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Janet on the 70th anniversary of al Nakba – Palestine

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 9 May 2018

Senator RICE (Victoria) (21:12):  Thanks, Mr. Acting Deputy President. Tonight I'm wearing around my neck a pendant of Handala. Handala is a beloved Palestinian cartoon character, a refugee child, a creation of cartoonist Naji al-Ali. Naji al-Ali was 10 years old when Palestine was invaded by Israeli forces on 15 May 1948. He and his family were expelled from Palestine and ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. It was the beginning of the Nakba, the catastrophe. I bought this pendant for a few shekels in a village in the Jordan Valley just over a year ago whilst on a visit to Palestine and Israel organised by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. This May, Handala is staying around my neck in solidarity with Palestinians to remind myself and others of the Nakba—to stand up and be counted.

On my trip a year ago, I observed, I learnt and I was changed. I wept with a widow whose husband had been killed only three months prior as the village of Umm al-Hiran was protesting about the demolition of houses in the village by Israeli government forces. Almost any building, home, school, childcare centre and even solar panels that have been built in Palestine since 1967 are subject to demolition.

I met mothers holding vigil outside courtrooms where their teenage sons were being tried, convicted and jailed for the crime of posting on Facebook about the Israeli military forces that control their movements and their lives. And I walked the ghostly streets of Hebron, where Palestinians are no longer permitted to walk or work and are excluded by checkpoints and barbed wire, where Israeli settlers, illegal under international law, are slowly but surely taking over.

But enough of what I witnessed. I don't have to live it every day. I got to come home to Australia and to distance myself from the oppression and the injustice. A year on since my visit, what's changed for Palestinians? The villagers of Umm al-Hiran have given up. They don't want anyone else to be killed. They have agreed to give up their ancestral farming lands and be relocated to apartments in a village some kilometres away and will mourn the razing of their homes, which will be replaced by a new village where only people of the Jewish faith will be permitted to live. A year on, 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi is serving eight months in an Israeli jail for slapping and kicking an Israeli soldier, having just learnt that Israeli troops seriously wounded her 15-year-old cousin, shooting him in the head from close range with a rubber bullet during nearby stone-throwing clashes. A year on, peaceful protests on Gaza's border with Israel have been met by live fire by Israeli forces. Fifty-one Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the past six weeks. No Israeli soldiers have been killed or injured.

Israel continues to control the borders, imports and exports, water supply, electricity supply, people's movements, the army and the courts. Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, are expanding on Palestinian land. Roads which Palestinians are banned from travelling on connect their settlements with each other and to Israel. And Palestinians in the West Bank—suffering, resilient, steadfast under this military occupation of the last 50 years—don't have a vote in Israel. They don't have democratic rights or any way to influence how their lives are controlled in this way. As for Gaza, a quote from the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem summarises the situation:

The Gaza Strip is the scene of a humanitarian disaster that has nothing to do with natural causes – it is entirely human-made, a direct result of official Israeli policy. … this cruel, unjustifiable policy, which sentences the nearly two million people living in Gaza to a life of abject poverty and nearly inhuman conditions.

That's the reality of life in Palestine. That's the reality of the Nakba.

How do Palestinians in Australia experience the Nakba? I want to share with you what Nakba means to two Australian Palestinians—firstly, playwright and poet Samah Sabawi, as reported in New Matilda. She writes:

Nakba is not an isolated incident in history. Not a single memory that stands distant and frozen on the pages of time. Its commemoration is a reminder of the beginning of an ongoing crime. It forces us to reflect on a relentless inescapable reality … We are Palestinians and we cannot forget what has not yet ceased to be …

Palestine was erased from the map, but no map is set in stone. Maps have no heart and soul. Maps don't reflect the sanctity and beauty of life. So let them keep their map, and let us look erasure in the eye … Demolish our homes, steal our land, detain our children…oh … but if only they can leave our children alone. Here, in the native place of our existence, on the soil of our ancestors, we will survive and we will transcend their brutality with infinite persistence. With beauty and resistance.

We will "cultivate hope" in seeds we plant in places of uprooted trees, in the prose and verses of our poetry, in homes we build from the rubble after their demolitions, in songs of love and passion, in strokes of oil on canvas and in prayers in mosques and churches.

And there, within the suffocating spaces between their towers, walls and checkpoints, we will teach our children how to dance to the rhythm of life.

In the words of Bassam Dally, an Australian Palestinian advocate, professor at the Centre for Energy Technology at the University of Adelaide and a former Palestinian citizen of Israel:

As a child you hear about the relatives in refugee camps … and you hear the heroic stories of survival against all odds. You hear about the families, living in the periphery of your village, who sought refuge from other villages that were destroyed by Jewish terrorist groups in 1948 … You drive by these villages and you notice that they have new Jewish names and the Arabic names have disappeared. And you realise that your Nakba has never stopped. The erosion of your heritage, your history and even your ruins is ongoing, making you feel like a foreigner in your own home, disconnecting you from your roots.

These reflections place us so eloquently where we need to be when considering how to react to 70 years of oppression, injustice and the illegal actions of the Israeli government in Palestine. Sadly, the Israeli government isn't listening to voices like these. In contrast, their current actions are increasing the oppression and the injustice.

So, on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Nakba, what can we do? What should Australia and Australians be doing? Palestinians are relying on us, people outside Palestine, to act to end this destructive, inhumane state of affairs. If we want to end the violence and end the cycles of attack and retaliation then we have to give Palestinians real hope that the world understands their struggle and will support them in their just cause. We must not accept the Israeli government's perspective on this oppression. We must speak out and support Palestinian voices like those of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network and support the voices of the Israeli human rights activists such as B'Tselem and Jewish voices like the New Israel Fund Australia Foundation and the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.

Australia is in a very powerful position with regard to Israel. We and the US are Israel's very best friends in the world. It would be massively powerful if we recognised the state of Palestine, joining 137 other states in doing so; if we said to Israel that we will not sell or buy arms from them while they continue the illegal military occupation and the expanding settlements; if we called on them to stop using lethal force against unarmed protesters in Gaza; in short, if we let Israel know, in the way that only best friends can, that their behaviour is unacceptable and we aren't going to turn a blind eye to it or to stay quiet about it anymore.

I'm wearing my Handala pendant all month to provoke conversations and to remind me to speak out at every opportunity about the ongoing injustice in Palestine. I invite all members of this parliament and all Australians to do the same.

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