Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, spoke to a crowd of hundreds in Auckland last night in support of a ceasefire in Gaza and a free Palestine. Gabi Lardies was there.
At about 7pm, the volunteers in fluoro green vests begin to realise the venue they’ve hired is not going to be big enough. Luckily, the hexagonal room at Western Springs Garden Community Hall has a larger hall adjoined to it, which is unbooked. So, with the help of the early comers, they scuttle over their sign-in station, with Covid supplies and little corflute plaques reading “This is an apartheid free zone”, line up about 200 acid green plastic chairs and set up the audio and video to livestream what is to come.
About 300 people have turned up for the event headlined by Francesca Albanese, the Italian scholar and international law expert who serves as the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestine. Albanese has been making international headlines for condemning Israel and calling out the international community for not doing enough to protect the civilians in Gaza. She’s said that a ceasefire should have been called weeks ago and that under international law, Israel has been committing war crimes for decades.
This crowd needs no convincing. It’s scattered with home-made patches reading “Free Palestine”, plastic watermelon earrings and keffiyeh draped around shoulders. Behind me, a woman has a small pink sparkly notebook at the ready. “It’s pretty incredible we get to listen to this person,” she says. Next to me is Samuel, who tells me he’s known about Israel’s occupation of Palestine since about 2017, through conversations at university. Yet it wasn’t until recently that he came to understand it as a “colonial settler state”. He never expected so much violence to break out. Both the woman behind me and Samuel have attended almost all of the weekly pro-Palestine rallies in central Auckland.
When the crowd quietens at 7.30 all the chairs are full and there’s a ring of people standing around the edge of the room. The glass doors are open, and outside four policemen stand guard along with the volunteers in fluoro vests. There’s a sense of excitement in the crowd, which a member of the Palestinians in Aotearoa Co-ordinating Committee seems to try to tone down by reminding them, “We are not here to celebrate. We are here to renew our commitment to end this genocide that is happening in Gaza.” The minute of silence that follows a short reading of the Qur’an is punctuated by the not-quite-language of a small child.
After a brief adjustment of the microphone, Albanese begins by introducing herself in te reo. The crowd, I think, is smitten. Her 16 minute speech feels brief. It isn’t as in-the-weeds as I expected a scholar’s presentation to be. Instead what Albanese focuses on is what she called “the facts off the ground”. She is careful to state that she has always condemned the Hamas attack on October 7, but “what Israel has done is brutal. It’s brutal and not necessarily unprecedented, but it’s unprecedented in terms of intensity, in terms of scope, and in terms of relentlessness.”
In 44 days of heavy bombing and ground incursions, the Israeli Defence Force has killed at least 13,000 Palestinians, thousands of them children. Many more are injured or displaced. In Gaza, “bombs pour hour after hour,” says Albanese. It is being reported that half of civilian infrastructure (that is all the things we need to live, like homes, schools, hospitals and water supplies) have been destroyed.
Albanese continues, saying that the motive of Israel was never about a “military objective”. Since the beginning of the current bombardment “the words that have been used are very dangerous, and in fact, denote genocidal intent: flattening Gaza, erasing Gaza, kill the – sorry to the kids – the animals, the human animals”.
The crowd is keen to show their approval of what she is saying, punctuating her speech with claps, cheers and at times finger-clicking. Yet it’s not an approval she seems to thrive on; she looks slightly annoyed as she waits for the room to quiet so she can continue.
Last Friday, a Talbot Mills poll was released showing that 60% of New Zealanders think our government should call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Only 12% disagreed. Yet while Te Pāti Māori and the Green Party publicly supported a ceasefire weeks ago, it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that Chris Hipkins called for one, saying “I, and the Labour Party, cannot stand by any longer in the face of the horrific scenes we are witnessing without calling for a ceasefire”.
Pointedly, this was said not as a caretaker prime minister, but as the leader of the Labour Party. Though they had sought it, the caretaker government had not received agreement from National. On Monday, National accused Labour of “playing politics”, saying that after being asked on Friday, they were seeking advice from MFAT. They were then informed of Hipkins’ statements just four minutes before the press conference.
Samuel, sitting next to me, says he was “not impressed” by Hipkins’ call for ceasefire. He says the timing showed a “lack of courage” and “milquetoast politics”. Another attendee later tells me she thought it was “pretty cool” that the call came right after the rallies. Her companion says, “they’re finally listening”. Both seem hopeful.
For six weeks, thousands of people have been attending weekly rallies in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Whanganui, Palmerston North, Hastings and Nelson. Social media platforms have been flooded with horrific news from Gaza and statements of solidarity. As the situation has unfolded, chants have progressed from “Free, Free, Palestine” to “Israel, USA, how many kids have you killed today?”
Albanese’s public talks, on Monday night in Auckland and Tuesday night in Wellington, have been organised by Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa and Palestinians in Aotearoa Co-ordinating Committee, the same groups that have organised the rallies.
Albanese ends on a strong note: “I argue that this is a new form of genocide implemented through modern means of warfare – 21st century means of warfare.” She then lists what should happen next: ceasefire, humanitarian aid, making sure displaced and traumatised Palestinians have somewhere to go because “many of them will not be able to live in Gaza, at least for a few years”, and ultimately, “there cannot be any way out without ending the occupation”. In other words, free Palestine. There are other speakers and a short break before the floor is open to questions for Albanese.
In the break, attendees catch some fresh air outside. Nirvana has known about Israel’s occupation for years, through a friend from Palestine who was vocal about the situation. “I think it’s unfortunate that it has to be this big of a scale for people to be able to say injustice is not right,” she says. “But I also think that what it can do is start conversations about other things that we perceive as unjust”.
Her friend Bex came tonight to “hear someone like Francesca, and the other speakers, who are just saying plain and simple facts and truths. It felt like something we needed in our wairua, because we’re all being gaslit by mainstream media, and by politicians.” She’s sometimes been made to feel “scandalous” for speaking out against what’s happening in Gaza, but “this shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say”.
“I’m not fucking afraid to say shit about it,” says Nirvana. But it can get tiring, and “that’s why it’s good to go to the marches and protests, because you get to meet with like-minded people.” Part of the reason she is here is to gain more knowledge “so that when you’re, you know, talking to a racist or conservative uncle at Christmas, you’ve actually got some ammo”.
Behind us, Albanese has been giving an interview for TV, partly the reason for the break. Now that it’s over, she heads back inside to field questions from the audience. It’s quickly clear there are a lot of questions for her, and outside, the sun has set. The crowd starts to get agitated, especially when “questions” turn out to be rambling statements. One older man is even booed. A system is quickly devised by the democratic volunteers, with question-askers lining up on the side, and everyone gets a turn.
A man with a baby on his hip approaches the microphone. He is another without a question. Instead he tells Albanese that he does not appreciate her being here, nor the entity she belongs to: “Just admit that you have failed.” The room is tense. From the other side of the hall an organiser calls out, “Can we just ask questions?”
But Albanese does not disagree with the man, though she does point out that technically she’s not part of the United Nations – special rapporteurs are independent experts who are called on to advise the UN. She does not think that people understand the acute crisis the UN is in. That’s why, “it’s fundamental that people protest”. The crowd loves this, probably because that’s what they’ve been doing.
It’s 10pm before the crowd is dismissed. Stacking the chairs is a group effort, and people mill about talking. Outside, they gather in small circles, discussing things like anti-Zionism, whether we always have to wait for politicians, and how they might approach the new government once it’s formed. It seems that the people protesting on Auckland’s streets for a free Palestine have replenished their wairua.