Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions regarding Australia’s conversations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders; the future role of Hamas; the delivery of aid; and consular issues

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
October 26, 2023

Can I get a summary of the minister’s engagement with her counterparts. Since 7 October who has Minister Wong been able to speak to and engage with—in terms of her Israeli counterpart obviously, but also across the region and with allies and partners—on these key issues?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Can I acknowledge those opening statements and the extent to which so many people continue to be haunted by the horrors of 7 October, particularly people across Israel and Jewish communities right around the world and in Australia, and of course traumatised by the ongoing loss of innocent lives that has occurred across Israel, and those innocent Palestinian lives that have been lost as well, and the trauma that is causing in many parts of the world.

We stand by the parliamentary motion that was passed and acknowledge the work to achieve a bipartisan position in relation to that parliamentary motion. I also acknowledge the three points you made, Minister, in relation to the importance of social cohesion, of containing conflict and of supporting Australians. We would also highlight the importance of ultimately defeating terrorism. I want to thank DFAT officials. Ms Adams, you’ve acknowledged the wider work across the APS and acknowledged those who are working long hours and doing so to support Australians and Australian interests.

In acknowledging we have a tight time frame this morning, we’ll try to move through questions as quicky as we can and hope that we can also keep answers, in what are complex areas, as tight as we can. Can I firstly seek any update to the Prime Minister’s engagement with counterparts. We went through some of that when PM&C appeared and I don’t need to hear a repeat of what was said there. Has a discussion been scheduled with Prime Minister Netanyahu and are there other updates, aside from the obvious one in terms of the Prime Minister’s engagement with President Biden on these matters?

Mr Maclachlan : We are continuing discussions to find an alignment of time to enable a call to happen, and we’re confident that hopefully that will happen in the next little while.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So it hasn’t been scheduled yet, but you are hopeful it will be in the next little while. I appreciate that. Before I ask the next question, I trust we’re getting copies of the opening statements, particularly the secretary’s, because it contains data that might avoid other questions needing to be asked. Can I get a summary of the minister’s engagement with her counterparts. Since 7 October who has Minister Wong been able to speak to and engage with—in terms of her Israeli counterpart obviously, but also across the region and with allies and partners—on these key issues?

Mr Maclachlan : I’ll ask my colleague Mr Jadwat to detail this.

Mr Jadwat: Since 7 October Foreign Minister Wong has spoken to a wide number of counterparts throughout the region. She has spoken to the foreign minister of Israel and Jordan and the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister. She’s also spoken to the Israeli ambassador, the Egyptian ambassador, the foreign ministers of the UAE, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Japan, and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. She met with the Arab Group ambassadors. She had another call with Israel and also with Iran and Brazil, and the high commissioner of the United Kingdom. Assistant Foreign Minister Watts has also spoken to counterparts in Oman, Qatar, Iraq and Morocco.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you for that summary, and I acknowledge, as the parliamentary motion did, the importance of engagement across the Middle East and with Arab nations. That is critical. Minister, you and the government have quite rightly been consistent in the condemnation of Hamas. Does Australia support the clear objective stated by Israel in terms of the removal of Hamas from positions of power within Gaza?

Senator Wong: I think I said in my opening statement—and it’s reflected in the parliamentary statement—our view about Hamas. Hamas has no place in any future of stability and peace in the Middle East.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, in terms of how that is achieved, obviously that is the great difficulty and sensitivity that Israel in particular is trying to navigate at present, in terms of how to remove them from a position of power or influence, especially over Israel, but to do so whilst minimising humanitarian losses and loss of innocent lives. What is the Australian message and engagement with Israel in relation to our support for their efforts but also how to balance those issues?

Senator Wong: You would have seen the many statements we have made, from my first public statement, to the bipartisan motion, to my most recent message in our call for humanitarian pauses. The principal position we take is Hamas was engaged in a brutal terror attack. We believe Hamas is a terrorist organisation that does not represent the aspirations of the Palestinian people. We have acknowledged Israel’s right—in fact, obligation—to defend itself in the face of such attacks. We have consistently called for the protection of civilian lives and the observance of international law.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What engagement, if any, has Australia had with the Palestinian Authority in the time since 7 October?

Mr Jadwat: Foreign Minister Wong spoke to the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Foreign Minister al-Maliki, on 10 October and also in a meeting with the Council of Arab Ambassadors here. Foreign Minister Wong of course met with the head of the general Palestinian delegation here, Mr Izzat Abdulhadi. I’ve also spoken to him in an official capacity as well.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Were those calls initiated by Australia?

Mr Jadwat: Yes. The call, though, by the Arab League ambassadors or the group of Arab ambassadors here in Canberra was initiated by that group.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Australia, as you referenced, has committed some $25 million worth of humanitarian aid and access to Gaza. How is that aid being delivered?

Mr Brazier : Australia has announced so far a total of $25 million in humanitarian assistance to those affected by the Hamas-Israel conflict. On 14 October, the foreign minister announced an initial humanitarian contribution of $10 million, of which $3 million was provided to the Red Cross for the delivery of essential services and medical supplies, $6 million went to UNICEF for water and sanitation support, and $1 million was provided to the United Nations operations department to enable humanitarian staff and supplies to have access. This morning the foreign minister announced a second contribution of $15 million, of which $2 million will be provided to UNICEF for further water and sanitation support, $2 million will go to the UN Population Fund for sexual and reproductive health and gender based violence services, $2 million will go to other UN agencies to preposition essential supplies, and a further $6 million will go to the Red Cross for food, water and medical care, with a balance of $3 million set aside to meet emerging needs through those and other partners.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What is Australia’s understanding in terms of the status of the ability of humanitarian aid and assistance to reach people in Gaza?

Mr Brazier : As you may have seen in media reporting, there have a been a number of convoys arranged for supplies to cross the Rafah gate from Egypt into Gaza. We understand that four convoys have passed through the Rafah crossing so far, with at least 62 truckloads of humanitarian supplies.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is there any progress being made in terms of further flow of humanitarian assistance in any faster way?

Mr Brazier : The US, Egypt and others have consistently called, as has the Australian government, for safe and unimpeded access. As I understand it, it’s a day-by-day proposition.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The Rafah crossing itself is controlled by Egypt, is it not?

Mr Maclachlan : I think, in effect, it’s controlled by two sides. As Mr Brazier has alluded to, there have been discussions between the parties he mentioned to try to open Rafah to humanitarian supplies and, indeed, to enable foreign citizens to exit. These are difficult negotiations, as you might imagine. Some parties want to be assured that what’s going in is purely for humanitarian purpose and not to aid Hamas, yet clearly the need is there. We understand that ordinarily there would be 400 trucks a day going through that border. You can imagine that, in the circumstance where we’ve had a little over 50 in the past 72 hours, or slightly longer, that is not going to really address, in full, the humanitarian need that’s clearly building.

Senator Wong: If I may, the humanitarian access—that is, the Rafah crossing being open to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid and the utilisation of Rafah for the safe passage of foreign nationals, including Australians—has been one of the primary foci of my engagement with counterparts, ambassadors and the UN officials that Mr Jadwat outlined. It’s been proving very difficult. There are obviously many parties to this: Egypt, Israel and others. There have been many attempts and many occasions where there was hope that the next day, the next morning, the border crossing would be opened. It was pleasing that, finally, in the last three days, I think—I stand to be corrected—there was some access, but there were quite a number of days where there was a lot of hope but, unfortunately, there was no ability to have the crossing opened. I don’t know if Mr Maclachlan or Ms Delaney wants to add anything.

Ms Delaney : The minister is right. In terms of the ability for convoys to get in, the first convoy, based on UN reporting, was on 21 October. There have been stop-starts since then. I think the expectation and the hope was that we would start seeing more trucks get through that Rafah crossing, but it’s proving difficult. We do know that, of those who have been able to get through, the supplies have been received by the Palestinian Red Crescent and are being transferred to UN warehouses in Gaza for distribution.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Maclachlan alluded to my next question. How is Australia assuring itself that the assistance it is providing is reaching those who genuinely need it, innocent Palestinian civilians, and not able to be intercepted or used by Hamas?

Ms Delaney : In relation to the first package that ministers announced, on 14 October, our partners were actually already established and operational within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including Gaza. We’re using prepositioned supplies and support, and that’s where we were targeting our initial work. They were able to then immediately respond by delivering supplies. The latest reporting that I have is that, for example, the contribution through the International Committee of the Red Cross enabled them to dispatch medical supplies such as beds, stretchers and, sadly, body bags for hospitals in Gaza. They were also able to support the installation of 25 water storage tanks within Gaza. In addition, the information I have in relation to our contribution through UNICEF is that they have also been able to provide support for the operation of desalination and wastewater treatment plants at that time and during the course of the past week or so, and that’s enabled water to continue to flow to around 800,000 people, half of which were children. We were able to give that indication for that first package. In relation to the package that’s recently been announced, we’re obviously working with UN partners on needs and what is possible and able to be delivered. We’re very aware of the constraints associated with supplies being able to be delivered at this point.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Just to that point, some of the international development agencies I’ve spoken with have talked about the abilities of some, relative to others, to reach across Gaza in terms of how their networks are established. With regard to the partners we are working with, what is their scope and reach?

Ms Delaney : As you point out, scope and reach are very challenging in the current context. It’s quite a fluid environment, but we are very confident with the partners that we are working with. They’re well established. We have established partnerships with them, and we have very strong frameworks in place and robust systems in order to assure ourselves that when we’re providing support through those partners—through the Red Cross and through those UN partners—it’s able to reach those that need it.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Brazier, in the breakdown of where today’s funding announcement is going to, you did at one stage say ‘other UN agencies’. Are you able to specify who they are?

Ms Delaney : We’re still working through the detail of the additional UN partners. Part of the issue is ensuring that we are preparing for any impacts, as the minister mentioned in opening remarks, in terms of either flow-ons impacting existing populations within the region or what might be needed in the context of that particular border crossing and support, for example, in Egypt.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of Australia’s discussions and engagement with Israel, what support, if any, has Israel requested of Australia?

Mr Jadwat : Are you asking specifically about military support, or are you asking about diplomatic support?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I am asking about diplomatic, military or other assistance that could include humanitarian support.

Mr Jadwat : We haven’t received any requests for military support. In relation to diplomatic support, we’ve had regular engagements with the Israeli embassy here and also with the foreign ministry in Israel. They, of course, have asked us for support in relation to condemning the atrocities of 7 October and also in looking at what can be done to take action against Hamas and to better understand the dangers and the implications of what Hamas was able to do and the potential spillover in the region.

Mr Maclachlan : I might add to Mr Jadwat’s answer. As you would be aware, the Ambassador of the State of Israel addressed the National Press Club yesterday. When asked about this, he noted, ‘The clear message of Prime Minister Albanese, Ms Wong, the DPM and so many other political leaders were the messages of support that the State of Israel was looking for.’

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of action against Hamas: beyond Australia’s position of condemnation and of support for Hamas to be removed from positions of influence, has Israel asked for any other action, or suggested any other action, that Australia could take in diplomatic or non-military activities?

Mr Maclachlan : Senator, as you know, Australia has a very strong stand against Hamas. It’s listed as a terrorist organisation and we have sanctioned individuals. I don’t have it right in front of me, but I can get that for you. And we continue to look at what other action we might be able to take to address the challenge that Hamas poses—the threat that Hamas poses.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I have noted that the United States has imposed further sanctions on key Hamas terrorist group members, operatives and financial facilitators in the period since 7 October. Is there a reason why Australia has not, or is this action being considered?

Mr Maclachlan : You’ll appreciate that we don’t normally telegraph those who we’re going to sanction in detail. We’re aware of the US measures and we’re studying the US measures. Of course, we have different legal bases for action, but we’re looking at it very closely.

Senator Wong: Excuse me, I’ll just add something—and I’m sure officials will confirm if I have this right. We had already imposed counterterrorism-financing sanctions against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as a further six entities and three persons with links to Hamas. These sanctions included asset-freeze provisions. I would also emphasise that, as listed terrorist organisations under the Criminal Code, it is an offence for Australians to acquire funds for, from or to provide to Hamas and the PIJ.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. Coalition senators may come back with some further sanctions-related questions. I might now shift to Australians in the conflict region. We don’t yet have the secretary’s opening statement, but perhaps we can get an initial understanding of how many Australians are understood to be in Israel, or Gaza or the West Bank, and in Lebanon?

Senator Wong: And in Lebanon, did you say?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes.

Mr Maclachlan : As a headline figure, there are 10,000 to 12,000 Australians who we think are in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories at any one time. There is a bit ‘rubberyness’ in that figure, if you like; there will be short-term visitors and the like. Active registrations of Australians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories stands at 1,275, of whom roughly a third—434—are registered for information only.

As the secretary pointed out in her statement, we’re providing consular assistance to 137, of whom seven are in Israel, 79 in Gaza and 51 in the West Bank. The total number of registered Australians who have departed Israel stands at 1,930 and the number of Australians and foreign nationals who departed via one of our assisted departure flights was 848, of whom 606 were Australian nationals and 242 were foreign nationals. A large proportion of those foreign nationals were citizens of the Pacific islands. If you’d like a breakdown, I can give you that breakdown, or perhaps my colleague will.

We’ve assisted 23 Australians to depart the West Bank and, as I indicated earlier, we have 51 remaining there who have registered with us. There could be others who have not registered with us. And we understand that the long-term Australian community in Lebanon is around 15,000. Over the top of that, there would be a large number, thousands I would think, of short-term visitors and the like. Roughly 400 people have registered with us so far—just slightly under 400. But this is an ongoing situation.

Senator Wong: Can I add a couple of points? Mr Maclachlan and his team have done an extraordinary job, and I would emphasise that there are different levels of challenge with different cohorts. Obviously, the most deeply, or seriously, concerning situation is in relation to those Australians in Gaza. That was an early focus of my engagement, and it’s linked to the Rafah crossing issue that we discussed earlier. For those Australians in or exiting the West Bank, there have obviously been some challenges, given the heightened security situation in Israel. It has meant more security checks. That has been challenging at times but, obviously, it has been worked through.

More broadly, what we anticipated early on, in the first three weeks—it’s not a long time, but it’s what I’m thinking of as the ‘early’ part of the crisis—was the availability of commercial options. Mr Maclachlan and his team, and the ADF, have variously arranged assisted departures via commercial and/or chartered aircraft, and also the RAAF flights. I think the cohort in Israel is quite a large cohort; obviously, there’s a number of Australian citizens, and many are dual citizens who reside there. And then there are those who register with us—those who may want to leave or who are registered. As Mr Maclachlan said, about a third of them are registered for information only and the remainder are people who are, I suppose, considering leaving. Demand is a lot less now, obviously, and we have indicated no further assisted departures at this stage.

The numbers in Lebanon and the history of 2006 is a much bigger, more challenging proposition. You would have heard me in the Senate, emphasising on a number of occasions that our travel advice is, ‘Do not travel to Lebanon, due to the volatile security situation’. You have probably heard me say it, and I will say it again: if you are an Australian in Lebanon, you should consider leaving on the first available commercial departure option, if it is safe to do so. That remains the government’s public message to Australians in Lebanon.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Do we have any indication that the message is being heeded?

Mr Maclachlan : I think we have every indication that it’s not. We’re not alone in that experience, either. Obviously, we’re co-ordinating our efforts with like-mindeds and other partners. We have, as the minister outlined, increased our messaging—through the travel advice, in particular, and by going to ‘do not travel’. But, frankly, the level of calls that we receive in relation to Lebanon have diminished to very low numbers. At this stage, we have 400 registered. It won’t stop there; we will get more registered, but people have not, in the numbers we would like to see, decided to follow our advice and leave. There are many reasons for that. Australians have a long-term connection with family and friends in Lebanon and many are resident there. Many are hoping there’s no escalation, and we are working as we outlined through the diplomatic representations to try to avoid an escalation and regional spread of this conflict. But we don’t have the luxury in a sense of relying on hope, and we are doing everything we can to plan for a future crisis. But the key message for Australians in Lebanon is to leave now. We cannot be certain, despite all the planning that is underway now, that we will be able to exercise those plans because we cannot simply know at this point what the nature of the security environment will be like at that time.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Mr Maclachlan. To give you one extra chance to reinforce some of that messaging, the government yesterday announced prepositioning of further aircraft in the Middle East to be able to respond to potential eventualities. However, how would you describe the limitations in relation to Australia’s capacity to respond to any or all eventualities?

Mr Maclachlan : One way to describe it might be to recount briefly what happened in 2006, which was a consular crisis that I think is seared into the minds of DFAT officers who were involved at the time. Over three weeks we had to move 5,100 Australians, and we also moved a bit over 1,200 foreign nationals using a whole range of means: ferries, planes and overland through Syria. Some of these options are no longer available to us. We simply couldn’t, for obvious reasons, move people overland through Syria. Our ability to make use of airfields is an unknown, but we are doing preparations and are not simply reliant on the ADF but broader preparations to enable us to provide those options. Anecdotally we are hearing there are fewer ferries available in the eastern Mediterranean now than there were nearly 20 years ago. These are the constraints.

Senator Wong: And the numbers are bigger.

Mr Maclachlan : The numbers are bigger.

Senator Wong: The options this government would have available to assist Australians are more limited than in 2006, correct?

Mr Maclachlan : The options?

Senator Wong: Yes, the options are more limited, and the numbers of Australians in Lebanon is larger.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. I’ll bring us back to Gaza. Is Australia aware of any foreign nationals, aside from the very tiny number of hostages who have been released, who have been able to leave Gaza?

Mr Maclachlan : No. As I mentioned earlier, there is an ongoing dialogue principally between the US, Egypt and Israel around access through, in both directions, the Rafah crossing. We have, as we’ve heard, been seeing aid trucks go through. What we have not been able to see are foreign nationals in particular come through that crossing to Egypt. It’s difficult. We are engaged, through our embassy in Cairo very directly with the Egyptian system, with the Israeli MFA to ensure that they understand who our people are that we are trying to get out, the 79 citizens and family. But it’s a very difficult situation, and like-mindeds are in the same position. The number is not insignificant.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What is our understanding of why foreign national passport holders are not being allowed to cross into Egypt?

Mr Maclachlan : That’s a complex issue to truly understand, and one that perhaps I wouldn’t necessarily want to explore in an open setting like this. But it is a complex situation, and we are working with the Egyptians and others, as I say, to make sure that they are aware of our need to get these people out as soon as possible.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Beyond those complexities, there are the complexities of family and others of Australian national passport holders. What work is DFAT undertaking to work with other Australian government agencies to secure identification or other assistance they may require so that, when the border is open, they may be able to cross safely as Australian passport holders?

Mr Maclachlan : As we do in every crisis—and you will be aware, I think, from evidence I gave last time about our response in Sudan—we work very closely with Home Affairs and the ABF to ensure as quickly as we can that people have visas to enable them to facilitate an exit. Every crisis is different. It’s difficult for us to put emergency travel documents in the hands of these families, but we work very closely with Home Affairs to accelerate that process to ensure that they’re in best position to get across the border at the earliest possible moment.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Mr Maclachlan.

CHAIR: Do we have that opening statement? I know Senator Birmingham has asked a few times. Senator Green.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard