Agony for Australia’s Palestinian Community as War Rages on in Gaza

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Agony for Australia’s Palestinian Community as War Rages on in Gaza

“So, there’s the pain of the suffering in Palestine – our homeland – but then there’s the feeling of abandonment. It’s an otherness. It’s like we don’t belong in Australia, we don’t belong on Earth almost.”

Agony for Australia’s Palestinian Community as War Rages on in Gaza
Credit: Depositphotos

Over the phone, Hiba Farra speaks with a demeanor that belies her situation. The Palestinian lawyer, who resides in Perth, told me of the horror that has been inflicted on her family over the last month in a heartbreakingly matter-of-fact tone. 

“I’ve lost over 40 members of my family in Gaza,” she said. “I wonder if the death toll has only risen in the last few days.” 

The Palestinian diaspora in Australia is said to number around 50,000. The number is routinely underestimated given that Palestine historically has not been considered a nation on boarding passes or immigration forms. Previous generations who arrived in Australia from various Middle Eastern States were lucky if Jerusalem was written on their arrival card. Many felt shamed into denying their Palestinian nationality.  

The events of October 7 shocked the world. The terrorist attack by Hamas – the governing body of Gaza that is classified as a terrorist organization in Australia and elsewhere – killed 1,400 civilians and took over 200 people hostage, with Israelis and foreign nationals included among the victims. In the aftermath, world leaders both condemned the attack and gave a green light for Israel to “defend itself.” 

In the ensuing weeks, a horror has unfolded on the Gaza Strip, the smaller of the two Palestinian territories, located along the Red Sea. Over 8,000 people have been killed, more than 3,000 of them children. 

Today, people simply wanting their families to survive are raising the increasingly desperate plea that the Israeli bombardment has moved into the territory of war crimes. Concerningly for many Palestinians around the world, and others who have called out Israel’s response as disproportionate, attacks have come from politicians and the media that conflate those urging care for innocent civilian lives in Gaza with a defense of Hamas. 

In Australia, this has been especially prevalent. 

Both major political parties lined up to condemn Hamas after October 7, but it has been the opposition Liberal Party that has been most vociferous. Some among the Liberal Party have sought to brand their Labor opponents as antisemitic due simple to their support of a Palestinian state (a position officially shared by nearly every government, including the United States, Israel’s strongest ally). The Liberals have attempted to wedge Labor on the issue. 

Signs of a U.S.-style, extreme political discourse taking root in the conservative side of Australian politics are nothing new, but even by that standard, the comments were grim.

In Western Sydney – a sprawling metropolis with a significant Muslim population – one local council gave permission to fly the Palestinian flag. For context, outside of my door in Melbourne I can see five separate nations’ flags flying. It is not an issue.

However, Liberal opposition leader Peter Dutton disagrees. Labor minister Tony Burke – whose electorate covers the council mentioned above – condemned Hamas, but added that such a condemnation was not “somehow weakened if you do something to acknowledge the Palestinian loss of life.” Dutton decided this was akin to weakness. 

The Australian prime minister “really [should have] given him a dressing down because to not condemn Hamas and to use the soft form of words sends a terrible message,” Dutton said, entirely missing the point of Burke’s statement.

For Nasser Mashni, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, it was a comment that attacked the very existence of Palestinian people. 

“Nobody’s speaking for us, you know?” he told me early on Monday morning, as we both disseminated the latest news of a hospital evacuation in Gaza.

“Our alternative Prime Minister [Peter Dutton] says we should go home,” he continued, commenting on Dutton’s call that pro-Palestinian protesters, whom he branded as supporters of Hamas, be deported. Under Dutton’s framing, “we don’t belong,”  Mashni said. “If we attend a rally where idiots who are supporters of Hamas attend, we apparently should be deported. None of these comments are being rebuffed at a state or federal level.”

A pro-Palestinian rally in the immediate aftermath of October 7 featured some protestors chanting horrific antisemitic comments. They were roundly condemned by the organizers, and all leading Palestinian groups  – including Mashni. 

“So, there’s the pain of the suffering in Palestine – our homeland – but then there’s the feeling of abandonment. It’s an otherness. It’s like we don’t belong in Australia, we don’t belong on Earth almost. It’s really hurtful.”

When Palestinians held a vigil in Melbourne to commemorate the dead in Gaza, local MP David Southwick said the raising of the Palestinian flag was “definitely wrong.” The Australian Jewish Association hyperbolically described it as “…the equivalent of flying the Nazi flag after Kristallnacht, the Japanese flag after Pearl Harbor or the Taliban flag after September 11.” 

The Palestine flag is not – and never has been – a terrorist flag. 

Farra said the criticism of the flag highlighted a deeper issue in erasing Palestinian heritage. 

“What is next? Am I not going to be able to speak my language, my accent, or wear my traditional Palestinian dress?” she said. “It is very hurtful. I would love to see any other group of people be denied the right to waive their flag. How would they react to that?

“We are living in an environment where the dehumanizing of Palestine means anything is allowed. They’ve taken away our right to speak about our struggle.”

Mashni said the conflation of all Palestinians with terrorists contributes to “our dehumanization and our lack of belonging.” He noted that the event mentioned above was a somber affair that took place every year, and he has already organized the next edition for 2024. Nonetheless, the outrage this year was another sign that Palestinian people in Australia are perceived as intrinsically linked to terrorism and violence, through no fault of their own. 

Rita Jabri Markwell is an Islamic lawyer, working in Sydney. She told The Diplomat that while some members of the media had been using their platforms to question the government about Israel’s actions, about the possibility that Israel was committing war crimes and engaging in ethnic cleansing and why they should be held to account, others in the media were “coming from an ignorant and cruel position, which triggers even worse responses.”

The media has often been complicit. The Australian, for example, labeled a Jewish man, Menachem Vorchheimer, a “Jewish human rights campaigner” when he threated to sue Nasser Mashni. In opposition, Mashni was labeled a “Palestinian activist.” 

The conservative channel Sky News found a video of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a pro-Palestinian rally in the 1990s, which it used to argue he was anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli. 

Markwell, along with everyone I spoke to for this piece, highlighted that the war didn’t begin for Palestinians on October 7, but had been raging since 1967, or for some, 1948

“The Occupied Palestinian Territories have been under occupation by Israel since 1967,” Maxwell said. “Gaza has been under blockade for about 15 years, which amounts legally to occupation because they effectively control the population.” 

Of the community she is a part of, Markwell noted it is filled with “perpetual mourning, anger and powerlessness. But also, resilience that comes from community and finding your voice and helping others to find theirs.” 

Sara Ozrain, a Palestinian law student in Melbourne, contacted me after our first discussion to make sure I realized that “religion is not Indigenous to places; people are. This is why we must move beyond the rhetoric of this being a Muslim and/or Jewish issue. This is about humanity.”

She told The Diplomat that the media coverage had impacted many people in the community by casting aspersions that belie evidence. 

“I think the media has been very deliberate in what they have chosen to cover and not cover, and these actions contribute to a negative rhetoric around Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims around the world, causing further pain for these communities on top of what they are already enduring,” Ozrain said. 

“I have family that have been affected for decades by the situation in Palestine, I have friends that have been affected and we have all lost people. It is invalidating toward our pain to not have this humanitarian crisis recognized for what it is.”

All the people The Diplomat spoke to say that media coverage has caused significant distress for the diaspora, for people who have had family members die on a daily basis in Gaza. 

For Farra, the pain is deep. She has seen family members pass away, while simultaneously witnessing her nationality treated as a slur. 

“It is painful to see the lack of empathy in all of this, whether it is from the media dehumanizing us by saying something as simple as calling it an Israeli-Hamas war. Where is the Palestinian humanity in all of this,” she asked.

“It is the Palestinian people who are being bombed, who are being killed, not Hamas. The children who are being kicked are Palestinian, not Hamas. The children, the people, the mothers, the fathers, are not mentioned enough. 

“We keep pride in keeping our identity alive in our children as it is the only thing surviving from our homeland. How do our kids go along with their lives when the media is describing them in such an unjust and inhumane way?”

Mashni said that not a single person in the Palestinian community hasn’t been personally impacted by the events of the last month. With communications often dropping out, every message that says “delivered” can contain heartbreaking information for people thousands of miles away. 

“It’s beyond a feeling of despair and horror and suffering. As Palestinians, this is something that we’ve become somewhat accustomed to. But it is still hard,” he said. 

The biggest takeaway from these conversations wasn’t anything to do with politics. While everyone I spoke with proudly advocated for their homeland, they only mentioned the suffering of children who were dying, the elderly who were dying, the hospitals that had been bombed, and the electricity, gas, and internet that had been turned off. They only spoke of people denied basic human rights.

Many expressed solidarities with their Jewish colleagues, friends, and neighbors, who were also caught up in the horror. This isn’t a religious issue, they stressed, it’s a humanitarian terror. 

All urged for it to stop immediately.