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Council to fly Palestinian flag in gesture of solidarity

Hundreds rally for Palestine outside Merri-bek council building

Palestine supporters march to the Merri-bek Council offices before the meeting on Wednesday night.

Mark Phillips

THE Palestinian flag will be flown over the Coburg Civic Centre while the war continues in Gaza as Merri-bek Council becomes the first Victorian municipality to explicitly support the Palestinian struggle. 

In a move that has drawn condemnation from Jewish and Zionist organisations, Merri-bek will fly the flag above the building in Bell Street in solidarity with Palestinians who are under bombardment and land invasion by the Israeli Defence Forces. 

Following a resolution passed on Wednesday night, the council will also actively boycott any companies that “support Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine or profit from it”. 

And the council will call on the Albanese Government to more strongly condemn “the war crimes carried out by Israel” and to support an immediate ceasefire, including ending Israel’s bombing of Gaza. 

But Zeddy Lawrence, executive director of Zionism Victoria, said the council resolution was one-sided and failed to acknowledge the trauma of Melbourne’s Jewish community following the attack on Israel by the Hamas terrorist organisation that killed 1400 people on October 7. 

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The resolution was moved on Wednesday night by Socialist Alliance Councillor Sue Bolton, who is a long-time campaigner for a free Palestine. Her motion did not directly mention the October 7 Hamas attack, but it did mourn the tragic and horrific loss of civilian lives in the current conflict, condemned all attacks that target civilians, and reaffirmed the council’s opposition to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. 

It accused Israel of war crimes and genocide, and said the origins of the current conflict in Gaza lie with the occupation of Palestine and forced displacement of Palestinians from their homelands decades ago.

Bolton’s motion was passed 6-4 and followed a rally outside the council offices attended by several hundred Palestinian supporters. Speakers at the rally included Bolton, fellow councillor James Conlan – who seconded her resolution – and the State MP for Brunswick, Tim Read. 

Dozens of people who were at the rally then also watched the council debate from the public gallery, alternately cheering and booing councillors when they spoke. 

Speaking in the council chamber, Bolton said the council had a responsibility not to turn away from the massive loss of human life in Gaza, including thousands of children. 

“Some people say it’s not council business to have a position on an issue like what’s going on in Gaza at the moment but I think it’s not surprising that I’ve moved this motion,” she said. 

“And it’s not surprising that there’s so much community action, community anger and community emotion. Because what we’re seeing is a genocide happening in front of the world’s eyes.” 

Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos, who also attended the rally along with several other councillors, said it was appropriate for councils to stand up for human rights issues nationally and globally. 

“We are the level of government that is closest to the people and it is incumbent upon us to show our humanity and to act on behalf of the community who have been so resoundingly urging us to support this motion,” she said.

“This motion is about us using our power as a local council to do what we can to further the calls for a ceasefire, for de-escalation, for peace and for human rights.” 

The protesters were met by a line of police when they arrived at the council chambers.

Cr Oscar Yildiz voted against the resolution, having earlier described it on social media as a “bloody joke”.  

“Local residents are tired of councillors using their elected positions and council to push their own political agenda, their own political ideologies,” he said. 

“Our residents vote for us to focus on local issues. We are not here for international affairs. We are not the United Nations.” 

Cr Lambros Tapinos also opposed the resolution and said the Israel-Hamas conflict was a complex issue beyond the capacity of the council to deal with. 

“We don’t need to take a side here tonight,” he said. 

“Australia’s response should be left to the federal government, not Merri-bek Council, they are best placed to understand the situation, not councillors here … The motion before us tonight is problematic, it’s one sided, and it’s very divisive and should not be supported.” 

The resolution means that the Palestinian flag will join the Australian and Aboriginal flags above the Coburg Civic Centre for the next six months, making Merri-bek one of the few councils in Australia to endorse the Palestinian struggle. 

The Sydney suburban council of Canterbury-Bankstown voted unanimously last month to fly the Palestine flag alongside the national and NSW flags under a ceasefire is declared.  

After the vote had been held, Bolton told Brunswick Voice that council staff would need to conduct an audit of all contracts with suppliers to identify any with connections to Israel. 

But the Merri-bek action has been condemned by Jewish organisations who say it fails to adequately criticise the terrorism of Hamas. 

“This is clearly a completely one-sided motion fuelled either by ignorance or malice, as evidenced by the fact that there is no mention of Hamas, let alone any condemnation of the terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas last month,” said Zeddy Lawrence from Zionism Victoria. 

“Those that support this motion ought to be ashamed of themselves for burying their heads in the sand and ignoring reality,” he said. 

About 200 people attended the rally before the council meeting.

Dr Dvir Abramovich, chair of the Anti-Defamation Commission, said the resolution would add to demonisation of Israel and hostility towards Jews. 

“If this motion, which erases the October 7 atrocities from history is passed, it will represent a new low in Australian local politics and make it clear that Jewish lives do not matter,” he said prior to the council meeting. 

“It is hard to believe that anyone with a shred of humanity and compassion could propose such a vicious, heartless draft that engages in a denial of the murder of 1500 Israelis and which spits on the memory of the Israeli victims and their families.  

“This resolution presents a one-sided and grossly distorted picture of the current conflict, laying all the blame at Israel’s feet and excusing the evil of Hamas.” 

But Brunswick resident Jordana Silverstein, who is Jewish and attended the council meeting, said many Jews were devastated by the human toll being inflicted by Israel and wanted to see a ceasefire and a lasting peace in Palestine. 

“Raising the Palestinian flag tells Palestinians that we know that this is a flag of justice and anti-racism and solidarity, and that we are proud to be alongside Palestinians,” she said. 

Zain Elaklouk, a Coburg resident with deep ties to the Gaza Strip, said there should be no controversy about the resolution. 

“All it does is recognise the situation,” he said. 

“It condemns those that are responsible, and it calls on our government to support a political solution. It also offers a symbolic gesture of solidarity through raising the Palestinian flag, reminding us that even if the world doesn’t recognise our humanity, at least our community does.” 

Federal MP for Wills Peter Khalil did not respond to a request to comment.

This story has been amended to clarify that Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos did attend the rally before the council meeting.

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