Jerusalem Peace Prize Address: The most disastrous year for Palestinians since the 1948 Nakba

Mar 5, 2024
Dr Helen McCue AM, Jerusalem Peace Prize Address, February 23 2024.

Receiving the Jerusalem Peace Prize is a great honour and I am overwhelmed and humbled indeed. It is particularly poignant at this time as Palestinians in both Occupied Gaza and West Bank are suffering unbelievable, horrific hardship and brutal violations of their basic human rights, for life, for shelter, water and food.

Dr Helen McCue AM, Jerusalem Peace Prize Address, February 23 2024.

I would like to thank Nasser Mashni, the APAN Board and Australians For Palestine for awarding me this year’s Jerusalem Peace Prize. And many thanks to the APAN staff and volunteers for their help and the amazing work they have done over the years. I also extend my congratulations to all the previous recipients.

I acknowledge that we are on the lands of the traditional owners, the people of the Kulin Nation. And I pay my respects to all elders and leaders both past, present and emerging. This land was stolen and never ceded. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

Receiving the Jerusalem Peace Prize is a great honour and I am overwhelmed and humbled indeed. It is particularly poignant at this time as Palestinians in both Occupied Gaza and West Bank are suffering unbelievable, horrific hardship and brutal violations of their basic human rights, for life, for shelter, water and food. I salute all of the health workers, first responders, journalists and many others who have lost their lives serving their community. And I salute all those who in spite of a continuing genocide and crushing apartheid continue to call for peace with their neighbours.

Many of you will know Dr Olfat Mahmoud my dearest friend, my Palestinian mentor, teacher and sister in struggle who sadly passed way in September last year. Throughout her life Olfat showed exceptional leadership, courage and bravery. She was inspirational, strong, just and selfless. She died far too young but she leaves a legacy that will remain an inspiration for many Palestinian women and for all Palestinians. This address is dedicated to her and to the thousands of women and children who have been massacred in Lebanon, Palestine, in Gaza and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank over these past 75 years.

The last five months have been the most disastrous for Palestinians since the 1948 Nakba. The Gaza Strip is about the size of Adelaide with a population of 2.4 million, half of them children. 80% of these are refugees under UN protection. In Gaza up to 100,000 have been killed or maimed, the majority of these being women and children. Among those killed are 340 health workers, 154 UN staff and 122 journalists. And we don’t know how many have been detained by the Israeli Defence Forces but it is in the thousands including medical staff. Nor do we know how many people are lost under the rubble, or how many have died from causes other than bombing.

Gazan’s have been deprived of essential food, water and medical aid, had their hospitals, educational, administrative, religious and cultural infrastructure destroyed and at least 80 percent or more of housing stock and other infrastructure has been totally destroyed. Right now 90 percent of the population is starving, Gazans are forced to eat weeds and animal food. Trucks supplying food have have been deliberately slowed by the IDF and Israeli citizens have been blocking their movement. Access to food has become a weapon of war.

In the Occupied West Bank Israel continues to expand settlements, confiscate lands, take natural resources, and install settlers in Palestinian population areas in total violation of its international obligations, seeking to change the demographic make-up of the Territories. And this violation has only accelerated since October last year. In the past nearly five months up to 400 Palestinians have been killed, among them 98 children and possibly 12,000 have been detained. There has been extensive damage to peoples homes and roads, in particular in the refugees camps.

Yes the attacks by Hamas on innocent civilians on October 7th were horrific and must be punished as a war crime, as is the abduction and holding of civilians. And hostages must be released but the response to this assault by the IDF is shocking in the extreme and overwhelmingly disproportionate.

Gaza has been bombed to oblivion.

The articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention, written specifically to protect civilians and health care workers, have been extensively violated by Israel. This war on Gaza is a war on hospitals and on children. Hospitals are sacred places. They are places of treatment, of healing and of dignified dying. In Gaza hospitals are places of shelter, but they have now become battlegrounds. The IDF regularly violates these sacred places, bombing around them, bombing inside them, destroying them, killing patients including children, stopping food and water, fuel, oxygen and medical supplies necessary for treatment and to save lives, as is happening right now in Nasser Hospital. For Palestinians hospitals are now places of terror, of torture and abuse and worse by the IDF. They are the killing fields of Gaza where patients are executed, medical staff are killed, or forceable detained and patients left to die and rot in their beds. The names of Al Shifa, Al Quds and al Nasser hospitals are etched in our memories as places of both extraordinary courage and extreme and unimaginable suffering.

5 out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals can only partially function, and these face challenges such as a shortage of medical staff, including specialised surgeons and intensive care staff. In total some 340 medical professionals have been killed and 170 or more have been detained and tortured. WHO’s reported that by late January there have been 304 attacks in the Gaza Strip since 7 October affecting 94 health care facilities and 80 ambulances. The WHO has repeatedly been denied access to these facilities. This deliberate destruction of the health care system is part of Israel’s ethnic cleansing and genocide in Gaza. Dr Richard Brennan who has had 30 years’ experience with WHO commented that in all these years he has not witnessed anything like that seen in Al Nasser hospital, not just the destruction by the IDF and the human misery but also the medical staff courage and resilience.

Only four out of 22 UNRWA health centres are still operational. Continued bombardment and restricted access prevent the provision of life-saving health services in these facilities, such as pre and post natal care, immunisations, chronic illness management such as diabetes and high blood pressure management.

UN staff including the UNICEF Director noting the critical role that UNRWA plays in maternal and child health said that “nearly 20,000 or more babies have been born into war. That’s a baby born into this horrendous war every 10 minutes. There are an estimated 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza They face unimaginable challenges in accessing adequate medical care, nutrition, and protection before, during and after giving birth. Becoming a mother should be a time for celebration. In Gaza, it’s another child delivered into hell.” Miscarriage rates are up 300% and women are bleeding to death unable to access care, others undergo Caesareans without anaesthesia. In comparison, in the course of the Russia-Ukraine war, one child is killed every day, while In Gaza 136 Palestinian children are killed daily and as of now there are 1000 children who have lost one or more limbs. There are also an estimated 19,000 orphaned children, many desperately seeking scraps of food. The health situation in Gaza has gone from catastrophic to near collapse.

As of early February UNRWA could only meet 25 per cent of the nutritional needs of malnourished children and vulnerable mothers for two months. The situation now is more severe, especially in northern Gaza where access to food is near impossible. Without immediate funding and an expanded response, hundreds of thousands of individuals are at risk of severe undernourishment and starvation. Children are especially vulnerable and those under five suffering food shortage will suffer long term health consequences.

UNRWA is critical to Palestinians survival. Israel, nearly four months after the event and just days after the ICJs ruling, identified a small number of UNRWA staff in Gaza involved in the October 7th cross border attack. The UN responded, condemned this and took immediate action. UNRWA routinely gives the names of all rostered staff to Israel. Yet Australia and a number of other Western nations, believing Israel’s questionable intelligence and lack of evidence, stopped aid to UNRWA at a time when people are starving. These allegations against UNRWA are but one in the long list of allegations made by Israel over many years and its intentions to shut down UNRWA and deny the rights of refugees are well known.

Nor did our government say anything in response to the ICJs interim findings of a potential to genocide in Gaza. Shocked and angry, there has been an outpouring of protest and grief calling for a full and permanent ceasefire and ongoing humanitarian access from APHEDA, other Australian NGOs, APAN and by hundreds of thousands of people in Australia and millions across the world, including a growing number of Jewish people. The recent establishment of a new Jewish body, the Jewish Council of Australia with people such a Louise Adler on its governing body have stated that this Council represents “The next generation of Australian Jews [who are] resisting the pressure applied by the Jewish establishment to defend Israel and the Occupation.”

Like many present, I know that this is the most brutal, cruel, barbaric, devastating and deliberate genocidal attack on Palestinians that I have seen over my last forty years working and being involved with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

My relationship with Palestinians first started in August 1982. Israel had invaded Lebanon on June 6th of that year and at the time I was a nurse consultant with the Middle East section of the World Health Organisation, based in Alexandria Egypt. I was asked to go to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon on secondment with UNRWA, (after wiser nurses refused saying it was too dangerous).

Based in Baalbek my task was to co-ordinate health care services and support ongoing immunisation programs for mothers and babies who had fled the war from the south of Lebanon, and from the camps in Beirut. This involved travelling up and down the valley, from partly constructed houses to bombed out mosques and schools where refugees and displaced persons were seeking shelter.

By early September UNRWA staff were asked to encourage refugees to return to the Beirut camps as hostilities had ceased and the PLO military had left Beirut. Guarantees had been given by the Americans that the camp residents would be safe. However, not long after the American-led Multi National Force left the country on 11 September that guarantee of safety was tragically and brutally fractured.

I had returned to Alexandria requesting to go to the south of Lebanon. I knew there were few medical personnel there as many UNRWA staff and other refugees had come to the Beqaa Valley. Once there I began to feel very nervous, I wasn’t able to sleep very well and I had this terrible sense of impending doom and fear that I could not explain. On the 12 of September, unable to contain myself I went to the home of the head of the WHO in the Middle East and asked to speak to him. His wife told me he was out playing golf. Absurdly, in retrospect, I walked all over the golf course until I found Dr Taba and said, ‘Excuse me sir, you’ve got to do something about the Palestinians in Lebanon, something terrible is going to happen.’ When you think of the plight of Palestinians since 1948, that was such a bizarre thing to say as atrocious things had been happening to them for nearly four decades by then. But despite the rather unusual request given the setting, Dr Taba was sympathetic to my concerns and offered to meet the next day in his office.

On September 14, the Phalange Party and Lebanese Forces leader, Bashir Gemayal was killed when a large bomb exploded. Almost immediately the fragile peace agreement concerning Palestinians safety in the camps was fractured and the Israeli army reoccupied West Beirut.

The Israeli Army surrounded the Sabra area and the Shatila refugee camp and stationed troops at the exits to prevent camp residents from leaving and, at the request of the Lebanese Forces, fired illuminating flares at night. Over two days and nights from September 16th to 18th completely unarmed and unprotected, an estimated 3,000 refugees and some Lebanese – old men, women and children were brutally massacred. Palestinian patients, nurses and doctors were separated from the foreign staff and killed. Nurses and women were mercilessly raped. Whole families were slaughtered, all the while being watched by the Israeli army from the top of the tower block to the west. They could see everything. This was a most horrendous war crime, just one of many. But it pales in comparison to the genocide and ethnic cleansing that is now taking place in Gaza. Israel has not been held to account for this and so many war crimes prior to Oct 7th. It continues to act and kill with impunity.

On hearing of the massacre I submitted my resignation to the UN and returned to Damascus. Some days later with the help of the Norwegian Peoples Relief Organisation I was able to get to Beirut, to the Shatila camp and Gaza hospital and it was here that I first met Olfat. I lived upstairs in one of the empty hospital wards with two other foreign nurses and was helping with nursing duties. I nursed a woman who had survived the massacre underneath the bodies of her entire family – her husband and eight boys. And I was also caring for a young girl who had had her leg amputated after being hit by a cluster bomb. Now an all too familiar story.

All of these experiences marked a turning point in my life. I nursed there for several months and during this time worked with Olfat and spent time with her and her family in Bourj el Barajneh camp. Living and sleeping there and sharing so many moments of family joy and suffering greatly strengthened my understanding of the Palestinian struggle. Olfat and I became very close and she taught me many things about Palestinian camp life. She and I discussed what would be the better way to help Palestinians, stay there or go home and work to raise awareness of their plight.

In early March 1983 a radio broadcast proved the final motivation. Bob Hawke’s voice came over the radio celebrating a Labor victory in Australia. At that moment I knew I had to go home to broaden the base of support for Palestinians and to somehow set up an organisation to achieve that objective. So it was then, in a Palestinian refugee camp hospital, that the idea of APHEDA was born.

Olfat’s role in helping me reach this decision was crucial. She was born, lived, and worked in the Bourj el Barajneh camp in southern Beirut after her family fled, at Israeli gunpoint, the Palestinian village of Tarshiha in 1948. From then on her family were never permitted to return to her village. Olfat established the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation in 1993 supporting women and children and she has visited Australia many times advocating for her people, the last time in 2019. She later completed her PhD in psychology. Olfat and I would always dream that one day we would be able to travel directly from Beirut, visit Tarshiha and get to Jerusalem. Such were our dreams.

Olfat’s book “Tears for Tarshiha” was published in 2018 and tells her story and the story of all Palestinian refugees and I would urge you all to get a copy.

Back in Australia I met with Cliff Dolan, the then President of the ACTU, in October of 1983. With his full support at the next ACTU Executive meeting APHEDA was able to hold its first Board meeting and was formally established on January 6th 1984, 40 years ago. Having an idea was one thing but APHEDA would never have seen the light of day without Cliffs generosity and full hearted support.

But two other people were critical in APHEDAs development. Former Foreign Ministers Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans. We submitted a funding request to Bill Hayden, the then Foreign Minister, in January 1984. In those days a two paged letter outlining our plans was sufficient. Then in March we received a grant of $250,000 for a training project with Palestinian nurses. Six nurses from UNRWA as well as the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, the medical arm of the PLO, came to Australia in 1985 for training in community nursing. Several of these went on to hold senior positions in their organisations. This was the start of our four – decade long work with Olfat Mahmoud and with Palestinians.

Olfat’s book tells the story of one life but tragically as you know, the situation of Palestinian refugees has not improved. Over this time it has deteriorated considerably. The Palestine refugee situation remains the longest unresolved refugee crisis in the world.

UNRWA reports that there are close to 6 million Palestinians currently registered as refugees across the Middle East region. There are 58 official and 10 unofficially recognised Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. There are around half a million refugees in camps in the West Bank, and in Gaza 80% of its population of 2.3 million are refugees. Most live in eight camps. After seven decades the socioeconomic conditions remain poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers and poor access to health care and very high unemployment.

UNRWA is funded to provide basic food, schooling and health care to the refugees.

I first visited Palestine in 1985 and among our first projects was support to a library in the village of Umm el Fahm located in the Galilee region in Israel. It was made clear to us while there that the Israeli government was deliberately building support for Hamas in order to sideline the PLO. Soon after we began our relationship with Sami Khader and the Maan Development Centre, with a head office in Ramallah, and now also with offices in Jerusalem, Jenin, Hebron, Gaza City and Khan Younis…although the last two have been destroyed. During of my first visit it was possible to move relatively easily around the Occupied Territories; although by then there were already approximately 160,000 settlers. With international impunity Israel now illegally supports 800,000 settlers on Palestinian land.

MA’AN Development Centre, is a secular, independent, Palestinian national civil society organisation with long experience in working with poor and marginalised communities in the West Bank and Gaza. MA’AN works in agricultural development and food security, working to assist poor farmers with skill development, access to land and markets. The organisation also works in women’s and young people’s development and in environmental protection. Since it was established 34 years ago, and in crisis such as this in Gaza, it also mobilises humanitarian relief and support, and the coordination of NGO response work.

During our time in Palestine we have also worked with many other Palestinian organisations, al Wafa hospital in Gaza, Bethlehem University, the Patients’ Friends hospital in Jenin, Asala women’s organisation, Ramallah Deaf Association and various women’s co-operatives. And APHEDA has continued to work with the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation in refugee camps in Lebanon.

Prior to October 7, MA’AN’s work in Gaza has been focused in Gaza City, Dier al Balah in the centre, Khan Younis in the south, and in the northern part of Gaza. I had the privilege to visit these projects in 2010 and met many of the MA’AN partners and workers. MA’AN currently has 250 staff, the majority of whom are in Gaza. Most of the Gaza MA’AN staff have lost their homes. Some have lost family members including one whose 8 year old daughter was killed and another who has lost 36 extended family members. Since October 7, MA’AN has been working with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and other local NGOs to respond to the crisis in Gaza, initially distributing cash payments to families, water, food, and providing psycho social support for children. They are also providing dignity packs for women, children and elderly and bedding and warm clothing. Like some other agencies, they had some non-food items in storage for emergency relief.

On the 16th of January the Australian government made an additional emergency allocation of $21.5 million dollars, with a total funding of $46 million dollars this financial year, to assist humanitarian effort in Gaza along with refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. These funds will go to multilateral aid organisations such as UNOCHA, and the ICRC but not to Australian NGOs. I believe that it is still important to work with Australian NGOs, representing different parts of the Australian community, that have been working for many years with Palestinians in Palestine and Lebanon. As you know the government has “paused” an allocation of $6 million to UNRWA based on no evidence of wrong doing at a time of catastrophic need in Gaza. It is good to see that the Irish government has pledged 20 million euros to UNRWA recently but most countries including the US withdrew funding and in the case of the US continues to provide billions of dollars in weapons to Israel and block resolutions at the UN calling for a ceasefire.

APHEDA has raised around $570,000 from unions and communities during this latest appeal for humanitarian assistance to Gaza. But in spite of glowing reports of its work there, the government funds for Palestinians via APHEDA have dropped from 40% of APHEDAs expenditure in 2020-2021 to 10 percent in the 2022-2023 financial year. There are many reasons this is so, among them the concerted efforts of the Murdoch press, spurred on by Israel, to discredit Australian NGOs working in partnership with Palestinian organisations. In addition, this government’s aid program is focused much more on the Pacific and South East Asia, although the interests of the Australian community are broader.

For the first few decades of its work APHEDA focused primarily on capacity building training programs for refugees and liberation struggles in Palestine, in Southern Africa through the ANC, and in Eritrea and in Kanaky (New Caledonia). We also work with progressive movements in the Philippines, with Burmese refugees on the Thai border, and in Timor Leste. We worked with women’s, workers and farmers organisations in Vietnam, Cambodia and later in various countries in the Pacific as well as in Aceh and Indonesia. The focus of our work was human rights and development with a specific focus on work skills training enabling income generation, thousand of workers benefited from these training programs. Over time other critical areas were the focus of APHEDA work such as workers health, women’s rights, HIV/AIDS, asbestos and climate change. These development programs have, and continue to be, funded through donations from the Australian communities, the ACTU and Trade Unions and through the Australian government aid program.

During my time as Executive Officer of APHEDA we were extremely fortunate to have both Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans as Foreign Ministers, who were exceptionally supportive of our work. We had several meetings where we could discuss relevant issues. And they knew and understood the importance of the non government aid sector in building relationships that governments could not. They both fully supported our aid work with these liberation movements. Gareth Evans visit to the Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp in 1992 left a strong impression on the camp residents. In spite of the opposition by Lebanese security he was the first senior politician ever to visit and walk around that camp. So a very big thank you to Gareth for your principled stand on the Palestinian issue as well as the support you gave to APHEDA and me personally over many years.

Over time APHEDA changed its name to Union Aid Abroad APHEDA but what did not change were the colours of the logo that a Palestinian friend and I had developed in 1984. They were and remain of course the colours of the Palestinian flag, red, black, white and green. Very appropriate then and even more so now.

After I left APHEDA as executive officer Phillip Hazelton took over (and has been there forever on and off and has done wonderful work on the asbestos program) followed by Peter Jennings and then Kate Lee now co-CEO with Sharan KC, all supported by a team of diligent staff and volunteers. Ken Davis, International Programs Manager has also been responsible on and off, for the Palestinian and Lebanon program since 2001, also a long stint.

While APHEDA was assisting the ANC in various projects we were also actively supporting the South African anti apartheid struggle, and many Australian trade unions were exceptionally and proudly active in implementing sanctions against South Africa. But what brought the apartheid government to the negotiating table in the end were the banking and financial sanctions.

I mention this because, even with a positive ICJ ruling or ICC investigations into war crimes, apartheid and genocide in Gaza and the West Bank, I don’t believe that Israel will ever voluntarily allow a two state solution. Gaza has been mostly destroyed and the West Bank is now separated into bantustans or small discontinuous enclaves shrinking weekly, and threatened daily by violent armed settlers and the IDF. The Israeli Prime Minister continues to disobey his main backer, America. Only a concerted international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Program, with a specific focus on military and financial sanctions will bring Israel to negotiate a solution. Yet Israel, with the US, EU and other western nation’s military and diplomatic support continues to blatantly and violently ignore not only the recent ICJs preliminary ruling, but all other humanitarian laws and rules of engagement of the United Nations. Israel can execute civilians, including children carrying white flags, totally destroy hospitals and kill people inside them, detain hundreds of children each year deliberately destroying their childhood, kill Gazan refugees in their hundreds of thousands and starve them, ask them to move to safe zones and then bomb them. And now in Raffah push over 1.2 million mostly refugees into a tiny space flat up against the border with Egypt and threaten to bomb them there. All of these war crimes by Israel are carried out with impunity and worse with military, financial and political support of the US and a number of western nations. These actions are undermining the very basis of the United Nations system and pose a real threat to world order and peace.

On the 8 February the UN Secretary General Mr Guterres said “The United Nations Security Council – the primary platform for questions on global peace – is deadlocked by geopolitical fissures . . . This is not the first time the Council has been divided – but it is the worst. Today’s dysfunction is deeper and more dangerous.”

World citizens are aware that the rights based system, so regularly touted by western leaders, applies to some only and they are aware of the double standards that is evident in Israel’s existing impunity and wilful disregard for international and humanitarian law.

When the war ends and it will, Gazans will need extensive and generous assistance from the world community and we all must work to ensure that our government meets this obligation. If the two state solution is to be implemented, Australia must strongly condemn Israel for the genocide in Gaza, we must stop all military and intelligence ties and impose sanctions, and not just on settlers. Our government must ‘unpause’ aid to UNRWA and implement its own policy of recognising the state of Palestine.

In the face of ethnic cleansing and genocidal colonial war, Palestinians continue to struggle to stay in Palestine, or to exercise the Right of Return. They continue to fight for self determination and an end to the illegal occupation. Palestinians want to live in their own country that is free, where people are equal and have full democratic rights and where they can live in safety and dignity at peace with their neighbours.

This Jerusalem Peace Prize calls on all of us to continue to work toward a just, sustainable and long term peace for the Palestinian people in their own land.

I am honoured indeed to receive this prize. Thank you.

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