Federal Labor MPs face community anger over Israel siege of Gaza

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Sitting in her eclectic gift shop on Sydney Road, Onur Kurt insists that Australian politicians “need more guts” when it comes to Israel’s war against Hamas.

Kurt, who sells Turkish delight and Turkish coffee out of the Brunswick business in honour of her heritage, has written to her local MP, Labor’s Peter Khalil, demanding he condemn the attacks against the people of Gaza.

Brunswick trader and owner of OK Pop Up store on Sydney Road, Onur Kurt. Credit: Chris Hopkins

“These children are just getting killed. They’re not doing enough,” she said of the Albanese government, which has pushed for “humanitarian pauses” in Gaza but recently abstained from a UN General Assembly vote that called for an immediate ceasefire.

“They need more guts,” Kurt said. “And our prime minister? Come on, we’ve got footage of him when he was pro-Palestine. And now what’s happened to him? He’s become a puppet.”

The Israel-Hamas conflict has become a flashpoint for voters in Australian electorates with large Arabic-speaking and Muslim populations, like Khalil’s electorate of Wills. Wills includes suburbs such as Coburg, Pascoe Vale and Glenroy and has a multicultural voter base that is 10 per cent Muslim.

For the Labor MPs who represent similar electorates around the country, the war in Gaza has forced them to walk the line between what their voters want and party policy.

Hamas’ attacks on southern Israel on October 7 killed 1400 people and more than 200 hostages were taken, according to Israeli authorities. Israeli airstrikes on Gaza in response have since killed more than 10,000 people, including more than 4000 children, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong has maintained that Israel has a right to defend itself, but emphasised that “the way Israel exercises its right to defend itself matters”.

In federal parliament last month, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese moved a motion unequivocally condemning Hamas, standing with Israel and recognising its right to defend itself. The motion condemned antisemitism and Islamophobia and acknowledged Hamas did not represent Palestinian people, who he said were suffering greatly.

Jewish community groups have largely supported the government’s stance, which is perceived by many Arab and Muslim Australians to be pro-Israel.

But several senior Labor figures have strayed from the cautious party line. In late October, cabinet minister Tony Burke said that the grief of Palestinian Australians whose family members were dying had not been equally acknowledged in response to the conflict.

This came after ministers Ed Husic and Anne Aly, who are both Muslim, said they feared Palestinians were being collectively punished for Hamas’ actions.

In Coburg, about 100 pro-Palestine protesters last month showed up to Khalil’s electoral office calling for a ceasefire. Khalil said people wanted to be heard after feeling unrepresented and that his community appreciated Albanese acknowledging Palestinian suffering.

“It was a positive, particularly for the Muslim Australian community. His acknowledgement of the importance of Palestinian lives, and when he talked about generational suffering, that was really important for the community to hear,” he said.

“I believe in a Palestinian state and self-determination and justice.”

Peter Khalil says he acknowledges Palestinian pain but that nothing justifies Hamas terrorism.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Yusuf Bayrak is a member of Fawkner’s Muslim community who has lived in the Wills electorate for more than 20 years.

Bayrak said that the Australian government should put more pressure on Israel to help bring an end to the conflict. He said while it was a comfort to members of the Muslim community to see so many people turn out to protest in support of Palestine, more needed to be done by Australian leaders.

“I’m against the war totally, it doesn’t matter which country … Israel and Palestine or Russia and Ukraine, the biggest thing is – it’s kids dying,” he said.

“Israel has the right to defend itself, but they have no right to kill innocent people.”

In Calwell on Melbourne’s outer-northwestern fringe, frustrated residents have sent thousands of emails to federal Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“I’ve never seen them so angry, truly, and I’ve been the member for 20 years,” she told The Age on Friday. “This is different.”

Vamvakinou represents voters in suburbs like Broadmeadows and Mickleham in the seat of Calwell, where the latest census found almost a quarter of the community is Muslim.

Member for Calwell Maria Vamvakinou and Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic in parliament last month.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

She stressed that Palestinian people were not Hamas, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation in Australia. But Vamvakinou, who is the long-time co-chair of the federal Parliamentary Friends of Palestine group, believes Australia can play a larger role in promoting peace.

“I do want the government to call for a ceasefire,” she said. “We can take some initiative, and we should.”

John Calsimsek is a teacher at a Broadmeadows independent school in the Calwell electorate. He said the prime minister should acknowledge that both Hamas and Israel were guilty of war crimes.

“I would expect Albanese to reflect that more than what he has done, but politics is politics. He’s worried about votes,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s always kitchen politics, as far as I’m concerned … You put interest rates up by another 5 per cent and everyone’s going to forget about Palestine.

“[Labor have] got to remember that in Victoria, they’re losing inner-city votes and the Greens are making a smart play by playing up to the local ethnic community in the cities.”

Minnie Guran from Epping, in Labor MP Andrew Giles’ seat of Scullin, said she was furious with the Australian government. Guran said she’d lost faith in Albanese after supporting him after the election.

“Now I’m thinking ‘nup’, same as all the others,” she said.

Khalil said he had consistently called for a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire to allow unimpeded aid access for civilians in Gaza. But reaching a full ceasefire to end the conflict would take longer negotiations, he said, for which Gazans could not wait.

The Wills member acknowledged decades of Palestinian pain but said nothing justified the terrorism of Hamas, which he said did not represent Palestinians. “At the same time, I sympathise with Israeli civilians and their families who’ve lost their lives,” he said.

Australia recently sent another $15 million in humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict in Gaza.

Khalil, whose family’s home in Egypt was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in the 1950s, still believes in a two-state solution and said Hamas had pushed the prospect of peace further from reach.

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday.Credit: AP

“A lot of people say just before the dawn is the darkest moment. I’m being an optimist by saying that. Of course, the other possible reality is it could get a lot worse if it spreads.”

Another rally in Coburg that will also go past Khalil’s office is planned for next weekend, Merri-bek councillor Sue Bolton said.

Bolton this week successfully brought a council motion that called on the federal government to advocate for a ceasefire. The Palestinian flag will be flown at council chambers and council will seek to boycott companies linked to Israel.

That motion was condemned by Jewish-Australian community organisation the Anti-Defamation Commission, as well as state deputy Liberal leader David Southwick, who wrote to Victoria’s Local Government Minister Melissa Horne in response.

Another federal Labor MP who represents a multicultural community, who asked not to be named to speak frankly, said they had received thousands of calls and emails from constituents.

They said not a single email was in defence of Israel’s response and that the concern was widespread across all segments of society.

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