The attacks on Israel by Hamas were abhorrent and have been described so by the government since day one. We know it is extremely difficult to defeat a craven terrorist group that has burrowed itself in civilian infrastructure using civilians as a shield. Israel has a right to defend itself, but Israel’s friends, including Australia, have consistently emphasised the way it does so matters.
Senator CICCONE (Victoria—Deputy Government Whip in the Senate) (14:11): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Watt. Minister, can you update the Senate on the situation in the Middle East and how Australia is responding to the humanitarian situation?
Senator WATT (Queensland—Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister for Emergency Management) (14:11): I’m surprised that on a matter of this seriousness the opposition continue to maintain their political point scoring. That is rather disappointing. I thank Senator Ciccone for his important question. The humanitarian situation that we are seeing unfold in Gaza is dire, and human suffering is widespread. We can all see that on our TV screens, and the government recognises that for many Australians this has a deeply personal connection. Australia has five core priorities in this crisis—supporting civilians, helping prevent conflict from spreading and reinforcing the need for a durable peace—all of which we pursue by working with countries that have influence in the region. At the same time, we seek to keep our country unified and assist Australians abroad. Food, water, medicine, fuel and other essential assistance must reach people in desperate need, and civilians, including Australians, must be able to get to safety. Australia has contributed $25 million in aid but more assistance is required from parties to the conflict if this aid is to reach Gazans. This is why so many countries like Australia have been calling for humanitarian pauses on hostilities as a necessary first step.
The attacks on Israel by Hamas were abhorrent and have been described so by the government since day one. We know it is extremely difficult to defeat a craven terrorist group that has burrowed itself in civilian infrastructure using civilians as a shield. Israel has a right to defend itself, but Israel’s friends, including Australia, have consistently emphasised the way it does so matters. It matters for innocent civilians, who should not pay for horrors perpetrated by Hamas, and it matters for Australia’s own security, which faces grave risk if conflict spreads. The international community will not accept ongoing civilian deaths and the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza. Australia will continue working with partners to that effect.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Ciccone, a first supplementary?
Senator CICCONE (Victoria—Deputy Government Whip in the Senate) (14:13): Today I read that more than 2,000 people have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and have been able to leave Israel, West Bank and Gaza. Can the minister please provide the Senate with an update on efforts to support Australians returning home.
Senator WATT (Queensland—Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister for Emergency Management) (14:14): I think all senators would have been pleased that, after a week’s long international push to allow safe passage of civilians from Gaza, the Rapha crossing opened. Of those who crossed the border, 21 were Australian citizens, with two permanent residents and two family members. They were met by DFAT officials in Egypt who supported them, including with accommodation and onwards travel. Over the weekend, we saw most of these people return home. This included a family of four who landed in Adelaide and a family of three who landed in Melbourne. About a dozen people flew into Sydney last night, with lots of hugs and tears at the airport. Despite this progress, it is still extremely difficult to get people out of Gaza. DFAT is assisting nearly 80 individuals in Gaza, and we continue to press for them to be allowed to cross the border to safety. This has been a high priority for some time now for Minister Wong and her department, and I know that they’ll keep working hard on it.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Ciccone, a second supplementary?
Senator CICCONE (Victoria—Deputy Government Whip in the Senate) (14:15): It’s fair to say that it’s quite a distressing time for many, not just here in Australia but also, obviously, over in the Middle East. Minister, can you explain to the Senate the government’s role internationally and here at home?
Senator WATT (Queensland—Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister for Emergency Management) (14:15): The Australian government is working with our international partners to protect civilians, to prevent the conflict from spreading and, ultimately, to achieve a lasting and durable peace. At the same time, we are working to keep our country unified, including with a $50 million investment to support communities affected by the Hamas attacks on Israel and the ongoing conflict, and assisting thousands of Australians in the Middle East, including more than 2,000 who have returned home to Australia. On Saturday, you may have read the foreign minister’s op-ed penned for the Guardian that clearly outlined these priorities. It highlighted that Australia is part of the international diplomatic effort, reinforcing the imperative of a just and enduring peace. That requires a two-state solution: an Israeli state alongside a Palestinian state, with Israelis and Palestinians living securely and prosperously within internationally recognised borders. (Time expired)