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Speech: Aid Projects and the Ongoing War in Gaza

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 26 Aug 2014

The war against Palestine continues. Along with the deaths of more than 2,000 and the destruction of essential infrastructure, many aid funded projects of vital importance to the health and wellbeing of Gazans have been destroyed. On 20 August this year a number of aid groups wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. The groups are Act for Peace, ActionAid Australia, Anglican Overseas Aid, Australian-Palestine Advocacy Network, Union Aid Abroad, APHEDA, Child Fund Australia, Islamic Relief, Oxfam Australia, PLAN, RedR, Save the Children and World Vision Australia.

These groups wrote to 'request the Australian government’s ongoing support to humanitarian, reconstruction and recovery efforts in Gaza, and to intensified diplomacy to reach a just and lasting agreement that ensures peace, security and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians'. These twelve groups urged the Australian government to take action in five key areas. These are:

(a) Press all sides to refrain from violence and hold them accountable to their obligations to protect Palestinian and Israeli civilians from military operations and rocket attacks, in accordance with international law.

(b) Push for improved access to Gaza, including through the UN Security Council, for the delivery of humanitarian and reconstruction materials.

(c) Provide Australia’s fair share of funding to Gaza’s reconstruction.

(d) Lift the blockade of Gaza as a critical first step towards a durable peace in Israel and the OPT.

(e) Ensure the full and equal involvement of Palestinian and Israeli women in the resolution of the conflict.

I request that the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, publicly release her response to this important letter.

As well as the more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza killed since the start of the latest Israeli attack, according to emergency services, 10,915 Palestinians—men, women and children—have been wounded. Since the truce collapsed on 19 August, at least 112 Palestinians have been killed in more than 350 Israeli airstrikes. At least 70 mosques and 277 schools have been damaged. Over half a million schoolchildren in the Gaza Strip will be unable to start the semester that begins this week. According to the Ma'an News Agency, although schools were rescheduled to open last Saturday, nearly one-third are still being used as shelters for some of the 485,000 Gazans displaced by the Israeli bombardment, including 100,000 who have been left homeless.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have estimated that 373,000 children will need direct and specialised psychological counselling after the end of the assault, while all students would require some form of psychological assistance. Of the more than 3,000 children who have been injured in the assault, UNOCHA said that around 1,000 would suffer lifelong disability, in addition to the estimated 1,500 who have been orphaned. A number of child-safe and disability-accessible playgrounds have been built in the Gaza Strip, many with overseas development assistance funding. The aim is to provide a place for psychosocial rehabilitation for children to engage in play therapy programs. Some of these playgrounds in the north of Gaza city have been damaged, undermining a very important support service for Palestinian children.

There is no justification for Israel's recent and ongoing brutal massacre in Gaza. The idea that Israel's military action against Gaza is in self-defence against Hamas rockets is cover for Israel's attempt to take over more Palestinian land. Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and eight-year long blockade of Gaza are cruel, degrading, debilitating, and have ruined, and will continue to ruin, millions of lives for generations to come. Gaza, home to 1.8 million people, is known as the world's largest prison because of the Israeli blockade. Like the Sri Lankan government in 2009, Israel accuses a non-state group of using civilians as human shields before attacking them anyway. In the case of Sri Lanka, it was the Tamil civilians. In the case of Israel, the Palestinian civilians in Gaza have been named. As Professor Jake Lynch from the University of Sydney has written and spoken about many times, such an attack is explicitly ruled out by a norm of humanitarian protection accepted by the vast majority of the international community. Article 50 of the 1977 additional protocols to the Geneva conventions specifies that:

The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.

The list of signatories to this protocol includes 160 of the 200-odd UN member states—Australia being one of them. Among the absentees are Israel, Sri Lanka and the United States. Collective punishment is not permitted under the Geneva conventions and is a war crime. Article 33 of Geneva convention IV states:

No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.

Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

Time and again, the international community has failed the people of Palestine. It was inspiring to see the hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, from Madrid to Yemen, Stockholm, Paris, Cairo, San Diego, Jordan, Sydney and the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus protesting against the Israeli government's war. Meanwhile the governments of the US and Australia continue to provide cover for Israel's brutality and support the Israeli military.

I was very fortunate to visit Palestine in January 2013, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. While there, I visited projects that were funded by the Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA projects and Anglican Overseas Aidand saw firsthand the constructive work they were undertaking in Gaza under the most difficult conditions. I do send my condolences to the families of the people who have died and the people who are injured. The resilience of these people is deeply inspiring. Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA has been undertaking work in Gaza for 25 years to improve food security and boost incomes for people living in the area. Many times they have had to rebuild the projects that are being funded by Australians giving generously. Devastatingly, many of these life-changing projects in Gaza were destroyed again when Israel started this latest offensive. In particular, the majority of food security projects funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under the AMENCA program have been destroyed. Since 2009, these projects have included farmland, rehabilitation, greenhouse installations, and agricultural training—all of which have now been shelled and bombed to ruins. I visited a number of greenhouses in parts of Gaza that had been badly hit during the previous Gaza attack in December 2012. At the time the people working there told me of their plans to rebuild. Now I understand that so much of that area has been totally destroyed.

The El-Wafa rehabilitation and geriatric hospital in the eastern Gaza city neighbourhood of Shujaiya is another sad story. The hospital was an APHEDA-supported rehabilitation hospital for people with serious physical disabilities. The Israeli Defence Force started bombing the hospital with warning missiles on 11 July, demanding the patients be evacuated. On 17 July, the hospital was bombed with more warning missiles. Some staff were slightly injured. The IDF started firing again at the hospital. At some point, in coordination with the Red Cross, the IDF agreed to stop firing for two hours to enable the hospital's total evacuation. Since then, I understand it became completely empty and has now been destroyed. The hospital, funded through donations from the Australian Muslim community and trade union groups through APHEDA, was the only long-term rehabilitation hospital in all of Gaza. Patients were transferred to nearby medical centres. However, these centres are now seriously underresourced and overcrowded. The destruction of this medical facility leaves a huge gap in support for those living in Gaza with serious disabilities.

Also when I was in Gaza I visited the Al Ahli Anglican hospital. The number of wounded at this centre has, I understand, exceeded the capacity of that hospital, and they have been undertaking a huge job because all state medical facilities in Gaza are on overload. Many of the patients are being transferred to this hospital and are being taken there in an unceasing flow of ambulances, I have been informed. Al Ahli is experiencing shortages in food, medicines, fuel for transport and operating generators, and much more. The current conflict has also interrupted the work of the breast cancer clinic. Senators may remember that this Senate, in November 2011, actually passed a motion in support of the Anglican overseas aid project called Women Die Waiting. It is a campaign that highlights that breast cancer is one of the major causes of death for women in the Gaza strip, and that motion that was passed called on all members of the Senate to support the project Women Die Waiting. I just thought that was terribly sad and very ironic—that now the very hospital that has brought forward that program is under so much hardship and difficulty itself.

I have also received news that a number of projects run by the MA'AN Development Centre have been severely damaged. A centre-funded nursery that supported agriculture in Gaza by growing fruit trees and saplings that could be relocated to greenhouses and other rehabilitated land has incurred over $13,000 worth of damage. The nursery was unable to be accessed because of ongoing military hostilities, leaving some 50,000 trees, saplings and seedlings to wither and die. I visited the MA'AN headquarters in both the West Bank and Gaza. They are working under the most adverse conditions. I do congratulate them on the work, and I very much hope that all their staff are safe.

The MA'AN Development Centre's field office, which had been used to coordinate the food security agricultural work in the south of the Gaza strip, has, I understand, been seriously damaged, to the tune of about $75,000. Of particular concern is the damage suffered by the MA'AN main office in Gaza as a result of an air strike. This building was also an apartment block where many MA'AN staff members had been living. On 29 July Israel knocked out the only power plant in Gaza. The ABC reported that the local energy authority said the initial damage assessments suggested that the plant could be out of action for a year. 'The power plant is finished', its director stated.

I urge Australian MPs to add their voice for this war to stop. Speaking to aid representatives I hear a very clear message that what is needed in Gaza is emergency humanitarian aid. I think this is a message we also need to be more vocal about. APHEDA hopes to provide urgent food and care packages to those forced to flee their homes. APHEDA is also prioritising support for overcrowded and underresourced medical centres and providing funds to begin rebuilding the recently attacked El-Wafa hospital and other hospitals so that they may continue their very important work. It is a deep concern that recent cuts to Australia's foreign aid budget of $7 billion will clearly undermine development in the region and some of this work being undertaken. The Australian government should condemn Israel's harsh actions in Gaza and the damage they have caused to essential projects in the region funded with Australian aid money.

The Australian Greens policy calls on the Australian government to halt military cooperation and military trade with Israel. The call to end military trade with Israel is being taken up by many organisations and within some parliaments. A coalition of Chilean MPs from different parties has started a parliamentary petition asking their government to stop all acquisition to Israeli arms. Chile is one of the top 10 importers of Israeli weapons globally. In Brazil, the Minister of Defence, Celso Amorim, is being called upon to clarify all current military contracts with Israel as well as the ongoing presence of Brazilian military attaches in an office of the Brazilian armed forces in Tel Aviv. It has certainly been identified by many community organisations that this is an important way to assist Gaza by cutting off military ties with Israel. Israel's attacks on Gaza impact on its own interests. Anti-Semitism and Islam-phobia need to be challenged.

An important letter by 164 Australians of Jewish identity and background identifies how some in the Jewish community leadership debase the charge of anti-Semitism by applying it to all criticism of Israel. This letter calls on Jewish Australians to break their silence on the onslaught on Gaza by Israel. Among the signatories are actress Miriam Margolyes, union leader Kim Sattler and writers Sara Dowse, Antony Lowenstein and Susan Varga. Vivienne Porzsolt of Jews Against the Occupation, which organised the open letter, said:

Silence is consent and, as Jews, we must oppose atrocities taken in our name.

She went on to say:

No racism, including anti-Semitism, is ever excusable. However, the Jewish community leadership promotes the identification of Jews with Israel and all its actions. They label Jewish critics of Israel as ‘self-hating’ and ‘not real Jews’. They debase the charge of anti-Semitism by applying it to all criticism of Israel.

In Australia there have been other important activities highlighting the tragic developments throughout July. I, along with 72 former and current MPs, including former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, have signed the Canberra Declaration on Gaza, in which we call on all Australian politicians to also support the United Nations Human Rights Council's decision to launch an independent inquiry into purported violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. The declaration also states the following:

The rockets fired from Gaza are not in any way justified and, insofar as they threaten and harm civilians, are illegal under international law.

However, these imprecise rockets cannot be compared with the broad-scale bombing of Gaza by Israel, which has one of the world's largest military forces. The full statement can be found at gazadeclaration.com, and I urge all senators and MPs to sign it.

Australia is one of many Western governments that are showing a lack of meaningful response to the situation in Palestine. Ben Saul, a professor of international law at Sydney University, speaking in this Parliament House on 16 July, stated:

By encouraging or tolerating Israeli violations of international law, Australia weakens the international rule of law, undermines peace and forsakes justice for Palestinians.

In the face of state-sponsored killing on an extensive scale and in the absence of effective political leadership, I do believe we all have a responsibility to act.

The final word should go back to Gaza. I met the head of UNRWA when I was there, as well as very many impressive workers in that organisation. On 14 July, UNRWA's Pierre Krahenbuhl stated:

We must be careful about the endless numeration of casualty numbers. The dead and injured in Gaza are not anonymous. Behind the figures lie multiple individual destinies now torn apart. Too often in their lives have Gazan civilians been denied their dignity. Anonymity in death or injury is the ultimate denial. Palestinians are not statistics, and we must never allow them to be treated as such. They are human beings like others in the world with their identity, and the same hopes and expectations for an improved future for their children.

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