Senator Jordon Steele-John – Estimates questions regarding whether it is the Government’s view that Israel is breaching international law in Gaza

Photo of Senator Jordon Steele-John
October 26, 2023

The State of Israel has denied the provision of water, food and medicine to the entire population of Gaza, 2.2 million people. That is a crime against humanity—it is collective punishment—and it is doing incredible human damage to the population of Gaza, 40 per cent of which are, as I’m sure you know, below the age of 15. Will the government now clearly condemn the siege of Gaza by the State of Israel as a crime of collective punishment?

CHAIR: Senator Steele-John.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: In kicking off I would like to echo the thanks of the other members of the committee for the departmental staff’s very hard work in the last two weeks. There’s no real model for what you’ve had to do over the last 18 days or so, and I think all of us on the committee would extend a thanks to you for that work. I’d also like to reiterate the statements made by the Greens in the parliament, extending our unequivocal acknowledgment of the horrendous and unjustifiable terrorist attacks by Hamas on 7 October, and I acknowledge the deep grief and pain of the Australian Jewish community in this moment, as they grieve some 1,400 dead as a result of those terror attacks. I would also echo the statements of my party in solidarity with the Australian Palestinian community, who today grieve some 5,000 or more dead in Gaza and the horrendous impacts upon civilians as a result of the policy response of the Netanyahu government.

Before I go any further, I’d like to seek clarification from Ms Delaney in relation to an answer stepping out the Australian aid response in Gaza. I just want to make sure that I understood correctly the evidence that you presented. I believe that you outlined for the committee that a portion of Australian aid is going towards the purchase and provision of body bags to Gaza to address their current shortage. Is that correct?

Ms Delaney : What I said was about the contribution that we make through the International Committee of the Red Cross. The reporting that we have from them is that they were able to provide medical supplies, which included body bags.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: How many?

Ms Delaney : I don’t have that number on me.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: The United Nations, in line with the calls made by many humanitarian organisations—Amnesty International and others—have clearly stated their grave concerns in relation to the State of Israel’s policy response to the 7 October attacks. Minister, in your opening statement you repeated the statement you’d made previously during the week that the Palestinian people shouldn’t be punished for the crimes of Hamas, and yet for the last two weeks Gaza has been subject to a siege. The State of Israel has denied the provision of water, food and medicine to the entire population of Gaza, 2.2 million people. That is a crime against humanity—it is collective punishment—and it is doing incredible human damage to the population of Gaza, 40 per cent of which are, as I’m sure you know, below the age of 15. Will the government now clearly condemn the siege of Gaza by the State of Israel as a crime of collective punishment?

Mr Maclachlan : We acknowledge the terrible suffering of innocent civilians in the Gaza strip, and this is precisely why the government, along with others, has called for a humanitarian pause to find the space to enable the convoys that we’ve talked about already to get assistance to innocent civilians in Gaza.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: I do acknowledge that’s perfectly adequate—you are giving a response as a departmental figure. I was seeking a response from the government, which it is obviously not your role to give.

Senator Wong: I thought it might be useful—you made a statement before the question and you made assertions as well, which are assertions of political judgement, not fact. What I would say is that this is an extraordinarily difficult, complex and distressing crisis. We saw an abhorrent attack by a terrorist organisation against civilians. We have hostages who have been taken. We saw the murder of civilians and the depiction of this for political purposes on social media. We saw the loss of life of an Australian citizen, and I again repeat what I’ve said before publicly about my condolences to her family.

We are a government and a nation that has had a longstanding relationship with the State of Israel. We believe in Israel’s inherent right to exist, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself. In fact, it does have an obligation to defend itself against the sort of attack that we saw unfold on 7 October. But, from the beginning, we have also articulated the principles that we think should apply to Israel’s actions. From the very first response I made, which would’ve been our Saturday night, whilst those events were still unfolding—remember: at that time I had not verified the full extent of the horror that had been perpetrated. We have said civilian lives should be protected and international humanitarian law should be observed. There is clearly widespread suffering in Gaza. There clearly is.

We know that Hamas, which is a terrorist organisation, has burrowed itself into Gaza’s civilian population. So none of this is easy. This is all tragically difficult. The position we seek to take as a government is to adopt a principled framework by which we deal with this conflict and, more broadly, matters in the Middle East—so this conflict but, more broadly, the issue of how we talk about and engage internationally in relation to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Some of the things we seek to do, bearing in mind both that principled position and the imperative of social cohesion—and you know how distressed and angry parts of our community are—is to be clear about the principles we are articulating, to listen to people and to not engage in the making of political difference, which I would continue to urge to all senators. People have a right to their views. I have heard many views from the Islamic community, the Palestinian community and the members of the Arab community more broadly. I understand people’s distress, just as I understand, insofar as we can, the distress of Australia’s Jewish community. You’ve used words. They’re your words. And I’ve used mine.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Minister, you have said in your opening statement and previously during the week that you do not believe the people of Gaza, the people of Palestine, should be punished for the crimes of Hamas, and yet that is exactly what a siege is doing. A siege does not differentiate. There’s no asterisk on this policy of the State of Israel that says food, water and medicine will make its way to civilians but not to Hamas. It is a complete siege, a textbook definition of collective punishment. The Israeli foreign minister has made it clear that, should Hamas surrender, the siege would end. That is a textbook definition of collective punishment. Why won’t your government condemn this crime against humanity?

Senator Wong: Well, they’re your words. I’ll use my words and I have responded. But you’ve also made a number of assertions there. It might be useful for Ms McKenna to—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: No, I don’t think it would, because these are questions—

CHAIR: Senator Steele-John, let the minister conclude, please.

Senator Wong: You’ve made assertions; you’ve used your words. I will use mine, as I have consistently. But you’ve made some assertions. It might be useful for the committee and those who might be listening to have, at a principled level, some of the discussions about the legal principles that have been thrown about.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: We will get the question of legality later on during the day.

Senator Wong: No, excuse me. I’ve directed your question—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: No, I’m—

Senator Wong: Wow.

CHAIR: Take it easy, everyone. The minister has continued her remarks and has asked one of the officials to also supplement what she has provided the committee. I think it’s for the benefit of the committee that we hear from Ms McKenna.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: I’m conscious of the time that I’m allocated.

CHAIR: It’s okay. You’ll have opportunities. Let’s just hear from Ms McKenna first.

Ms McKenna : As the Prime Minister and foreign minister have consistently stated, protection of civilians and respect for international humanitarian law is of course paramount. While I’m not in a position to provide legal advice to the committee, what I can say in general terms is that states do have a right to defend themselves, consistent with international law, and, of course, the way in which they do that matters. Sieges are not in themselves prohibited under international humanitarian law. However, international humanitarian law does provide for the facilitation of humanitarian assistance. Australia has called for safe and unimpeded access and for a humanitarian pause to allow life-saving assistance to reach civilians affected by the conflict.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Thank you for that. Can I just clarify something? Is it your position that the State of Israel’s siege of Gaza is in line with international law?

Senator Wong: It’s not fair to put her in that position. I said that the officer can provide, as a matter of general principle, the legal principles which you are seeking to reference. She’s not here to provide legal opinion about a view that you put. I thought it would be useful for the committee to have at least the relevant principles outlined at high level. What I would say to you, Senator Steele-John, is that we do believe that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire. We do believe that the suffering is widespread. We have consistently called, and did again yesterday, for the protection of civilian lives, and we’ve consistently called for safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access and for safe passage for civilians. I called yesterday, along with others, for humanitarian pauses on hostilities because we want food, water, medicine and other essential assistance to reach civilians in desperate need—and so civilians can get to safety. What I said yesterday is what I’ve said for some time, including to the chamber. The way Israel exercises its right to defend itself matters. It does matter. It matters to civilians throughout the region, and I would also say it matters to Israel’s own security.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Are you saying, Minister, that the government’s position is that the siege of Gaza is in line with international law?

Senator Wong: I’ve used the words I have used.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So you will neither condemn it as illegal nor affirm it as legal.

CHAIR: I think the minister’s provided a response.

Senator Wong: I’ve provided a response.

CHAIR: You’ve got another minute to go, Senator.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: There have been a number of eminent international human rights organisations that have now documented very clearly the war crimes of Hamas on 7 October, particularly the taking of hostages and the refusal to unconditionally release those hostages, which the government has rightly condemned, and the Australian Greens have joined with you in doing that. Those same organisations have stated clearly that the State of Israel is engaged in the commission of war crimes in Gaza, particularly with the air strikes upon civilians without notice, which they are obliged to give under international law. This is a question for you, Minister. Will the government now condemn the commission of war crimes by the State of Israel upon the population of Gaza?

Senator Wong: I understand what you’re seeking to do, and I think we have made our position clear—the principled framework that we seek to articulate. I understand the politics of why you’re trying to press this point, and you’ve made a number of assertions there which I take at face value but which I’m not going to engage in a factual debate about. This is a tragically difficult situation. We have sought to articulate a principled position because that is who Australia is. We are a country that argues for the protection of civilian lives. We are a country that argues for the observance of international humanitarian law and all that that means. And overnight I have made clear our view about the need for humanitarian pauses to enable assistance to be provided.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Senator McKenzie, you have the call.

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