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Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Page: 2226

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (19:54): I rise today to raise the issue of the devastating conflict in the Israeli occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I wish to impress the absolute urgency of finding a peaceful outcome to a conflict that has now spanned generations. Last year we saw a sharp rise in killings and injuries as a result of the ongoing hostilities. Human Rights Watch reported that 17 Israeli civilians were killed and 87 injured last year. This is tragic. At the same time, 11,953 Palestinian citizens were injured and 127 Palestinians lost their lives. That was in the same time frame. That is also tragic.

While international media interest in the region has subsided a little, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has deteriorated recently. I have spoken about this issue a number of times in this place, and I reject the legality of building of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Settlement building in the occupied territories is a roadblock to peace. It can only serve to escalate tensions and undermine progress towards a two-state solution. I back Labor's calls for Israel to cease all such settlement expansion to support renewed negotiations towards peace.

I have also spoken here about the plight of the Palestinian people, who have been denied their fundamental right to statehood, subjected to mass violence and left displaced in their own land with little hope for the future. But today I would like to consider some of the most tragic casualties of this brutal struggle—and that is the children. Palestinian children have also been left stateless, helpless and facing a violent and unstable future. They are innocent victims who deal with daily violence. Many know nothing but the military occupation in which they live. They have seen members of their families lose their jobs as Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement have hit trade and the local economy.

Unemployment in Palestine now sits at almost 27 per cent and, at 42 per cent, youth unemployment is much worse. With figures like this, young Palestinians know that their own chances of finding work are not good. It is easy to understand how this grim reality can breed a pervasive environment of hopelessness and helplessness. Even the basic things that we take for granted are interminably challenging for young Palestinians. Military checkpoints and mobility restrictions have created huge issues of access to schools, health care and even water.

And, of course, there is the ever-present violence. In 2012 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised Israel for its bombing attacks on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, stating:

Destruction of homes and damage to schools, streets and other public facilities gravely affect children …

They called this:

… gross violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and international humanitarian law.

In 2013 the same committee again raised the impacts of the bitter conflict on children, saying it was:

… highly concerned yet again by the fact that the children of both camps involved in the conflict continue to be killed or wounded, and the children living in the Palestinian-occupied territory represent a disproportionate number of these victims.

Sadly, the violence continues. Many young people continue to be injured in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Some have even paid the price of their lives.

On 20 April this year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations released the UN's annual report on children and armed conflict. In examining the brutal statistics of the casualties of the region in 2015, it confirmed that the situation is not improving. We learnt that 25 male and five female Palestinian children were killed last year. Twenty-seven of these deaths occurred in the West Bank. This is almost double the toll from 2014. All 27 of these deaths of Palestinian children were attributed to Israeli forces or settlers. The Secretary-General described the case of a 17-year-old Palestinian girl who, after being stopped at a checkpoint in Hebron, was searched and then shot five times. Of course, there are young Israelis who have also been injured by Palestinians—13, in fact. In the same time, 1,735 injuries have been sustained by Palestinian children.

I was particularly horrified when I learnt that Palestinian children are being arrested and held in Israeli prisons. In 2015 in East Jerusalem 860 Palestinian children were arrested, including 136 aged between seven and 11. The Israel Prison Service reports that the monthly average number of children held in Israeli custody increased by 15 per cent from 2014. A report by the Defence for Children International Palestine last month said:

Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes between 500 and 700 children in military courts each year that lack fundamental fair trial rights.

Sadly, we have also seen Israel return to administrative detention of children, which had not been used since 2011. This means that a child can be detained without charge or trial, a breach of fundamental democratic principles.

The hopelessness and desperation of life for a Palestinian child is unimaginable—it is an experience that in Australia we cannot begin to understand—and those who have not been physically hurt will by no means escape the trauma of growing up in a war zone. We know that the psychological scars of this sort of experience run deep. Clinical professor of psychiatry, Dr Jessica Gannon, has estimated that close to 99 per cent of children in Gaza have been personally exposed to extreme violence against family members. Many have seen those that they love killed in front of them. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, found a 20 per cent increase in post-traumatic stress disorder amongst children in Gaza after the 2012 war. This tragic and overwhelming burden on an entire people is even more pronounced when you consider the disproportionate number of young people in the community. In fact, almost 45 per cent of Palestinians are yet to reach their 14th birthday—that is a lot of vulnerable people growing up in an enormously damaging environment.

In June this year 20 members of the United States Congress became so dismayed at the appalling conditions for Palestinian children that they co-signed a letter urging President Obama to appoint a special envoy for Palestinian children to ensure that the US government prioritises Palestinian children's rights. I would like to share a few words from this letter, which reads:

This enormous youth cohort represents another generation of Palestinian children growing up under Israeli military occupation with very few opportunities to improve their lives.

These children live under the constant fear of arrest, detention, and violence at the hand of the Israeli military, as well as the threat of recruitment or conscription into armed groups. We view this as an unimaginably difficult and at time hopeless environment for children that only fuels the conflict.

Israel has been a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child since it was ratified in 1991. This is one of the most widely approved and ratified human rights treaties in history. The convention is designed to recognise the right of every child to grow socially, mentally and physically to the best of their potential, to participate in decisions that affect their future and to freely express their opinion. Clearly these standards are not being met in the tragic circumstances that young Palestinians endure every day. They are having their present stolen and their futures forever tainted. Their physical and emotional scars will last a lifetime. Israel has a responsibility to abide by this convention not only in Israel but also in the occupied Palestinian territory.