Despite the pain of the Israel–Hamas war, freedom of speech must be protected

During the recent pro-Palestine and pro-Israel protests in Sydney and Melbourne, many Australians have demanded an end to the conflict in Gaza, lawfully exercising their freedom of speech. A small number of protestors, however, have behaved in a way that is incompatible with Australian values and laws. Traditional media and social media understandably highlight extreme behaviour at protests and the growing cost of security. We, the authors, condemn violent behaviour and racist abuse, but not the protests.

News outlets and social media continue to bring the world a front-row view of the unspeakable horrors of the Israeli–Hamas conflict. This imagery is often disseminated to evoke shock and emotion. Beyond Gaza and Israel, the war has brought to the forefront deeply divisive sentiment, which has included legal democratic expression but also racial vilification, hate speech and even violence.

There’s no room in Australia for political and ideologically motivated violence. It’s not easy for Australia’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which must be clear-eyed about immediately dealing with these issues while treading a careful path to safeguard the right to free speech and thought that is crucial to the health of our democracy.

Australia is a diverse nation with equally diverse opinions and perspectives regarding the conflict.

For many in the Palestinian and Israeli diasporas, this war has a profoundly personal dimension. These communities are directly connected through friends and family caught up in the war. Even people without a personal link, including those from Australia’s Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities more broadly, feel connected to the conflict.

Over several weeks, citizens of open democratic societies globally have exercised their right to publicly express their views on the war.

Outside the Arab world, protests have occurred in major cities across Europe and the United States. In Australia, citizens have vocally expressed their sentiments with pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrations in major cities. If protestors cross the line to hate speech, law enforcement agencies should pursue those who’ve committed criminal offences. However, the demonstrations have mostly allowed those involved to express their perspectives and frustrations publicly.

A key element in preventing terrorism is ensuring freedom of expression. Australians have divergent views on the war and some disagree with the government’s stance. That’s okay because Australia is a democratic nation. It would be wrong to ignore these differences. But it would be equally wrong to over-securitise how we deal with legitimate and legal expression of thought.

Since 2001, Australia has listed Hamas, in its entirety, as a terrorist entity for financial sanctions under Part 4 of the Charter of the United Nations Act 1045 in implementing UN Security Council resolution 1373. This listing doesn’t mean Australians can’t protest against the Gaza conflict. It doesn’t prevent Australians from debating whether Israel’s actions in Gaza are proportionate. Nor does it prevent Australians from expressing support for Israel and Israeli victims of the Hamas attacks.

Preventing anti-Semitism and preserving public safety have been used to justify the anti-Palestinian decisions of various governments. In some cases, these decisions have worsened social tensions, especially between Jewish and Muslim communities.

In Europe, several countries have banned pro-Palestinian protests and slogans. Even before the beginning of the Israel–Hamas war on 7 October, Germany had restricted pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Since then, education authorities in Berlin have told schools that they could ban students from wearing the Palestinian Kufiya scarf and ‘free Palestine’ stickers.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also used the recent surge of anti-Semitism in Germany as an excuse to harden the country’s immigration policies. In an interview, he stated: ‘We must finally deport on a large scale those who have no right to stay in Germany.’

In France, local authorities are banning pro-Palestine protests on a case-by-case basis.

Policies like this risk undermining the democratic right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. At such times, freedom of expression, free from hate speech and vilification, serves as a pressure valve for communities.

To increase social cohesion amid the ongoing horrors of the Israel–Hamas war, Australian state, territory and federal governments must do more to show that they stand in solidarity with the victims on both sides of the conflict, as well as the Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim communities more broadly. It must provide citizens with opportunities to express their political perspectives on the war as long as that’s done in accordance with Australian laws.

For example, if an Australian jurisdiction supports a group establishing a condolence book for the victims of the 7 October attacks, it should also support a group with a condolence book for the war’s non-combatant victims. If a pro-Israeli demonstration is allowed to go ahead, so too should an anti-war demonstration.

Australian democracy ensures that people can act, speak and think freely, as long as that doesn’t stop others from doing the same. It also provides for equality before the law. And it ensures that communities are safe and secure and that governments are transparent, responsive and accountable. The Australian government makes foreign policy decisions, and universal suffrage ensures that it’s answerable to the electorate.

While there’s no end in sight to the turmoil of the Israel–Hamas war, what can be controlled is governments’ responses on the domestic front. The peaceful exercise of freedom of speech in democratic countries, including Australia, is needed more than ever during this polarising conflict. Rather than deciding which side is right or wrong, the opinions and viewpoints of all citizens, whether pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, must be respected.