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Speech: A story from Gaza

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 13 Mar 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:10): I would like to share with senators the story of one woman—a woman who until her untimely death last year was a success story of international development, of self-reliance and self-determination and of the way the Australian overseas aid program can be used to transform lives. I am talking about a dignified woman who was determined to change both her and her family's life, Ms Najah Harb Saleh Qdeih of Abasan village in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

I first came across Ms Qdeih's story in the Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA 2010 annual report. APHEDA is the humanitarian aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and I am, as I hope many fellow members of the chamber are, an active supporter of this great organisation. In the annual report, Ms Qdeih is shown as a true success story of Australian aid. Through an AusAID-funded food security and income generation project, Ms Qdeih was trained and given eight rabbits to raise to provide the family an income. Five months later, Ms Qdeih had turned those eight rabbits into 70 and she was earning $40 a week for her family.

This story about rabbits might seem somewhat unremarkable to some, but in the real world aid programs like this have a massive impact on people's lives. Ms Qdeih was the household breadwinner since her husband, Ibrahim, lost his job as a construction worker in Israel when Gazan citizens were no longer issued work permits in 2006. As the family breadwinner, Ms Qdeih expressed her desire to expand the rabbit farm into a small business to provide a future for her family. Ms Qdeih and her family were exactly the kinds of people our aid program should be working with.

The modesty of the family house was noted by aid workers monitoring the project. During one visit, Ms Qdeih was cooking on a wood fire while many of her neighbours were using gas, to which she responded:

Maybe I don't have a gas cooking stove and a lot of things that other families own, but I am happy that my children, thanks to God, are excellent students in their schools and this gives me great hope that they will compensate me tomorrow, for what I and my husband suffered to make ends meet and provide food for them.

The project staff also noted the poor condition of the small house for which Ms Qdeih was saving to repair. The walls were burned by white phosphorous in 2009 during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead. The house still bears the scars of the tank fire they fled.

Now the walls of Ms Qdeih's house bear more sinister marks of blood and of dozens of sharp projectiles and shrapnel. On 8 April last year, Ms Qdeih, aged 41, and her 19-year-old daughter, Nidal, were making bread on the wood fire outside their house when they were killed by a missile from an Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone. Nidal was engaged and just one month away from her wedding. The rabbit farm provided by AusAID was almost completely destroyed. Ms Qdeih's husband, Ibrahim is quoted as saying:

I was set to go to the Friday sermon—

at the mosque—

and it was about 12.15 pm, when my daughter Nidal was talking to me about the final touches for her wedding party. By then, electricity was cut off and my wife Najah and my daughters Nidal, Neda and Fida, all moved to rest a bit on these chairs.

Ibrahim left for the mosque with his younger son, then the missile hit. His brother, Fathi, was the first on the scene. He relays:

I pushed the door to see what happened. It was horrible, it was horrible—Najah's face was smashed and stained with blood, while Nidal's abdomen was ripped open with blood covering all her body.

The missile contained thousands of tiny pieces of shrapnel that instantly ripped their bodies to shreds. These are antipersonnel weapons designed deliberately to cause such injuries. Ibrahim and Najah's two other daughters, Fid'a, aged 15, and Nid'a, aged 12, were hospitalised

Nid'a was injured very seriously and put into a coma. Her husband, Ibrahim, was devastated and could only say, 'In a minute we lost everything—my wife, my daughter, our little rabbits project.'

For the record, the respected Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, told APHEDA that, on that day alone, not only were Najah and Nidal killed by Israeli missiles but also Mr Talal Rabi 'Issa Abu Taha, a 56-year-old farmer, and Mahmoud Wael Muhammad al-Jaro, just nine years old, was killed while playing with his friends.

Ms Qdeih's death was a tragedy and was completely unnecessary. Such an attack on an Australian aid program should be a front-page story, but, instead, the event revealed a cruel indifference. There was not one instance of outrage that something built with Australian taxpayers' money was destroyed by the cruellest and most detached weapon of war: a remote control drone that clearly does not discriminate in its hunt for supposed terrorists. This was not the first instance of indiscriminate Israeli attacks directly hitting Australian funded aid projects, including those of other APHEDA partners. The El Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital in Gaza City, a facility that works to rehabilitate physically disabled children and adults, was hit with Israeli shelling during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, and before that in April 2008, and the mobile medical van of Patient's Friends Society in Jenin was shot at by the Israeli army in 2007.

Now the Qdeih family in Gaza must go on without a mother and daughter, and the project must try to rebuild what was destroyed as Ibrahim's family is driven deeper into poverty. Sadly, this cycle of build, destroy and build again is nothing new. Last year the then foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, announced $18 million in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. This organisation provides vital humanitarian relief to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and surrounding countries. The money was earmarked to send kids to school, for health workers to provide health care, and to improve income generation and food security. Hopefully it will be used to repair the 34 hospitals and clinics, the 214 schools, the 3,500 homes destroyed and the more than 6,000 hectares of agricultural land levelled in Operation Cast Lead alone. But I have heard that the United Nations has had difficulties with the bans on many construction materials coming into that region, due to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. It is hard to feel hopeful about these repairing and rebuilding aid projects when it could all be destroyed once again.

My point with this story is to honour the life of Ms Qdeih and also to recognise the inherent politics involved in providing aid. Money can only be one part of our commitment to combating poverty. The other part is insisting that international humanitarian law is respected—that there is a safe space in which to deliver aid and that the human rights of the people receiving the aid are respected and upheld. It is a perverse irony that our commitment to humanity shines through in working with families and communities such as Najah's in Abasan village, only to abandon that commitment with deafening silence when political expediency prevails and their progress is arbitrarily destroyed with the touch of a button. I urge the new foreign minister, Senator Bob Carr, to condemn attacks on civilians and on Australian aid projects by any government, including the Israeli government, and to commit fully to being the good international citizen that we claim to be by upholding the rule of law for all—no exceptions.

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