Victorian MPs to hold vigil in parliament for Palestinians

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Labor’s rhetoric on the Gaza conflict has become a sore point for elements of the Victorian party trying to hold together Muslim and Jewish communities, as a group of MPs plans a vigil in parliament for Palestinians.

Victoria’s cross-party Parliamentary Friends of Palestine, co-chaired by Labor’s Bronwyn Halfpenny and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, will host a “gathering for peace” in state parliament on Tuesday.

Thousands rallied in Melbourne’s CBD in support of Palestine on Sunday.Credit: Chris Hopkins/The Age

An email sent to the group’s members on Friday afternoon said: “We will hold a gathering for peace to commemorate the people of Gaza and stand in solidarity with grieving Palestinian Victorians who have lost so many loved ones.”

The group includes some Labor, Greens and other left-leaning crossbench MPs from the Legalise Cannabis and Animal Justice parties.

No one from the opposition is a member, but upper house Liberal MP Nick McGowan has attended meetings and told The Age he had received almost 900 emails from constituents concerned about the escalating crisis in Gaza and calling for a ceasefire.

The conflict has forced politicians to balance demands within their electorates against federal policies, without inflaming anxieties. This has been felt most keenly by government MPs who represent electorates with a high proportion of Muslims due to the country’s cautious support of Israel’s right to defend itself after the October 7 terror attack. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has stressed that has limits and this week called on Israel to cease attacks on hospitals.

Halfpenny last month told state parliament that Gaza was being “strangled”, while Broadmeadows MP Kathleen Matthews-Ward and Tarneit MP Dylan Wight both called for a ceasefire.

Other Victorian Labor MPs are expected to deliver private members’ statements this sitting week.

“People are asking for that from their MPs, even state MPs,” one MP said, on condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

Premier Jacinta Allan called on Saturday called for unity after a heated confrontation between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel groups in Caulfield on Friday night led to the evacuation of a nearby synagogue.

“All communities have the right to come together to grieve and support each other and everyone has a right to peaceful protest, but not at the expense of the safety of others,” Allan said.

Deputy Premier Ben Carroll is also leading a new social cohesion cabinet subcommittee, which met for the first time on Monday.

Hamas captured more than 200 hostages in southern Israel on October 7 in a terror attack that left about 1200 people dead. Israel launched an assault on Gaza in response that has killed more than 11,000 people, including more than 4500 children, the Gaza health ministry said.

Halfpenny told parliament last month she had been contacted by more than 1000 residents and community leaders “in extreme distress”. She represents Thomastown, in the northern suburbs, where 15 per cent of people follow Islam, according to the 2021 census.

“They are asking me why they are not hearing any condemnation of Israeli action against civilians in Gaza. Many have families there. One man has already lost 11 members of his family,” she told parliament on October 31.

“I believe every life is precious. I condemn the senseless killing of Palestinians and of Israelis, and I am appalled by Hamas’ heinous attacks and kidnapping of innocent people. The onslaught on Gaza has now taken more innocent lives.

“In fact, Gaza is being strangled, and it seems the world right now has lost its humanity. This is a human tragedy.”

Matthews-Ward, the member for Broadmeadows, where 38.6 per cent of people are Muslim, last month called for a ceasefire and condemned both Hamas and the killing of civilians in Gaza.

“The terrorist organisation Hamas does not speak for the Palestinian people. The Israeli government does not speak for all Jewish people,” she said in her private members’ statement.

“I condemn all acts that do not fit within international law. I call for an immediate ceasefire from both sides, immediate access to aid and an immediate release of hostages.”

Wight, who represents Tarneit in the outer-west, said the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists could not justify the attacks against Palestinian civilians. He said the pain and anguish in the Arabic community was palpable.

“I stand with the Palestinian people and condemn the killing of innocent civilians and children in Gaza. As I do so, I also condemn the terrorist organisation Hamas for the atrocities that it has committed against the people of Israel,” Wight told parliament earlier this month.

“The international community and the Australian government must advocate for a ceasefire.”

Some MPs have had to front branch meetings where members were unhappy with the federal government’s response.

Maria Vamvakinou, the federal member for Calwell in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, has publicly called for an immediate ceasefire.

“I’m deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and clearly breaches of international humanitarian law,” Vamvakinou told The Age.

Other left-leaning parties from the Greens and Victorian Socialists have sought to wedge Labor on the issue, criticising the federal government’s stance at a Free Palestine rally on Sunday in front of an estimated 45,000 people.

Peter Khalil, the federal Labor member for Wills, last month had a rally of 100 pro-Palestine protesters show up outside his Coburg office. Another rally is expected to go past his office this Saturday.

Victorian Labor delegates at the June state conference passed a motion that called on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to recognise a Palestinian state this term of parliament. The Australian Israel & Jewish Affairs Council condemned the motion.

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