Fatima Payman accuses Israel of genocide in Gaza in significant rupture with Labor party position

<span>Labor senator Fatima Payman: ‘I must call this out for what it is. This is a genocide and we need to stop pretending otherwise.’</span><span>Photograph: ParlView</span>
Labor senator Fatima Payman: ‘I must call this out for what it is. This is a genocide and we need to stop pretending otherwise.’Photograph: ParlView

The Labor senator Fatima Payman has accused Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and has questioned how many deaths would prompt the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to declare “enough”.

In a significant rupture with the Labor party position, Payman called for sanctions and divestment from Israel and declared “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a politically charged phrase that Albanese has criticised.

But Payman characterised the call as signifying “freedom from the occupation, freedom from the violence and freedom from the inequality”.

Related: Australia’s support for UN resolution on Palestinian membership ‘not recognition of statehood’

The Western Australian senator originally intended to read her statement to a rally outside Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday marking the Nakba – an Arabic phrase meaning “the catastrophe” that refers to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians around the time of the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Instead she read the statement to two media outlets, acknowledging that “there is disillusionment in the community with the [political] parties”. Payman said she was “terrified at my own inadequacy to stand for what I believe”.

“Today, more than ever, is the time to speak the truth – the whole truth – with courage and clarity,” she told SBS News and Capital Brief.

“My conscience has been uneasy for far too long. And I must call this out for what it is. This is a genocide and we need to stop pretending otherwise.”

Payman said she saw leaders, instead of advocating for justice, “performatively gesture defending the oppressors’ right to oppress while gaslighting the global community about the rights of self-defence”.

“I ask our prime minister and our fellow parliamentarians: how many international rights laws must Israel break for us to say enough? What is the magic number?”

Payman also asked “how many Palestinian lives are enough to call this violence against them terrorism” and genocide.

Palestinian authorities report that 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its military response to Hamas’s 7 October attacks, when about 1,200 people were killed and about 250 were taken hostage.

The Israeli government maintains that its military operations are a legitimate response to the Hamas attacks, and has dismissed allegations it is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza as “false” and “outrageous”.

The international court of justice has yet to make a substantive ruling on genocide allegations levelled by South Africa but said in an interim ruling in January the claims were “plausible” and ordered Israel to take all steps to prevent genocidal acts and incitement.

Payman also mentioned the pro-Palestine encampments that have been set up across universities. She said Australian MPs and senators “cannot be disconnected from the people of Australia”.

“We can be on the right side of history so that when the young read about us, they can be proud Australians, knowing that their country at a time when it was needed had the moral clarity to do what is right, that the voices calling for freedom and for justice were heard,” she said.

“I ask you to join me to continue to call for freedom from the occupation, freedom from the violence and freedom from the inequality. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Albanese has argued that the “river to the sea” phrase is counter to the two-state solution favoured by the Australian government.

In his first response to Payman’s comments, Albanese said the government had condemned “the terrorist atrocities of October 7” while also “calling out Israel for actions and saying that how it defends itself very much matters as well”.

“We have said very clearly that all lives matter, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian,” Albanese told Triple J.

Albanese avoided rebuking Payman directly, but said: “The idea that we here in Australia can determine what is happening in the Middle East is just not correct. What we can do is to make our voice heard for humanitarian concerns.”

Prominent Jewish groups have labelled the “river to the sea” phrase as “hateful”, saying it calls for full Palestinian control in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and excludes the possibility of a state of Israel.

But advocates including the Palestinian-US writer Yousef Munayyer have argued the phrase express a desire for Palestinians to “live in their homeland as free and equal citizens, neither dominated by others nor dominating them”.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in January he would not compromise on full Israeli security control west of the Jordan River.

Related: Peter Dutton compares ‘river to the sea’ chants at pro-Palestinian protests to Hitler

The co-chief executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Alex Ryvchin, said Payman “should immediately apologise for stoking hatred in such a vile way”.

Ryvchin said the phrase was “an old Arab supremacist slogan calling for the destruction of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of its Jewish population”.

“If she can’t refrain from using racist slogans at a time of extreme tension in our society, she should consider her position,” Ryvchin said.

But the president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, Nasser Mashni, thanked Payman for “speaking truth to power in the interests of the sanctity of human life and human rights”.

The deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, distanced himself from Payman’s comment about genocide. “It’s not the word I would use,” Marles told ABC Melbourne.

Payman used her first speech to the Senate to describe how her family fled Taliban-ruled Afghanistan shortly after her birth.

“I stand before you tonight as a young woman, as a Western Australian, as a Muslim devout to her faith, proud of her heritage and grateful to this beautiful country,” she told the Senate in 2022.