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AusAID project at risk in Palestinian Territories - Susiya demolitions

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 3 Jul 2012

Adjournment speech - 26 June 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (23:47): by leave— On another matter, overseas aid to Palestine plays a key role in assisting local communities. That part of AusAID's website which covers its Palestinian program states:

The goal of the Australian Government's aid program to the Palestinian Territories is to reduce human suffering and poverty whilst promoting peace and development.

AusAID has identified that poverty levels in the West Bank and Gaza are currently 24 per cent and 56 per cent respectively, and that there are over 4.9 million Palestinians living as refugees in need of humanitarian assistance. Right now many projects financed by overseas aid programs in Susiya in the West Bank are under threat from demolition orders issued by the Israeli civil administration. This includes an AusAID funded health clinic constructed through ActionAid's local partners. Other projects at risk include a dairy production facility supported by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the construction of four residential shelters funded with assistance from GVC, an Italian NGO; three animal shelters built in partnership with Save the Children UK and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; and two water cisterns funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Organisation and Action Against Hunger. Other aid projects which could be demolished include a community centre and a structure used to store sheep's milk prior to sale, as well as granaries and shelters for sheep and chickens.

For many Palestinians, access to water and electricity remains a challenge. The German Ministry for Foreign Affairs has funded a solar electricity system through COMET-ME, an Israeli NGO. This organisation is trying to get around the restrictions placed on Palestinian development by harnessing Hebron's abundant natural energy sources—wind and sun. COMET-ME is providing Palestinian villages with electricity from solar panels and wind turbines. But now these renewable energy projects are under threat of demolition. All these aid projects are fine examples of programs making a difference to people's lives. If the Israeli administration proceeds with its demolition orders, however, all that could be lost.

Susiya residents, many of whom have lived in the community since 1948, face some of the worst living conditions in the West Bank. Since 1990 there have been a series of demolitions in Susiya and the Israeli authorities have never approved a master plan for Susiya, leaving residents unable to obtain permits for construction. In 2001 all structures were demolished and the residents were forcibly evicted. The residents' appeal to the High Court of Justice against the action of the Israeli authorities was successful, allowing them to return to their land. In 2011 Susiya had four waves of demolition and, in 2012, the Israeli administration issued a new round of demolition orders. Hebron Governor, Kamel Hamid, in an open letter, has stated:

I would like to draw your attention to the intention of the Israeli authorities to demolish Khirbet Susiya, located south of the town of Yatta in Hebron Governorate. The so-called Israeli "Civil Administration" has distributed final demolition orders on June 12, 2012, to 51 structures in the Khirbet while giving the population only 3 days to object to the decision. The demolition will devastate the lives of at least 160 Palestinians including 60 children. The lawyers of the Palestinian residents of the Khirbet, Rabbis for Human Rights, managed to get a freeze on the demolition for a period of 14 days from the Civil Administration only to find the decision reversed on June 17, 2012.

From that letter from the Hebron Governor we can see these demolitions are now imminent.

Susiya village is in Area C of the West Bank and, although under Israeli administration, is recognised as part of the occupied Palestinian territories. Under international law and the fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is still seen as the occupying power and is therefore restricted from transferring its population to this area. However, an outpost—illegal under both Israeli and international law—has been constructed in the last decade and has not been subject to demolition. Since the settlement has been constructed around them, the residents of Susiya have lost two-thirds of their land used for residential, agricultural and herding purposes due to settlement expansion and settler violence.

There is also growing international concern about the impact settlers are having on Palestinian communities more generally. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that settler violence has increased 144 per cent in the last two years. A group of diplomats from the European Union and EU member states visited Susiya on Friday, 15 June to investigate the humanitarian impact and political implications of the recent demolition orders for the village's 50 residential shelters. The visitors heard from Susiya locals who explained that access to their land has been progressively eroded by settler construction and settler violence. The EU statement on these developments reads:

The European Union has called upon Israel to meet its obligations regarding the living conditions of the Palestinian population in Area C, including halting forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure, simplifying administrative procedures to obtain building permits, ensuring access to water and addressing humanitarian needs.

UK foreign office parliamentary secretary Alistair Burt stated:

I share your ... concerns about the threatened demolition of Palestinians homes in the South Hebron hills.

Another issue that is relevant is the announcement of settlement expansions this year. All settlements are illegal under international law and their expansion has been described by the UK foreign secretary this year as 'illegal and provocative'. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner has said, 'We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.' Spokesperson to UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, stated:

The Secretary-General reiterates that all settlement activity is illegal under international law. It runs contrary to Israel's obligations under the road map and reputed Quartet calls for the parties to refrain from provocations.

I urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, to make urgent representations to Israel's ambassador in Australia to urge Israel not to put aid funded projects at risk, to lift demolition orders and to end the expansion of Israeli settlements. Australia needs to take these actions if the AusAID projects in Palestine are going to achieve their objective to—and this is a quote from AusAID's website—'reduce human suffering and poverty whilst promoting peace and development.'

On a related matter, 50 international charities and United Nations agencies have unanimously called for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza. The organisations have published a simple, three-lined statement to mark the fifth anniversary of the tightening of the blockade of the Strip. It reads:

For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of International law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: "end the blockade now."

I urge Foreign Minister Bob Carr to take note of this unanimous statement from some of the world's most respected international aid and human rights organisations and United Nations bodies, and to consider adding Australia's voice to this call to end the blockade. The international aid and development signatories include Amnesty International, CARE International, Christian Aid, A Different Jewish Voice, International Orthodox Christian Charities, Pax Christi and Oxfam. The United Nations signatories include UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Health Organisation.

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