“We Keep Us Safe, We Stop Arming Israel”: Interview with Palestinian Organiser Tasnim Sammak

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Palestinian protester

The globe is bearing witness to the gravest atrocity since the Holocaust. And this, the Israeli state perpetrated genocide upon the Palestinians of Gaza, is underpinned by the same supremacist ideas and land grabbing proclivities as all settler colonial states have been over the last 500-odd years.

But at this point in history the perception of what’s occurring has shifted. All-pervasive cameras, social media, the rise of Global South news outlets have not only informed of the truths not reported in the western mainstream, but it’s shown the planet the mass killings, starvation and war crimes.

The attempted denial of the genocide by the Australian political class and mainstream media initially stunned many living on this continent due to the brutality of stance, but as it plays out into its tenth month, such is the absurdity of the theatre in Canberra that not many are buying it any longer.

Of course, for the First Nations people of the continent, the sovereign peoples, the actions of the major parties are to be expected of an establishment well-versed in genocide. And Gaza has too awakened an understanding amongst many settlers that what’s happening there occurred here too.

But there were others also awake to the bias in the political structures operating here prior to the onset of Gaza, and one of the speakers at the Free Palestine rallies in Naarm, Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak, is well placed to inform on why many haven’t been shocked by Albanese and Co.

Sammak is a Palestinian organiser and a Monash University assistant lecturer in education, living in Naarm. Her family is from Yaffa, Palestine. They were exiled to Gaza during the 1948 Nakba and then on to Jordan in 1967. Born there, Tasnim has since grown up in Aotearoa and so-called Australia.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Palestinian organiser Tasnim Sammak about the horrors being perpetrated in Gaza, the Victoria police crackdown on Naarm Free Palestine rallies, and what it was like coming of age in this country as a member of the 9/11 Generation.

Palestinian organiser and a Monash University assistant lecturer in education Tasnim Sammak. Photo credit Brissendenkilic
Palestinian organiser and a Monash University assistant lecturer in education Tasnim Sammak. Photo credit Brissendenkilic

The genocide in Gaza is into its tenth month now. And the mass ongoing horrors and starvation project from the onset made it apparent that a genocide was taking place early on.

Then it was all eyes of Rafah, which was the unspeakable, with all the people amassed there, and this seems to have corresponded with information coming out of Gaza no longer being as readily available.

So, Tasnim, what is your understanding of the situation in Gaza at this time, as a nearing yearlong extermination program continues to be perpetrated upon your people on their own land in broad daylight?

Palestinians are mostly unified in the assessment that the Zionist regime’s genocidal assault on Gaza is designed to, yes, exterminate the Palestinian people, but do so by defeating the spirit of resistance amongst the Palestinian people.

Zionist officials have stated time and again that the Palestinians must lay down their arms and surrender their political demands for an end to the siege and the occupation

By murdering Palestinians in broad daylight, all colonised and oppressed people watching are being taught a lesson: this is your fate if you dare reject the conditions of your subjugation.

This is why the Zionist state has the irrational support of colonial and imperial nations: they see victory for Israel as existential to their own survival. And this is why the Palestinians have visceral support from nations across the globe who see in our suffering their own wretchedness.

The world is returning to such a stark relation between the colonisers and the colonised that the stakes are high for both sides.

We are already seeing France emboldened to send French troops to Kanaky to take care of the native problem. Colonial power is being reinforced by the Zionist regime’s aggression.

Naarm-Melbourne Free Palestine A15 action. Photo credit Tasnim Sammak
Naarm-Melbourne Free Palestine A15 action. Photo credit Tasnim Sammak

You’ve been a prominent voice amongst many in the Free Palestine movement in Naarm over the last 10 months. And that movement in all states and territories has been given a hard time from politicians, even though the rallies themselves have been peaceful, family-orientated events.

But over more recent weeks, there appears to have been a change in tactic with Victoria police attacking protesters with pepper spray. Law enforcement has also been making the event more difficult to hold and the presence of officers on the ground has notably risen of late.

What’s been going on down there? And why has law enforcement taken this different approach over the last month?

Well, I would say the police pressure has been heavy at Palestine protests for years.

Much of the new powers that police have today were passed under the guise of fighting the war on terror, the war on Arabs and Muslims, who are racialised, via an already entrenched structure of antiblackness that brought about Australian modern colonial policing.

In Gadigal, the Palestine protests led to a national moral panic, when they were smeared as antisemitic immediately after the protest at the Opera House and the community needed to fight to win a permit to hold the next protest.

At the beginning of October, the Labor government was playing a double line. The government was standing with Israel and reiterating its propagandist right to self-defence, even repeating the lie about who bombed Al-Shifa hospital.

At the same time, it was willing to tolerate the Free Palestine protests that had over 50,000 people, hoping that the bombardment would end soon, and it wouldn’t need to address the visible opposition to its stance.

Then the Labor government began calling for a ceasefire, as it sunk in that the Zionist regime’s genocidal campaign was not ending.

So, to maintain support for Israel materially and diplomatically, the government has decided to do what it knows instinctively, which is to dog whistle to racism.

We know that this works from how antiimmigration policy and rhetoric wins elections.

To vilify the Free Palestine movement, the government has sought to confront protesters with violence, to then have these sensational scenes that allow it to fall on racist tropes and claim that safety and social cohesion is being threatened by this active movement.

As a lead marshal, I’ve been dealing with how the police have arbitrarily decided to use obstruction and violence to stop us from using a public address truck at the weekly Free Palestine rallies, using road rules.

After 35 weeks of its use, the new ban is clearly at the direction of the Victorian Labor government, and we see it as an act of repression that seeks to break the rallies. The policy has changed from heavily policing the rallies to breaking them.

This crackdown in Melbourne came at the time that Albanese and many others in parliament were making all these accusations about the protests being antisemitic.

But on the ground, there’s a mass of people not buying any of this. These politicians are seen to be propagating disinformation, which at times is to the point of idiotic, and they don’t appear to realise that a large majority can see straight through it.

So, as a Palestinian woman having grown up in Australia, how do you consider the political class in this country since last October? What has been exposed here?

My family arrived here in 2003, during the start of the Iraq War and I was eleven. The Australia I walked into was Howard’s Australia, when he was pitching Australian values and even though, I was a kid I took on the sentiment of people around me who were like, “OK, we’re gladly un-Australian.”

Locking up refugees in detention and then the Northern Territory Intervention and the disbelief that people would vote for Howard that many times made me and my peers into people who knew Australia as racist through and through.

And I went to a Muslim high school where we would tell each other how family members couldn’t get work because the person hiring doesn’t want a Muslim to work for them.

We didn’t believe in multiculturalism, nor did we believe in the Labor party.

When Obama became president and Kevin Rudd did the apology, nothing much changed. There are now more kids who are taken away from Indigenous families than during the stolen generations.

In my 20s, there was the Arab Spring and Occupy, then there was the Egyptian coup and the Syria genocide. I followed these political experiences closely and considered myself part of them.

All deserved victory, but this has not arrived yet. If something has been exposed since October 7, it’s the amnesia of this nation to its violence, and the ordinariness of violence in the 21st century.

Progressivism is being exposed.

Now my kids, who are primary age, are living through this genocidal war supported by the Australian state.

Back last October, an unofficial ban in speaking out in support of the Palestinian cause, as Israel unleashed its genocide upon Gaza was suddenly imposed automatically. It was like it was lying in wait. And I guess this is what they call the power of the Jewish lobby, but it wasn’t just them.

Many were taken completely by surprise. But as a third generation Palestinian in exile, who grew up in Australia, did this all come as a surprise to you? And how do you consider what happened in that moment?

I cannot say I’ve been surprised by Labor’s insistence on protecting war profiteering by arming Israel. I also am not surprised by the censorship.

 The war on terror laws, which some of us campaigned against and then campaigned to repeal but haven’t succeeded due to a lack of enacted solidarity, penalise and criminalise speech.

 What we are witnessing today is that more people are willing to defy the western orthodoxy of supporting Israel, so we are seeing a more hostile reaction to its total grasp on western consciousness.

The hostile reaction from Zionist bodies, politicians and media isn’t working to intimidate the dissenting voices, but its work is to turn society against us.

Sammak capturing a rally moment. Photo credit Sumitra Vignaendra
Sammak capturing a rally moment. Photo credit Sumitra Vignaendra

I watched a clip from a March rally, where you said, “Unfortunately, within this settler colony and part of the white supremacy of this place is genocide is so normalised and ongoing that the violence being perpetrated by Israel is receiving very little attention.”

Can you talk on what it’s like to have grown up in a place that’s akin to an older version of what your family fled, and the plight of First Nations peoples here?

As Uncle Robbie Thorpe says, “Australia is a crime scene.” There may not be an active war here with bombs and fighter jets, but this is a society built on massacre sites, that still is being industrialised and developed and extracted.

When we invite Uncle Robbie Thorpe to address the Free Palestine weekly rallies, every time he speaks, he makes sure to tell the crowd that before they go on to speak about genocide and war in another country, you ought to look in your backyard.

Although some of us have put forward an alternative politics to integration that affirms Indigenous Sovereignty through Black-Palestinian solidarity, the reality still is that settler Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims buy into what Australia is.

We’re in love with a postracial fantasy of Australia. We still believe in liberal hope, granted citizenship rights and are upset that this government isn’t listening.

Understanding the assault on Gaza as a Frontier war urges us to critique universal humanism that invents the binary of civilised and savage, settler and native.

It urges us to follow Professor Chelsea Watego in practicing ‘fuck hope’, to be accomplices who realise what is necessary for the killing of Aboriginal people to stop.

I often say that it is white sovereignty that lends support to Israel, so if we want to sanction Israel, then let’s sanction that.

A liberated Black Australia would be aiding the Palestinians. What brings me pain is how few still are willing to support a radical restructuring of the world, and Gaza is the casualty.

Free Palestine protesters take their people power to the weapons factories supplying parts used in the genocide in Gaza. Photo credit Tasnim Sammak
Free Palestine protesters take their people power to the weapons factories supplying parts used in the genocide in Gaza. Photo credit Tasnim Sammak

And lastly, Tasnim, I note that as you’ve been addressing rallies you’ve been emphasising the power of grassroots people and one could say of late, that there does seem to be a heightened awareness of that power.

There also appears to have been a shift on the ground in the mix of people turning up on the street, who’ve been united against the genocide but also against the old imperial powers. And there appears to be a shifting perspective amongst these diverse crowds as well.

You’ve been on the frontline of the street movement. What’s been going on in your opinion? Has there been a shift?

Yeah, people within the movement are realising that liberal politics is a scam and they want to achieve real political change that stops the bombing now. They don’t want to do their bit and go home, they want to impact the supply of arms to Israel.

So, we have been picketing the weapons factories and this direction that we’ve pivoted towards has gained popular support amongst marginalised communities, who just a few months ago were weary of attending city marches.

Now police use pepper spray more than once a week and the actions grow even more.

We’re getting up at 5 am-6 am regularly to form pickets at the gates where parts of the F-35 fighter jets are manufactured.

What we know is that if these parts don’t get made, Lockheed Martin can’t make the jets, so it’s worthwhile for us to fulfil this task for Gaza.

And even though we know that Israel has an endless supply of weapons, what we are doing is significant as a placeholder in the absence of work bans on weapons and union-imposed sanctions.

Us standing at these gates says, “We don’t believe in the political system, we don’t believe in the international community or the United Nations and the post-Holocaust humanist order.”

It therefore undoes the governing myths of white society and strengthens power amongst communities who have to now embody international justice because no one is coming: we keep us safe, and we stop arming Israel.

I write many of the political captions for publicising protest actions and I’ve been reiterating this message that we’ve got to be done with appeals to the white liberal nation.

We aren’t saying, “You, the government, hear us and stop arming Israel.”

We are saying, “We, the people, will stop the arms supply. We stop arming Israel, and you will come and attack us, and we will defend ourselves and persist.”

That’s never again: It is a more honest learning from the Holocaust than the promoters of international laws that states bury with the accumulating mass graves.

Main Photo: Tasnim Sammak addressing Free Palestine rally in Naarm Photo credit: Nat Calleja

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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