any Palestinians caught walking or driving on them. And it annexes the aquifers and the most fertile land from Palestinian villages to provide for Israeli settlements.

The separation wall is not built on the pre-1967 Green line, it’s 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 the Palestinian territories to ensure the unviability of a Palestinian state. It creates an isolation system and 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 that passed in the Knesset which legalised unlawful settlements.

What I learnt from speaking with Palestinian people is that in a way borders aren't as important as their human rights. It’s 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 illegal settlements. They are then forcibly transferred from their land.

In fact I learnt that last year alone Israelis demolished 1114 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 fear that a two-state solution will be difficult to realise.

The failure of a two-state solution will not just be bad for Palestine. It would be bad for Israel.

As Garth Evans has noted, “without a Palestinian state, Israel has majority Arab population living under unequal laws and denied a right to vote.”

However, everything I have learnt makes 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% bilateral cut to the programs in the last budget. No doubt our DFAT Representatives have a challenging job and I want to give my thanks and appreciation for the work they do with such limited funds in our aid program.

I think many people in the west, including 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 for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities described the occupation as the most long standing 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 23rd December last year condemning Israel's expansionist settlement policy. But the Israeli Government demonstrated its contempt for international law when only four weeks later it announced its intention to build another 2500 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 for the West Bank) will barely survive, illegal Israeli settlements will continue to encroach while Gazans will be in worse poverty than their current subsistence-level existence.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has articulated that while the reality of colonization and oppression, “becomes harsher by the day it can only be stopped when as many people as possible give power to the truth.”

That is why as a delegation, we support the bipartisan approach within Australian politics to support the implementation of the 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.

4.5 million Palestinians have been living under occupation for 50 years, and there is no sight when it will end.

The peace process has stagnated, and perhaps gone backwards in the past decade. We can't let the next decade be the same. Australia can show its commitment to peace by condemning Israeli 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 the potential for a $3 billion injection to the Palestinian economy being prevented by Israeli restrictions.

Australia could recognise both states, of Israel and of Palestine. I commend former prime ministers and foreign ministers Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Gareth Evans who have articulated why this is important for Australia.

They’ve asked how can we move forward in support of the two-state solution without recognising Palestinian statehood? They’ve suggested it’s time Australia did just that. Just like 137 other nations have already done.

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 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 haven't 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.