When I first travelled to Israel it was with a sense of excitement to explore a land so rich in the history of humanity. This week I have returned, with unease.
Conflict, war and tragedy have never been far away for this nation established out of the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet the Hamas attacks of 7 October plumbed new depths of depravity.
The trauma caused by Hamas’s targeting of innocent civilians, from babies to the elderly, is deep. With 1,200 Jews killed on a single day, more than at any time since the Holocaust, the impact is far-reaching. Families of those held hostage by Hamas continue to endure an unending nightmare.
For those of us who have viewed unpublished footage of the 7 October attacks the trauma is incomprehensible. The murders, beheadings, rapes and kidnappings were undertaken with barbaric intensity and disturbing pride. Thousands of Hamas rockets were fired indiscriminately, with only Israel’s technological defences avoiding even greater casualties.
As Israel seeks to remove this terrorist threat the tragedy is compounded by Hamas’s use of Palestinians living in Gaza as human shields, guaranteeing even more civilian casualties. We should mourn every innocent life lost, be they Israeli, Palestinian or otherwise.
In the face of such tragedy and unease, why go, even as Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister?
Primarily, because in times of crisis acts of support matter. Israel has an inherent right to self-defence, which requires the removal of Hamas as an ever-present terrorist threat. No country could live with such a nearby threat after such an atrocity.
Israel needs to hear not just words of support, but to see that fellow liberal democracies like Australia demonstrate support for its existence, security and rights. This is why our Prime Minister, or at least a senior government minister, should have visited weeks ago, just as leaders of our allies and partners have done. The Albanese Labor Government has let Australia go missing when we should have been counted.
As times get tough, our support should not wane. We should not repeat the mistakes of the past by seeking a premature end to the current war, which would only result in Hamas rebuilding, re-arming and history repeating. Hamas will not get better with time. Its Iranian-backed repression of those it pretends to liberate is a further demonstration of the lengths it will go to in pursuit of evil ideology.
However, our support is not without expectations. Israel should act with regard to international law. Like any war there are, sadly, civilian casualties, exacerbated by Hamas hiding behind and amongst civilians and civilian infrastructure. We can wish it weren’t so, but it is a reality of defending values that underpin longer term safety and security in the region.
The test of international law is not the avoidance of such casualties, but how they relate to the military objectives being pursued. Israeli actions should be appropriately targeted and include continued measures like evacuation warnings to civilians.
Those fleeing conflict also require support. Humanitarian assistance needs to reach those who genuinely need and deserve it. Australia and Australians give humanitarian assistance for this very purpose.
Ultimately, we all wish to see a ceasefire and an enduring peace. But the only ceasefire that can enable a potential for peace is one where Hamas releases all remaining hostages, lays down arms and surrenders its terrorist operatives. Only at that point can the world turn to what comes next, in the governance of Gaza, expectations of Israel and the many steps required for peace.
Sadly, and embarrassingly, the situation in Australia also presents a reason to visit. Growing antisemitism has plagued parts of Australia.
Hate fuelled acts outside the Sydney Opera House, intimidatory protests into suburbs of larger Jewish populations and the shameful targeting of victims’ relatives from 7 October have stained our nation. Israel now advises greater caution for travellers to Australia, while Australia’s Jewish population express fear and suppress their identities.
To allow this to stand would be intolerable. We should have seen stronger leadership in response to it already. Australia welcomed more Holocaust survivors than most nations, providing a safe and secure home for a persecuted people. We must adopt the best strategies to combat this, through education, identification and enforcement.
Antisemitism has a unique and disturbing history, with dire consequences, the likes of which were plain for all to see on 7 October. We must demonstrate that we will stand against it.
Senator Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and is visiting Israel this week.