He was an Israeli soldier in Gaza. Now he’s organising Free Palestine rallies

By Rachael Dexter and Melissa Cunningham

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Nachshon Amir was an Israeli Defence Forces officer who for years manned checkpoints in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and burst into Palestinian homes during the night to frighten people. On Sunday he will help organise Melbourne’s Free Palestine rally.

“I did horrible things, I went into the houses of people in the middle of the night just to humiliate them,” he says through tears in Melbourne.

Nachshon Amir.Credit: Simon Schluter

He is part of a loose and somewhat unlikely coalition – socialists, Christians, Muslims, Indigenous activists, Jews and Arabs, all walking together on Sunday in Melbourne to support a free Palestine.

The 56-year-old moved to Australia with his family in 2009 and slowly his worldview unravelled. Now he is helping organise Melbourne’s Free Palestine rally, following the Hamas attacks in Israel and the Israeli government’s reprisals in Gaza.

At least 1200 Jewish citizens were killed and 3200 injured after Hamas militants launched a surprise attack by air, land and sea last Saturday, according to Israeli authorities. In response, Israel launched a series of air strikes and ordered a complete siege of Gaza, home to 2.3 million people, by cutting off water, food and fuel. Gaza authorities have said more than 1400 Palestinians, mainly civilians including children, have been killed and over 6000 wounded as the result of Israeli air strikes.

“I was raised a Zionist,” Amir says. “What you learn when you grow up there is that, ‘This is our country, this is our land and there are Arabs here who hate us and we have to defend ourselves’.”

He is aware – uncomfortably – that voices like his may garner more attention than Palestinians’, but says he is trying to reach other Jewish Australians.

“Even if 2 per cent of people hear me and then research and move their positions then I’ve done my job.”

Muayad Ali will be there too. The 50-year-old Dandenong father of three came to Australia in 2008 on a humanitarian visa. His parents had lived in the Palestinian city of Haifa until the United Nations designated it part of the Jewish state in 1947.

His parents fled their homeland following the Tantura massacre in May 1948, and Ali was born in Iraq as a refugee.

Muayad Ali, a Palestinian-Australian who lives in Dandenong.Credit: Jason South

This week has been devastating for Ali and his family, who live in Melbourne’s outer south-east, and the Palestinian community. One of his high school-aged daughters was brought to tears after another student accused her of being a terrorist.

At his restaurant in Dandenong, Ali said an Israeli former customer came into the restaurant and asked: “Are you happy now [because] of killing Israelis?”

“That was very provoking and very bad to see that,” Ali says. “We’re not killing people, we don’t want to see violence.”

Ali will be at Sunday’s protest rally, which starts at the State Library in the CBD at noon. As will Adel Salman, the Victorian president of the Islamic Council. He has friends in Gaza and knows families whose loved ones have perished in the bombings.

Salman wants Australia’s leaders to recognise how Palestinians are suffering, as well as Israelis.

“Political leaders are coming out and just recognising the humanity of one people and completely disregarding the humanity of the other people,” said Salman, who is a long-time supporter of Palestine.

Joining these men is Australian-born lawyer Jasmine Pilbrow, who spent two years working as a human rights field worker in the West Bank and is helping to organise Sunday’s protest.

Pilbrow says the pro-Palestinian movement has grown dramatically in Melbourne. Since she returned home in 2018, it has gone from a small, but passionate group to an increasingly diverse mix of people including Palestinians, Middle Eastern families, Jewish people, university students and activists, and many religious communities, including Christians and Muslims.

“These protests are so important,” says Pilbrow, who wants the Australian government to take a stronger stance supporting Palestinians. “Too often the voices of Palestinians are drowned out by all the major news outlets. It is unjust.”

Protests and rallies are commonplace during wars to allow a space for an outpouring of solidarity, grief and anger, but by their nature can be unpredictable and volatile.

A small group of protesters chanting antisemitic slogans became the defining media focus of a pro-Palestinian rally in front of the Sydney Opera House on Monday night – despite attempts by organisers to distance themselves from the ugliness.

The controversy sparked a hardline response from the NSW government, which is attempting to ban another rally on Sunday, while federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has called for the deportation of pro-Palestinian protestors.

Palestinian supporters gathered outside the State Library in Melbourne for a Freedom For Palestine rally on Tuesday.Credit: The Age

A day later in Melbourne, a protester was spotted at a rally on Tuesday carrying a photo of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The organisers of the Melbourne rallies spoken to by this masthead all said they did not condone the conduct, or any support of Hamas or Hezbollah.

“A small number of people did something not acceptable, they’ve tried to hijack our rally and make it look really, really ugly,” says Ali, who said it was unfair to hold organisers responsible for the views and actions of a minority.

“We cannot control every single [protester]. Hezbollah is not representing the Palestinian struggle. We are committed to peaceful protests, a peaceful solution for politics. We don’t believe in violence.”

But Amir acknowledges there are cohorts of Palestinian supporters who will not condemn Hamas. While he was appalled by Hamas’ actions last week, and does not support them, he says he does not “deny the right of the Palestinians to uprise, even violently”.

“Even international law recognises oppressed people under occupation to resist violence,” said the former IDF combatant, who commanded up to 60 soldiers at a time.

For many in the pro-Palestine camp, violence is the inevitable result of decades of military occupation of Palestinian territories, and the 16-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, where more than 2 million people live in poverty, under Israeli military occupation.

An emotional Amir says, “they cannot get out without permission from Israel,” whose armed units would routinely arbitrarily stop and harass Palestinians in the street, in their homes or at checkpoints.

“Israel controls their electricity – it is only on at certain times of the day. Ninety per cent of the tap water is undrinkable. It’s a huge prison. They don’t have [a] port, they don’t have an airport. They [are] just in there and they are horribly poor.

“And once in a couple of years we kill them. They hate us, and they’re right. So I cannot justify anything that is happening today [under Hamas], but they hate us.”

Salman says people who support Palestine have varying views about Hamas.

Adel SalmanCredit: Jason South

“My view is quite nuanced and I see the broader context,” he says, adding that Hamas’ roots in Gaza are complex and historically went beyond the military. Initially, Hamas activists established humanitarian aid, schools and medical clinics in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, after Israel occupied both in the 1960s. Since the 1990s it has had a military wing deemed a terrorist organisation by Israel and many western countries, including Australia.

But he added if war crimes are proven to have been committed by either side in the decades-long conflict, such atrocities must be universally condemned, and those responsible – whether it be Hamas or Israel – should be held to account.

He wants powerful Western leaders to call for an end to Israel attacking Gaza, and for the Egyptian border to be opened to allow Palestinians out and desperately needed humanitarian aid in.

He also believes the two-state solution has long been dead in the water. “So what’s the alternative?” he asks. “It is a state with equal citizenship and rights for Jews and Palestinians.”

What lays ahead for the people of Gaza is unclear. Israel is expected to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas’ attacks. As of Friday afternoon, the Israeli military said more than 1300 people, including 247 soldiers, had been killed in Israel.

At least 1500 people have been killed in Gaza, including almost 500 children, according to local health authorities.

Ali clings to hope the conflict could lead to some kind of negotiation that will end the occupation of Palestine.

“We’re normal people exactly like all other people in the world. We’re not different … we need to live in our lands, with dignity. We don’t want anyone to control us.”

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