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Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Page: 3290


Mr HASTIE (Canning) (10:33): It is a privilege to rise today alongside my colleagues, the members for Fadden, Melbourne Ports and Eden-Monaro, and also share my thoughts on this great man. Shimon Peres might best be known as a tireless advocate for a broad Middle East peace that would benefit all peoples of that tortured region, but to focus on this aspect of his life alone would be to miss the man. Peres understood that peace, whilst the highest ideal, had to be first secured by force of arms. He was a leader of Israel through many of its darkest hours and helped guide it to become a prosperous, flourishing democracy. In the spirit of King David, Peres understood that both the shepherd's crook and the warrior's sword are necessary to the task of nation-building. Historian Timothy Snyder has described the cataclysm that engulfed the Jews of Eastern Europe during the Second World War in his magisterial and aptly named history entitled Bloodlands. The 'bloodlands' directly touched the soul of Shimon Peres with terrible effect.

On 30 June 1942 the entire Jewish community of Vishnev—his hometown in Poland—were frogmarched to the courtyard of the local synagogue and burnt alive by the Nazis. Every member of Shimon Peres' extended family—including his grandfather—perished. That abomination gave him a hard-nosed understanding that, at certain times and in certain circumstances, armed force is the only moral option. So in 1947 it was Shimon Peres who was dispatched to Europe with the mission of acquiring arms for the nascent Jewish state. It was these weapons that allowed the Jews of Israel to beat back attacks by not only the Palestinian Arab irregulars, but also the invading armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Indeed, after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Peres would play a fundamental role in developing Israel's defence capabilities. Under his supervision the IDF would become a dominant regional power, gain nuclear capability, and establish its outstanding international reputation.

By 1976 Shimon Peres had risen to the post of defence minister, serving in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. When a gang of Arab and German left-wing terrorists hijacked an Air France flight bearing 250 Jews, Shimon Peres was confronted by a mammoth dilemma of moral leadership. The hijackers were demanding the release of 53 terrorist murderers from prison, as well as a ransom of $5 million—a hefty sum in those days. The question was: should the short-term interest of saving 246 Jewish hostages take precedence over the longer term interest of the innocent lives these killers would surely take if allowed to go free?

This was the question that hung like a cloud over the negotiations with the hijackers. But in retrospect we know that Shimon Peres and his ministerial colleagues were really playing for time, and were using that grace period to plan and organise a rescue mission whose ambition was only matched by its audacity. Operation Thunderbolt is unlike any other special operation in modern history. Israel took a huge national and strategic risk in rescuing their people from the hands of terrorists at Entebbe. This was an act of statecraft that required vision, nerve and tremendous resolve. Consider the operational and logistical challenges the IDF had to overcome to deliver Israeli troops onto the target. They had to fly the assault force across the international flight path over the Red Sea and remain undetected by Egyptian, Sudanese and Saudi radar. The Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft flew low to the ground, sometimes as low as 100 metres, to avoid detection. These aircraft, loaded to their maximum capacity—an operational risk all of its own—had to be refuelled in Kenya before continuing to Entebbe itself.

Consider the challenge facing the ground forces. With limited intelligence and after an incredibly demanding tactical flight, where many were airsick, they had to commence the assault on the terminal almost immediately after disembarking the aircraft. They went straight into a gunfight with the terrorists, in the middle of the night, in darkness, without the aids of modern soldiering, such as body armour and night vision. Consider the task of extracting the assault force under fire and all the hostages for the flight back to Israel. This occurred in 53 minutes from landing to take-off—an incredible feat of statecraft and arms.

There was significant strategic and operational risk woven throughout the fabric of Operation Thunderbolt—risks grave enough that most political decision-makers, in this day and age, would balk at an operation of this audacity. Even the Israeli hostages, once the roar and din of gunfire had ceased in the airport terminal, were surprised beyond belief to hear the Hebrew voices of the IDF soldiers cut through the night.

Shimon Peres was not faint-hearted at this moment in Israel's history. He had strongly advocated for this operation to the Israeli Prime Minister and the cabinet. The most recent book on Operation Thunderbolt documents his words to the Prime Minister on the morning of 3 July 1976:

It is Israel that has lectured the world against giving in to terrorism. If we give in now our prestige will suffer greatly. Should we ignore the fact that the hijackers have conducted a 'selection,' separating the Jews from the others aboard the plane? If the operation succeeds, the mood of the entire country will suddenly and dramatically improve. It's true that the operation will put our finest soldiers at risk. But we have always been ready to risk our lives to save a large number of lives by using our own forces, and without recourse to outside assistance."

Operation Thunderbolt took place because men like Shimon Peres were prepared to take a stand for principle and demonstrate resolve with force of arms. The IDF Chief of the General Staff at the time, Lieutenant General Mordechai Gur, credits Peres for his advocacy and courage and singled out the one man 'whose determination made it happen—the Minister of Defense'. He went on further:

I don't know if it's possible to apportion credit among those responsible for the decision to undertake this operation, but if it is, the biggest share of the credit goes to the defense minister—

Shimon Peres. Thus the Entebbe operation constituted a victory not only of good over evil but also of unconventional brilliance over conventional banality. It was a victory for the free world, where democratic statesmen were willing to take national and strategic risk in the pursuit of justice and the preservation of innocent life.

Shimon Peres's contribution to this operation as Minister of Defense was decisive and serves as a beacon in the present for those charged with defending democracy, human rights and those who cannot fight for themselves. It reminds us that when we are confronted with evil—as we are in the Middle East today, with the scourge of Islamic State—principled action, steely resolve and visionary leadership can overcome great odds and conquer even the most determined enemies of the free world.

Israel has lost a lifelong servant of the Jewish people in Shimon Peres, and today we honour his memory and pass our condolences to Israel.