Senator’s Palestine remark ignites fiery debate

Dominic Giannini |

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has taken issue with comments made by WA senator Fatima Payman.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has taken issue with comments made by WA senator Fatima Payman.

Rank-and-file Labor members have rallied in support of Fatima Payman as the senator was rebuked by the prime minister and targeted by the opposition after she called Israel’s actions in Gaza “genocide”.

The opposition launched a series of incendiary attacks and accused Senator Payman of “supporting terrorism” during a heated Question Time on Thursday that brought the Labor senator to the verge of tears.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong consoled Senator Payman, pouring her a glass of water after some of the remarks.

Senator Payman had called on the prime minister on Wednesday to take a stronger stance against Israel through support for sanctions and a trade embargo, a permanent ceasefire and the recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Afghan-born senator was targeted by the opposition after she ended Wednesday’s remarks with “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, a phrase that has become highly controversial amid protests over Israel’s war against Hamas.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong consoles senator Fatima Payman
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong consoled senator Fatima Payman during a fiery Question Time. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Senator Wong have denounced the phrase, arguing it goes against the prospect of a two-state solution, where Israeli and Palestinian would exist side-by-side.

“It’s inappropriate,” Mr Albanese told parliament on Thursday.

Palestinians and Israelis have used the river phrase to denote a single state but “Palestine will be free” has been added and used by protesters to call for the end of Israeli occupation.

While disagreeing with the phrase, Senator Wong defended people’s right to have different views as she called for a respectful debate.

“We all need to acknowledge the trauma on all sides, we all need to respect each other’s humanity,” she said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during Question Time
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says the phrase “from the river to the sea” is inappropriate. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

Independent senator Lidia Thorpe sought to defend Senator Payman, interjecting that “she’s the only one that had the guts to say it”.

“You should have her back,” she said.

Her comments came after a motion moved earlier on Thursday by opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham called for senators to avoid “inflammatory and divisive comments” and singled out the phrase.

It passed with the support of the government but was opposed by the Greens. 

Senator Payman was not in the chamber during debate on the motion.

Opposition senator Simon Birmingham moves a motion on anti-Semitism
Senator Simon Birmingham called for senators to avoid “inflammatory and divisive comments”. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

While the motion did not name Senator Payman, it said the phrase “from the river to the sea” was one “frequently used by those who seek to intimidate Jewish Australians”.

Anti-Semitism had been fuelled by attacks and expressions of hatred, Senator Birmingham said.

“These include the use of chants and phrases like calls for ‘Intifada’ and the chant ‘from the river to the sea’,” he said.

“Let us be very clear – they call for violence, they stand against the existence of the State of Israel.”

But Labor Friends of Palestine welcomed Senator Payman’s speech, saying she stood up for the human rights of Palestinians after more than 35,000 had been killed in Gaza.

Supporters at a pro-Palestine rally outside Parliament House
Protests continue months after Israel launched its deadly assault on Hamas in Gaza. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

“We encourage all parliamentarians of conscience to support Senator Payman and her call for more action from the Australian government,” the group told AAP in a statement.

“Senator Payman’s comments are consistent with international law and the views of many Labor Party members.”

Meanwhile, NSW Premier Chris Minns on Thursday removed parliamentary secretary Anthony D’Adam after the outspoken pro-Palestine MP claimed the heavy-handed actions of riot police attending protests in Sydney had made a liar of top cop Karen Webb.

“Mr D’Adam did not raise his criticisms about NSW Police with me, the police minister or with NSW Police. The first we heard about it was his speech in parliament,” Mr Minns said in a statement.

“Mr D’Adam’s comments do not represent the views of the NSW government.”

Hamas – designated a terrorist group by the Australian government – launched an attack on Israel on October 7 that killed 1200 people and led another 200 being taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel launched a ground offensive and bombing campaign in Gaza that has killed 35,000 people and injured about 77,000 more, according to the enclave’s health ministry.

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