The ABC made the decision to not allow a live studio audience for Monday night’s Q+A program, as panellists engaged in tense discussions over the escalating Israeli-Hamas war.
Host Patricia Kavelas, who made the announcement at the beginning of the episode, acknowledged the “difficult and sensitive discussion” which would take place given the sensitive topic matter.
A “very significant police contingent” was also stationed outside the ABC Melbourne studios.
“We believe in your right to ask questions and that is a right we will always defend. Tonight our panellists will hear your questions through video link as we explore an issue rocking our diaspora Jewish and Arab communities,” she said.
“We will conduct a robust, healthy and respectful debate.”
At one stage, the debate became extremely tense, with Karvelas called for calm.
“Deep breaths, deep breaths and I hope the country is having one, too,” she said.
The panel included Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Tim Watts, former Australian ambassador to Israel and Dave Sharma, Australia Palestine Advocacy Network head Nasser Mashni, lawyer and national chair of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council Mark Leibler, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories Francesca Albanese.
The discussion was largely civil, but became tense of several occasions as Mr Leibler and Mr Mashni clashed over points including protests being held in Australia.
Protest chant dubbed ‘racist comment’
The panel was also asked if the popular chant heard at pro-Palestine rallies: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” actually called to “eradicate Israel”.
Mr Leibler said the saying was a “racist comment,” and implied there was “no room for a state of Israel”.
He accused pro-Palestine protests of celebrating violence, however his comments were immediately criticised by Mr Mashni and Ms Albanese.
“This is not something in line with Jewish tradition. What do the Palestinians do? Whether it’s 9/11 or October 7, they hand out lollies and they celebrate when people are hacked to death. I don’t know. It is a fact. It is reality,” he said.
Mr Mashni said Mr Leibler was “besmirching our entire people”.
“We are killed, we’re blamed, we’re smeared,” he said.
“The reality is what we have is 75 years of oppression, 75 years of denial. Palestinians are human beings, too. We have rights like everybody else to live in peace and sanctity.”
Ms Albanese said Mr Mashni’s comments were “inappropriate and disrespectful”.
“Speaking of what Hamas has done – war crimes … I’ve condemned that as such,” he said.
“When it comes to the killing of Palestinians … these are war crimes and to an extent under international law, this may amount to crimes against humanity because so is the intentional starvation and intentional extermination.”
Monday night’s discussion comes as Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has faced criticism after she called on Israel to “comply and observe international humanitarian law,” in regards to the government’s attack on civilians in the Gaza Strip.
“We know Hamas is a terrorist organisation. It has demonstrated it has no respect for international law, but Australia is a democracy and so too is Israel, and the standards that we seek and accept are higher,” she said on ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
Mr Watts said while a “call for humanitarian pause is the necessary first step,” much more needed to be done.
“What we’ve said is there needs to be release of hostages. Hamas needs to stop its rocket attacks on Israel,” he said.
“It needs to stop using civilians in Gaza as human shields and for a durable peace in the region, we need to dismantle Hamas.”
Mr Sharma, who was also the former MP for the federal seat of Wentworth which has a large Jewish population, said Hamas needed to be “ousted from political power”.
“War is a terrible thing, but we have to remember how this began which is the October 7th terrorist attacks,” he said.
“Hamas climbed in through the fence, slaughtered children in their holes. Killed parents in front of their children, raped, abducted, murdered, defiled any number of people.
“You leave them there, there will be further bloodshed, further loss of life and further conflict.”
Mr Sharma also said political leaders and law enforcement needed to do more to “call out” anti-Semitic behaviour. He said religious services at synagogues have been interrupted, with Jewish-owned businesses boycotted and defaced since the October 7 attack.
“That is not acceptable in Australia. Doesn’t matter what your feelings are on in conflict, that is absolutely not acceptable,” Mr Sharma said.
When asked by Karvelas who was failing, he named Senator Wong and criticised her response to the pro-Palestinian protest in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, which has a high Jewish population.
Mr Watts defended Senator Wong’s response, which included tweeting that the violence was unacceptable.
“(She) said it was good that they (the protesters) had apologised. Well, yes, it was good … but it shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“When the line is crossed here, it’s not: There’s a fault on all sides here. We need to call out the party that is crossing that line.”
Mr Watts disagreed with the criticism.
“There are few people in this country having a longer record than fighting prejudice in this country than Penny Wong,” he said.
“Penny Wong absolutely condemned anti-Semitism during. Anyone who seeks to undermine her credibility on this issue frankly is seeking to confect difference over this issue.”
Hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered opposite the synagogue during a Shabbat service after Burgertory, a popular burger joint in the town, was set alight on Friday.
There were clashes between police and protesters and the Shabbat service was cancelled.
Mr Mashni said the gathering at Caulfield in a park across the road from a synagogue were Friday services were being held was not a protest but an “anti-racism vigil”.
“They went to pray and to chant some anti-racism chants,” he said.
Karvelas pressed whether “it was OK”, even though “Jewish people were terrified in Caulfield after that night, Mr Mashni doubled down that it was.
“I’m hoping for a better tomorrow,” he said.
“Can we not agree that as Australians, we should be having conversations, we should be talking about a space where we’re all together.”
Ms Albanese also took issue with Mr Leibler’s accusation that she and Mr Mashni had “made it clear that in their view Israel has no right to exist as a state.”
She said she found that statement “inappropriate and disrespectful”.