In a by-election in the South-East Melbourne seat of Dunkley, the Victorian Socialists are campaigning for solidarity with Palestine — by running Reem Yunis, a Palestinian socialist, as their candidate.

The last five months in Australia have seen a sustained, mass campaign in solidarity with Palestine. Week after week, tens of thousands of protesters have marched through our capital cities condemning Israel’s onslaught against the people of Gaza, which has so far killed thirty thousand Palestinians, most of whom are children. Capital cities have witnessed their largest-ever pro-Palestine demonstrations, while in suburban and regional areas, community groups have rallied outside council chambers in support of cease-fire motions. There have been school strikes, sit-ins, and blockades, including an ongoing picket outside Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Sydney office that’s been running for the past two weeks.

But judging by the federal by-election in Dunkley — a tight contest between Labor and Liberals that’s expected to set the political terrain over the coming months — it may as well not be happening.

The Victorian Socialists (VS), however, have broken the silence over Israel’s war by standing as their candidate Reem Yunis, a Palestinian Australian socialist, schoolteacher, and long-term campaigner for Palestinian liberation. While the VS campaign is unlikely to topple the seat’s two-party duopoly, the goal is to stand in solidarity with Palestine and build on the party’s small but significant mass audience elsewhere in Melbourne.

Dunkley Is Paying for Israel’s War

A swing seat in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs, Dunkley has been vacant since December last year, following the death of Labor incumbent Peta Murphy. As an electorate that covers predominantly working-class suburbs like Frankston, the defining political issue in Dunkley is the cost-of-living crisis. After a sustained period of high inflation, low wage growth and rising interest rates, some 52 percent of voters nominate it as their number one concern.

Indeed, economic pressures are acute in Dunkley, where household income is slightly below the national average but mortgage repayments are higher. There is a shortage of affordable housing, with only 4 percent of rental properties in Frankston — the growing bayside suburb home to the bulk of Dunkley voters — within reach of low-income earners. Public transport is also underfunded, entrenching car dependency as petrol prices spike, even while 60 percent of residents need to travel outside the electorate to work.

In this setting, events in the Middle East may well seem remote to voters. But for Yunis, the two issues are tightly connected.

Last Friday night, she spoke at a small demonstration called by Australian Services Union members to protest the foreign minister’s withdrawal of $6 million in aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. As she pointed out in her speech, Australia is defunding vitally needed aid, while “big businesses here have made a killing out of weapons manufacturing — at least $4 billion. They are actively arming Israel and making a profit out of this conflict.”

Yunis was referring to the 350 weapons export permits issued by the Australian Defence Department since 2017 to companies supplying parts to the Israeli war machine. Although Australia’s permits system is notoriously opaque, corporate disclosures reveal that more than seventy local companies contribute to the F-35 fighter jet supply chain, with contracts totaling $4.13 billion. A number of those companies are sole global suppliers of essential parts for the jets, which Israel’s defense chief confirms have been dropping 900 kilogram bombs on the densely populated Gaza Strip since October 7 last year.

In this campaign, we are raising Palestine in our chats with voters and showing everyday working-class people how the Palestinian struggle is linked to their daily struggles with the cost of living.

Earlier this month, Yunis spoke at another rally outside HTA, a thermal processing company deep in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. The company is contracted to treat vital components in the F-35’s landing gears. Before a crowd brought together by Free Palestine Melbourne, Victorian Socialists and local community group Hume for Palestine, Yunis succinctly drove the point home: “I know HTA is able to make medical equipment instead of war pieces. Let them do that instead. Health and education must come before destruction and imperialism.”

Governments and institutions around the country have billions of dollars tied up in agreements with leading Israeli arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The federal Labor Party, meanwhile, is committed to the $368 billion AUKUS deal — a military program formed to develop a fleet of nuclear submarines, which will cost up to $35 million a day for the next thirty years.

As Yunis’s campaign points out, this is an extraordinary amount of money to spend on warfare during a cost-of-living crisis, while essential services are sorely underfunded:

There is a housing crisis. Childcare centers are expensive and hard to get into. Hospitals are stretched, and government schools need funding big time. Just recently I read that just a handful of private schools managed to spend the same amount on new facilities and equipment as thousands of public schools.

“These [defense] funds could be freed up,” she explains, “for improving education, improving health, improving schools, giving people free childcare and free public transport.”

As perverse as it is, for Yunis it is part of the logic of capitalism to deprioritize spending on bread-and-butter services in favor of weapons technologies. Indeed, Australia’s military spending has been rising for years in proportion to perceived economic threats posed by China’s expansion into the Pacific. At the same time, successive governments have deepened Australia’s commitment to the US alliance, as well as to the key platforms of American hegemony worldwide — including Israel.

According to Yunis, this is why, despite the scale of the pro-Palestine movement, Australia’s official position on Israel has barely shifted. In a recent joint statement with her Canadian and New Zealand counterparts, Labor foreign minister Penny Wong went no further than expressing “deep concern” over the rate of civilian casualties in Gaza. At the same time, the ministers restated their governments’ support for the occupier’s right to defend itself. Their long-overdue call for a cease-fire came with no material backing, whether in the form of sanctions or diplomatic isolation.

As the VS campaign in Dunkley has emphasized, this highlights the need for a movement that can challenge capitalism. “The protests alone cannot tip the balance,” Yunis says, “because the capitalist, imperialist classes that are hellbent on keeping Israel as a watchdog for their interests in the Middle East.”

This also informs the long-term strategic thinking behind organizing a large-scale campaign in a seat like Dunkley, where socialists have a small audience. “Even if I don’t win the election, and I know it’s a long shot,” Yunis concedes, “at least in this campaign we are raising Palestine in our chats with voters and showing everyday working-class people how the Palestinian struggle is linked to their daily struggles with the cost of living.”

A Lifetime Spent Standing in Solidarity

The connection between socialism and Palestinian liberation has long been clear to Yunis. Growing up in the Palestinian diaspora in Kuwait, she developed her political perspective through reading. “I was in love with poetry and literature,” she says. “It was the love of literature that introduced me to leftist ideas.” She was inspired not only by the poets of Palestinian resistance — especially Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qassim, and Tawfiq Ziad, Communist Party members whose lines are scattered through all her political speeches — but also translated works from Russia, Algeria, and Spain. “The first one that blew me away was Al’Umu [Mother],” Maxim Gorky’s story of a woman who is drawn into revolutionary activity as the 1905 revolution approaches.

Yunis was seven years old in 1967, when al-Naksa — the Great Defeat — took place. A coalition of Arab states had been preparing to reclaim colonized territory within Palestine’s 1948 borders but were routed by Israel in six short days, during which the Zionist state also occupied Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, and Syria’s Golan Heights. “I grew up in an era that was hoping for victory in 1967,” Yunis says. “I woke up one day listening to the news and seeing my parents and my aunties and everybody crying. The sadness was very, very palpable.”

More disasters soon followed. In 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was expelled from Jordan during Black September. Then came the Lebanese Civil War, which pitted an alliance of left-wing Pan-Arabist forces and the PLO against hard-right Christian militias, backed by Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. At the same time, led by Yasser Arafat’s secular nationalist faction, Fatah, the PLO was moving toward negotiations with Israel. This trajectory culminated in the disastrous Oslo Accords of 1993, which saw the PLO officially cede much of Palestine to Israel, paving the way for a dramatic expansion of its illegal settlement program.

For the Palestinian people, the result of these betrayals was grief and confusion. In the aftermath, Yunis remembers her father telling the family that “our leadership is bad, our leadership is corrupt.” As Yunis recounts,

He used the word “zift” — “our leadership is zift.” You know the black tar used in the streets? We say zift for something like that. In effect, what he said was that our leadership is scum.

Far from becoming disillusioned, these experiences cemented Yunis’s commitment to the socialist movement. “You needed a class analysis — a Marxist class analysis — to understand what was happening,” she explained.

In this period, no artistic and political figures were more important to her than George Habash and Ghassan Kanafani. Habash was the founder and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and, until his death in 2008, he was one of the most trenchant critics of the Oslo Accords. Kanafani was the great novelist of the Palestinian refugee experience and, prior to his assassination at the hands of Mossad agents in 1972, he served as the editor of the PFLP’s weekly publication, al-Hadaf.

While Yunis was never a member of the PFLP, she embraced its unswerving dedication to Palestinian freedom and its belief in the Arab working classes’ power to liberate themselves from their regimes. Habash and Kanafani “were like lions,” she says with emotion.

Although Yunis later rejected the PFLP for its commitment to Marxism-Leninism, which upheld the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, and later Mao Zedong’s China as models of a socialist society. Despite disagreeing with their ideology, however, she credits the faction with helping her understand the Palestinian situation. In particular, it helped her understand the mercurial behavior of the Arab ruling classes — warring with Israel at one moment, turning on Palestinians the next — in Marxist terms.

This framework also helped Yunis avoid seeing the conflict in ethnocentric terms. Habash and Kanafani were not antisemitic, but anti-capitalist. As Habash wrote,

The enemy of the Palestinians is colonialism, capitalism and the global monopolies. This is the enemy that gave rise to the Zionist movement, made a covenant with it, nurtured it, protected it and accompanied it until it brought about the establishment of the aggressive and fascistic state of Israel.

“I Vowed Never to Be a Spectator”

Yunis’s family was part of the Palestinian diaspora in Kuwait until they were forced to flee in 1990, as a result of the Gulf War. Out of transactional loyalty to Arab rulers, regardless of their politics or record in power, the PLO supported Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party when it invaded Kuwait, triggering the first war between America and Iraq. As Yunis explains, in the aftermath, “ultranationalist Kuwaitis took their revenge on the Palestinians who were still there.” So, Yunis’s family fled to Jordan where they lived for two years while she applied for a skilled migration visa to Australia, where she arrived in 1992.

If we can use the platform of parliament to bring attention to the genocide and the plight of the Palestinians, and gain some percentage that will make the major parties take notice, then why not?

For the last twenty-four years, Yunis has worked as a schoolteacher and as a rank-and-file member of the Australian Education Union; she has participated in every Victorian teacher’s strike since 2001. She has also retained her conviction that a working class, socialist movement is the key to Palestinian liberation and has been an active part of socialist organization in Melbourne since the early 2000s.

When VS approached Yunis to run in the Dunkley by-election, she had recently buried her mother, who lived most of her life in exile. As she explains, the loss added a new dimension to the grief she felt seeing the destruction of Gaza unfold — as well as a new purpose.

I was still grieving the loss of my mum. But at the same time, I was thinking, “Wait a minute — that is what my mum and my dad would have liked me to do.” That is what they instilled in us: being for Palestine and never forgetting our roots.

The Victorian Socialists’ tilt at Dunkley is, by the party’s own admission, unlikely to succeed. VS has not run in the electorate previously, and it’s well outside the party’s existing base in the north and west of Melbourne. The major parties are also fiercely contesting the race, with the Coalition hoping that an upset victory will strengthen their hand against the federal Labor government. For Yunis, however, this is beside the point. Life in the diaspora presents only fleeting opportunities to take a stand for Palestine.

It was a no-brainer for me to go into the election, if it means raising the specter of Palestine and becoming a voice for the voiceless. The people of Palestine are being censored in everything they put on social media. We, as activists, are being censored. But if we can use the platform of parliament — or even an election campaign — to bring attention to the genocide and the plight of the Palestinians, and gain some percentage that will make the major parties take notice, then why not?

For Yunis, Kanafani remains a source of inspiration.

He used to say that people in life are divided into two camps: you can either be a spectator or a combatant. He vowed to never to be a spectator, but a combatant, so that our future generations could have the hope of living in liberated Palestine.

It’s a vow that Yunis is proud to have made her own. Though she now lives with the fact that her parents and grandparents were never able to return to their homeland as long as the Palestinian fight continues, there remains hope that one day her children will.

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