A Very Personal War


My friend Sal isn’t your typical Aussie girl. She has a journalism degree and works in a major financial institution. She has a Tae Kwon Do black belt, and met her Scottish partner Dave on a martial arts internet chat channel.


Like many women of Lebanese Muslim background, Sal wears a headscarf. She even wore one when she ran the City-to-Surf race last year.

Sal’s dad was visiting Lebanon to look after his elderly, dying mother when the war broke out. He also has an unmarried sister in her 60s. There is no social security in Lebanon, and it wasn’t sufficient for Sal’s dad to just send money over.

Sal tried in vain to convince her dad to leave Lebanon. How could he leave when he had just buried his mother? What would happen to his elderly sister? Who would look after her?

Sal’s story isn’t unusual. Australia’s Lebanese and Jewish communities are filled with stories like hers.

The war in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza has become a very personal war. It has affected families across Australia, and its victims and mourners can be found in homes across Australia. Already, relatives of Australians of Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese background have been killed.

A fortnight ago, students at Sydney’s Moriah College paid tribute to dual Australian-Israeli citizen Assaf Namer who was killed during a vicious gun battle in Southern Lebanon.

The name ‘Assaf’ (also spelt Asif and Assef) crosses religious and ethnic divides. It’s commonly used among Arabs of all faiths as well as among Muslims of all nationalities. And so while Assaf’s Australian and Israeli relatives and friends grieve, Lebanese and Palestinian Aussies also find cause to grieve for their own Assafs.

Israel’s strategy is to flatten entire villages in Southern Lebanon, arguing that they have given civilians enough time to evacuate. How the elderly, the frail, the poor and the sick are expected to evacuate is unclear.

Already, Israel’s bombardment is being mourned by at least one Australian family. The West Australian reported on 29 July that Perth school teacher Rabab Soueidan had lost a sister, nephew and seven other relatives in the village of Yater following an Israeli attack on 13 July.

Australian citizens are still trapped in Southern Lebanon. Australia’s Ambassador to Lebanon was quoted as saying that it is only a matter of time before Australian citizens will be counted among the dead and wounded.

The atmosphere of war easily stirs hatred. Recently, false patriotism has generated an ugly debate in Sydney and Melbourne tabloids over dual citizenship, with columnists in both the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph suggesting 25,000 Lebanese-Australian dual citizens should justify their evacuation from a war zone by shedding their Lebanese citizenship.

Various accusations have been made that these dual citizens might vote for Hezbollah or that they use up our tax dollars on Centrelink benefits. The fact that hardly 800 receive Centrelink benefits, as Jill Rowbotham reported in The Australian on 21 July, is casually ignored. Most of these are elderly Australians receiving aged benefits and who spent years paying taxes in Australia.

Ironically, such false patriotism is being promoted in newspapers owned by a proprietor who displayed his patriotism by abandoning his own Australian citizenship. One wonders whether tabloid distaste for dual citizenship would be tempered shouldRupert Murdoch find the economic incentive to reapply for Australian citizenship.

One also wonders whether Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt will direct their accusations toward the family of Assaf Namer. I’d love to see Bolt address the Moriah College crowd with the words: ‘Choose us or choose someone else. We’re too good for only half your loyalty and love.’

I’d also love to see Akerman tell Assaf’s sister, Karin, and her family they are a bunch of ‘ dual nationality super-snivellers . ‘

Readers will recall my article some weeks back on Rupert Murdoch’s comments about Muslim migrants and their alleged dual loyalties. ‘You have to be careful about Muslims who have a very strong, in many ways a fine, but very strong religion which supersedes any sense of nationalism wherever they go,’ Murdoch told Channel Nine.

Readers might also recall my questionnaire to senior editors of News Limited papers across the country. The only response I received was from Piers Akerman, who said, ‘I think his remarks are legitimate.’ When asked whether he shared Murdoch’s sentiments, Akerman replied, ‘Yes.’

Thanks to Bill Leak.

So I guess Piers Akerman’s attitude toward dual citizens can be summed up as follows: If you’re a Muslim citizen (dual or otherwise), you’re unwelcome. If you’re a Lebanese dual citizen, you’re unwelcome. If you’re an Israeli dual citizen who fights in the Israeli army, you’re welcome.

If you are a dual citizen who doesn’t fit into these three categories, watch this space.

Columnists from more mature News Limited papers such as The Australian have avoided using the current Middle East conflict as an excuse to engage in this ugly and divisive debate.

As the Israel/Hezbollah conflict drags on, other Australians will likely be drawn in. Hundreds of Israeli Australians are reservists in the Israeli army, and could be called up at any moment. Lebanese Australians might also wish to fight.

The Howard Government sees no problem with Australians fighting in the Israeli Defence Forces, even if this means participating in the massacre of other Australian citizens.

However, John Howard has a different position when it comes to those defending Southern Lebanon. He has clearly warned Lebanese Australians not to join Hezbollah, whose armed wing has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.

So what happens now that the Israeli offensive has had the surprising effect of uniting the usually warring factions of Lebanese society solidly behind Hezbollah? What happens when Israel’s former ally the Maronite General Michel Aoun openly says he supports Hezbollah?

And what would happen if Hezbollah merged its forces into the main Lebanese army? What would Howard’s position be should Hezbollah agree to fight under orders from the Lebanese Defence Minister?

Howard hasn’t publicly addressed these possibilities. However, his comments so far show that he applies one law to Australians fighting to defend Israel and another to those why might fight to defend Lebanon.

Indeed, thus far, the only step Howard has taken to defend Australians in Lebanon (apart from the significant evacuation efforts of DFAT) has been to seek a verbal assurance from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to ‘do everything he could to make sure they come to no harm.’

This very personal war, affecting Australians across all ethnic and religious divides, also exposes bigots of all kinds. Waleed Aly from the Islamic Council of Victoria concludes that ‘according to an odious array of letter writers, talkback radio callers and newspaper columnists, these Australians trapped in Lebanon were not Australian after all.’

the bigots all seem to have one thing in common. They are all on John Howard’s side. But are they on Australia’s side?

Time will tell.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.