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ASIO director to Labor MP: Pro-Palestine rallies are a ‘pressure release’ on domestic terrorism

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23 December 2023, The Australian, by Alexi Demetriadi

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess advised Labor MP Michelle Ananda-Rajah that Australia’s pro-Palestine rallies served as an important “pressure release” given a “real risk of a terror ­attack”, a letter from the backbencher to a local voter has revealed.

Mr Burgess’s apparent comments and briefing was relayed by the Higgins MP to a Jewish resident who had become concerned about the location of Melbourne’s weekly pro-Palestine rally.

“On the matter of protests, the DG of ASIO, Mike Burgess, ­advised me that these (pro-Palestine rallies) serve as a pressure release, which is valuable given the real risk of a domestic terror attack,” the MP wrote to the voter. “I can live with a protest (provided it is respectful) but not with terrorism.”

A pro-Palestine rally has been held every Sunday outside the State Library Victoria, which is hosting Hebrew scripture exhibition Luminous. The voter wanted to talk to Ms Ananda-Rajah about the location, given herself and fellow members of the Jewish community were concerned about wearing identifiable clothing en route to the exhibition.

An ASIO spokeswoman ­declined to comment on Mr Burgess’s advice given the “sensitive” and confidential nature of all briefings given by the director-general.

“At the commonwealth, state and territory level, ASIO provides briefings on a range of intelligence matters to political leaders, ministers, senior staffers, parliamentary officials, security officers and other relevant parties,” the spokeswoman said. “The details of those discussions are sensitive, and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Dr Ananda-Rajah didn’t comment specifically on Mr Burgess’s advice, or why she had disclosed “sensitive” ASIO intelligence to a voter. She did tell The Weekend Australian, however, that social cohesion was “our most valuable national asset”.

“Our government is working with our intelligence agencies to ensure that violence overseas does not precipitate violence in Australia,” she said, referring further questions to the Home ­Affairs Department.

It is understood that Dr ­Ananda-Rajah has been a “staunch friend” of the Jewish community, recently returning from a “solidarity mission” to ­Israel. In her email to the Jewish voter, she also condemned Hamas and said that Israel unilaterally laying down its arms would “underwrite its destruction”.

Organisers at the Palestine Action Group, who leads Sydney rallies, were contacted for reaction to the “pressure release” comments, as was Melbourne’s Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network. Free Palestine Melbourne, which organises that city’s rallies, was contacted.

The news that Australia’s ­security organisations view the pro-Palestine rallies as a necessary “pressure release” was met with condemnation and questions about the likelihood of a ­terror attack. Strategic Analysis Australia director Peter Jennings – speaking broadly on the whole-government approach to the pro-Palestine rallies and domestic radicalism – questioned whether the authorities’ “light-handed” approach had worked.

“For more than a decade the dominant thinking on how to deal with radicalism in Australia has been light-handed,” he said, arguing it was time authorities stopped “walking on eggshells”.

“Our major cities now have these ugly rallies, of which, at the fringes, there is clearly extremist ideology,” he said. “We haven’t done so well out of that. We have firebrand preachers and more visible signs of aggression taking place at these rallies.”

Mr Jennings said it was “time we asked the question” whether authorities should be tougher on dealing with radicalism.

“MPs and police seem to be ­almost fearful of them (the ­rallies),” he said.

“Creating a community (at the rallies) where you can get together and embolden each other’s radicalism is not a good thing either.”

NSW upper house deputy president Rod Roberts – a 20-year police officer before becoming a MP – asked what security agencies were doing.

“If there is a threat, and they’re aware of it, what are they doing about it,” he asked. “If they have intelligence of a credible and heightened risk of domestic terrorism, they should bring that ­information forward.”

The voter – speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment – said Dr Ananda-Rajah’s comments showed it was the Jewish community that would have to “shoulder the burden” and accept “feeling less safe”.

“Jews shouldn’t have to ask themselves ‘is it safe to wear a ­kippah or a Magen David pendant as I walk through this rally,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to navigate around the city because certain places are hostile to Jews … nor expected to cloister ourselves.”

The Jewish constituent said she “respected the right to protest”, but asked why the rally had to be outside the library, “directly next to a Hebrew exhibition Jews want to go to”.

“It tells us we don’t belong in the public sphere,” she said. “It’s … insulting to the people at the rally, that they ­require a ‘pressure ­release’. How little do they think of us all?”

Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Peter Wertheim said viewing rallies as a “pressure release” was a “misguided approach”.

“Although peaceful protests are a cherished right, a boundary is crossed when demonstrations become regular occasions for hate speech and incitement against any section of the community to try to intimidate it into silence or force it to change its behaviour,” he said.

“It’s intolerable that members of the Jewish community cannot visit their places of worship in peace or enjoy life in the wider community without being confronted by expressions of hatred.

“Tolerance for such behaviour … in the hope that it will serve as a pressure release against terrorism would be an astonishingly misguided approach.

“It would give licence to the development of social divisions, which ultimately limit everybody’s rights and freedoms. This is completely alien to our way of life, and would negate any supposed safety valve effect.”

Mr Burgess has commented on the rallies and domestic tensions since the outbreak of the war. “ASIO is not interested in those who are engaged in lawful protest, but rather the small subset of protesters who may wish to escalate protest to violence,” he said at October’s budget estimates, adding that Australia’s terrorism threat level remained at “possible”.

“ASIO has previously seen ­direct connections between inflamed language and inflamed community tensions … (we) will continue to monitor emerging trends, drivers and shifts in the threat environment.”

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Article source: The Australian/Alexi Demetriadi 23.12.2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000