AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENT: Senator Doug Cameron speaks on Palestine in Senate Feb11 February 25, 2011

I rise on a matter of public interest at a time when Palestinians are still being denied their fundamental human rights, including the right of self-determination. The need for justice and self-determination in Palestine is important not only for Palestinians but for global security and all peace-loving Australians.

Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt serve to remind us that people’s desire for democracy, justice and self-determination is universal. There can never be a case for the oppression of a people on the basis that it is simply their destiny to be oppressed and thus they should accept it as their fate. Yet this is essentially the position of those—and there are many—who attempt to justify the status quo in relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinian people are well within their rights to advocate their cause far and wide, whether that is at the United Nations, in the offices of members and senators of this parliament or in public halls and meeting rooms around the world. The injustices inflicted on Palestinians in the occupied territories are constant, persistent and degrading beyond the tolerance of any decent person.

This is not a right versus left political issue. For too long the protagonists in the Middle East conflict have corralled everyone else into opposing camps according to an imagined world where the political right reflexively supports Israel and the political left reflexively supports the Palestinians. While this approach has served the shallow ends of those who have an interest in perpetuating the conflict, the need for a lasting Middle East peace demands that we defy those who have an interest in perpetuating conflict and instead focus on the humanitarian and security benefits of peace.

Among recent documentation of the plight of Palestinians in Gaza is the report by the British-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group entitled The world’s largest prison camp: a report on access to Gaza. A delegation comprising Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs from the group visited Gaza in October 2010 and was hosted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The delegation notes that the 2008 invasion by Israeli forces under the codenamed Operation Cast Lead resulted in widespread attacks upon the civilian infrastructure of Gaza. Hospitals, schools, mosques, civilian homes and the UN compound were severely damaged or destroyed. Thirteen hundred Palestinians were killed, the majority of them civilians, including 352 children—an appalling loss of innocent lives. Another 5,000 were wounded.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency reports that 3,540 houses were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, with a further 2,866 sustaining major damage, while 52,900 homes sustained minor damage. The UN report into the operation concluded that both Israeli and Palestinian combatants had committed war crimes in the course of the fighting. The report found that Israel used disproportionate force and that the object of the operation was to inflict collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza.

Two years on, reconstruction of the Gaza strip is prevented by Israel’s blockade of the territory. In May 2010, Israel announced it was easing the blockade of Gaza. While previously banned food supplies are now permitted to enter Gaza, the quantity of food available is still insufficient and remains well below pre-blockade levels. Construction materials and fuel remain barred for private use and only since September 2010 has the United Nations Relief and Works Agency received approval to import materials for reconstruction projects. These projects include four schools, 16 classrooms, two health centres, 21 housing units and a kindergarten. The construction sector is critical to re-starting the economy of Gaza. Prior to the blockade, there were over 35,000 people employed in the construction sector in Gaza. Late last year the figure was estimated at 6,000. Reconstruction is central to alleviating the cripplingly high levels of unemployment in Gaza. Around 20 per cent of the budget of the Palestinian Ministry of Health goes towards paying the bills of Palestinians being treated abroad because of the un-availability of many treatments in the Palestinian territory.

It is perhaps not well understood but residents of Gaza are required to apply to the Israeli authorities for a permit to leave Gaza, even when the applicant does not wish to travel to Israel. It is no wonder that Gaza is referred to as the world’s largest prison camp. Israel’s justification for this policy is that it will weaken Hamas. That it has failed to do so and has merely served to inflict illegal collective punishment on Palestinian civilians has escaped their attention. Between January 2008 and June 2009, the Israeli authorities either refused or delayed 40 per cent of the applications for permits to leave Gaza for medical treatment. Palestinian doctors told the British parliamentary delegation of a systematic ‘de-development’ of the healthcare system in Gaza resulting from restrictions Israel had imposed on drugs, medical equipment and training of medical personnel overseas.

Construction materials necessary for reconstruction in Gaza must be allowed into the territory. Claims by Israel that Hamas would use the materials entering Gaza for military purposes are false. Hamas is able to obtain all the materials it wants through the network of smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border. What is more, Hamas is able to bolster its own standing with Palestinians by launching building projects with smuggled materials while projects funded by the UN stand idle.

The British parliamentary delegation reported that, in their discussions with Fatah and Hamas, the factions indicated that agreement had been reached on the voting system for new elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council. While agreement on a range of other crucial matters has not been reached there appears to be an acceptance on both sides, including among elements of Hamas, that factional division is undermining the Palestinian cause. Israel has a clear responsibility to contribute to restoring stability and dignity to Gaza and dignity for the aspirations of the Palestinian people. The borders of Gaza must be reopened and the remaining elements of the Israeli blockade lifted. Exports and the free movement of Palestinian people must be allowed to resume. Engagement between all Palestinian factions must continue and Fatah and Hamas must reach a unity agreement, because to fail to do so will have consequences for the Palestinian people too dire to contemplate.

In view of the capacity of Iran to take any opportunity to advance its own rank interests in the Middle East, coupled with similar aspirations of extremist groups scattered throughout the region, it is more urgent than ever to bring the Middle East peace negotiations to a successful conclusion. I endorse the sentiments the Minister for Foreign Affairs expressed in a recent speech in Athens, in which he reiterated the importance of a two-state solution: ‘an independent and secure Israeli state and an independent and secure Palestinian state’.

The elements of peace should include the 1967 borders, resolution of the question of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, settlement of the conflict over Jerusalem and all necessary security guarantees. I think it is essential that Australian politicians who are interested in peace in the Middle East should be calling for these things to be done. The need to achieve a just peace in Palestine and to neutralise the rallying points for extremists who bolster their standing on the back of the suffering of the Palestinian people far outweighs the false political divisions that have arisen over this conflict. Even the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said: ‘I imagine that if I were a Palestinian of the right age, I would, at some stage, have joined one of the terror organisations.’

In December last year at a forum in Israel, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Arab neighbors is a source of tension and an obstacle to prosperity and opportunity for all the people of the region. It denies the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and it poses a threat to Israel’s future security. It is at odds also with the interests of the United States.

Secretary Clinton also said at the forum:

The lack of peace and the occupation that began in 1967 continue to deprive the Palestinian people of dignity and self-determination. This is unacceptable, and, ultimately, it too is unsustainable.

And in June 2009, in his Cairo address, President Obama said:

… Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s … The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest … So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

These are not the words of left-wing radicals. These are the words of leaders whose daily job involves grappling with the complexities of conflict in the Middle East. Faced with the realities of the conflict and its implications for the perpetuation of international terror- ism and for global stability, they have concluded that the conflict must end. And it must end in justice for the Palestinian people and security for Israel. It is the only conclusion open to us; it is the only conclusion open to Australians. We must continue to play a role in bringing peace and justice to the Middle East because peace and justice in the Middle East means peace and justice worldwide. It means a diminution of terrorism, it means hope and dignity for Palestinians, who have been denied that hope and dignity, and it means security for Israelis, who have been denied security in the past. It is absolutely essential that the Australian parliament, Australian politicians and the Australian public play their part in bringing peace to the Middle East.


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