The Australian government recently received former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom as part of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum. The forum was to strengthen the already close relationship between the two states. Shalom and Olmert were welcomed with a gala dinner in Melbourne’s ritzy Park Hyatt Hotel on 6 December 2009, attended by Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Given Olmert’s role as Prime Minister during the attacks on Gaza, he is seen by many as guilty of war crimes; it is perhaps no surprise that the Australian media seemed keen to bury the fact that Olmert was in the country and being welcomed by our government. Pro-Palestinian activists on the other hand were intent on holding him to account and letting him know he is not welcome here in our town.
Several groups, including Students for Palestine, Australians for Palestine, the Federation of Australian Muslim Students and Youth, and the Palestine Community Association, came together to organize against these war criminals. Around 200 persons attended a lively, loud and angry demonstration outside the Park Hyatt. We displayed a sample of items banned from entering Gaza due to the siege, to highlight the basic necessities that people in Gaza are denied. Speeches spoke of the apartheid nature of Israel and the reality of living under occupation. Melbourne-based pro-Palestinian hip hop group The Brothahood performed songs about life under occupation, and racism in Australia. We carried placards reading: “Silvan Shalom: Minister for Land Theft,” “Ehud Olmert: War Criminal,” and “Gillard Why do you support genocide?” We also took inspiration from the Iraqi shoe thrower Muntazer al-Zaidi and hurled shoes over the police line.
We publicly announced we were moving to a side entrance, which we found open and under-policed. Several of us then decided to enter the hotel. Police rushed in to break up the demonstration with pepper spray, something that has not happened at a demonstration in Australia for nearly a decade. At least three persons were taken to hospital for treatment. This unprecedented police response highlights the lengths the Australian state will go to defend their support for Israel.
As reported in The Jerusalem Post, at the dinner Gillard, supposedly of the left of the Australian Labor Party, ignored the protests and reaffirmed her support for Israel. “As I said during [the invasion of Gaza last winter], and I say again tonight, Australia supports Israel’s right to self-defense and its right to self-determination … Australia’s government was a champion for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Our commitment to Israel’s security has not wavered since that time. It’s why we opposed the referral of the Goldstone report to the UN General Assembly.”
Australia’s support for war crimes, something the UN-sponsored and -endorsed Goldstone report found Israel committed, is what the protest was opposing. The protest was to show the world that there are people in Australia who oppose Israel’s attacks on Gaza, the increasing of illegal settlements and the construction of the apartheid wall; that there are people who want to see the right of self-determination for the Palestinians. We oppose our government’s continuing support of Israel in the face of these atrocities. A bit of pepper spray will not deter us — it is nothing in comparison to the horrors Palestinians face every day.
Frances Lewis is a Melbourne-based student activist, and founding member of Students for Palestine. Established in early 2009 during Israel’s invasion of Gaza, Students for Palestine organizes solidarity action in support of Palestine, and raise awareness of Palestine on campuses across Australia.