Government Services Minister Bill Shorten has stressed Australian politicians must strengthen “social cohesion” between communities over the conflict between Israel and Hamas, in light of recent pro-Palestinian sentiment expressed by his fellow party member Tony Burke.
Mr Burke, who represents the western Sydney electorate of Watson, made headlines on Friday after declaring he fully supported the decision of a local council in his division to hoist the Palestinian flag until a ceasefire was announced for the war.
The Labor MP was scrutinised by some, who argued his comments stood contrary to a broader pro-Israeli stance, however, in response he contended Australia ought to make a clear distinction between Palestine as its own entity and Hamas as a standalone militant faction which self-governs the state.
Mr Shorten was questioned on these comments in an interview with Sky News Australia on Friday. He did not elaborate on the topic, but instead redrew focus to the “key issue” at hand.
“I think what’s really important in this terrible situation happening in the Middle East is that Australia’s political leaders build social cohesion,” he told host Tom Connell.
“I’m very clear, and the government’s been very clear, Hamas’s attack 20 days ago against Israel was atrocious. It was barbaric. It was unjustified in the extreme.”
“I think I know that colleagues have been expressing sympathy for the plight of Palestinian citizens. I have too. Whether or not a particular flag flies at a particular council, it doesn’t worry me.
“In other words, I don’t think that’s the key issue. I think the key issue here is we’ve got Australians in harm’s way in Israel and Palestine.”
The NDIS Minister also echoed the view that a general regard for civilian lives lost in Gaza due to the war was neither an endorsement of Hamas’s actions nor a condemnation of Israel, but simply respect for those “caught in a situation not of their making”.
“I feel desperately for the hundreds of hostages who were stolen by Hamas terrorists, I feel desperately for Palestinians who the government said we want to see humanitarian pause to support getting aid to these people,” Mr Shorten said.
“It’s all about the people here at the end of the day, it’s all about the right of people to live safely. And I think the government has been very consistent in that message.”
Earlier on Friday, Mr Burke discussed the issue of the Palestinian flag raising with ABC Radio National.
The Employment and Workplace Relations Minister said the Canterbury Bankstown Council’s flag hoisting was a true representation of “grief in that community”; an emotion he said must not be one driven by “selective”, binary characterisations.
“It is not the Hamas flag… it’s a Palestinian flag. It’s a flag that gives people the chance to know that there is recognition and not selective grief,” Mr Burke said.
“We can’t say we only grieve for certain people who are slaughtered. We can’t have a situation as a nation where we only formally acknowledge particular deaths.
“People have a right to be able to grieve when innocent life is lost.
“The concept of competitive grief… is not something I want to see in Australia. I believe we do have the maturity, and we need to have the maturity to respect for each other’s grief.”
The council’s gesture in recognition of Palestinians’ plight has largely drawn criticism from the Jewish community which argues it muddles the public narrative as to the parties responsible for the destruction in Gaza.
President of the Zionist Federation of Australia argued it would lead people to believe Israel was “at fault” in the suffering of Gazans, whereas warfare was only instigated on account of Hamas’s military offensive.
Israel’s scale of retaliatory bombardments on the micro Palestinian territory are receiving growing condemnation, with even global leaders who stand allied with the nation in the war now urging it to reassess its military strategies so as to minimise civilian destruction.
Countries including Australia, the United States and Canada have called for a pause in warfare to allow provision of much-needed humanitarian aid, while the United Nations, Russia and other global communities are urging an immediate ceasefire.
Even the Australian government, which has maintained backing for Israel from the onset, saying it has a “right to defend in itself” in its counter attacks on Gaza, has become more prudent in its endorsement for the IDF’s activities.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong reiterated on Thursday: “The way Israel exercises its right to defend itself matters.”
Israel has, however, insisted its military objectives against Hamas fall well within international law protocol and dismissed concerns about the devastating effects its attacks were having on civilians in the Gaza Strip.
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