Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions regarding Australia’s role in disabling Hamas; post-conflict planning; the responsibility for an attack on a hospital in Gaza; and fuel availability in Gaza

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
October 26, 2023

So we’re looking at other possible actions, potential contingencies, depending on how things evolve, to further strengthen the partnership in the fight against terrorism and, in particular, the disablement of Hamas?

CHAIR: Senator Birmingham, you have the call.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’ll go to remarks made this week by France’s President Macron. He spoke, during his visit to Israel, about France being ready for the international coalition against Daesh to be extended, potentially, to take part in operations against Hamas. He made clear, through his office, that this does not necessarily mean, or limit itself to, operations on the ground but could also entail training that occurs at present in terms of work against Daesh, or the sharing of information between partners as part of the fight against terrorism. Has Australia engaged in any discussions with international partners about how we may be able to provide additional support or additional co-operation in the fight against Hamas?

Mr Maclachlan : Firstly, we’re aware of President Macron’s suggestion. It’s an idea, but it’s one that I think we’d want to study a bit more closely; it’s a complex matter. We are engaged with all of our like-mindeds, as has been discussed already this morning, about the situation. I’ve already mentioned that we’re discussing the sanctions that have been put on Hamas by the US. We’re looking at the issues around how we can constrain the terrorist threat that’s posed by Hamas.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So we’re looking at other possible actions, potential contingencies, depending on how things evolve, to further strengthen the partnership in the fight against terrorism and, in particular, the disablement of Hamas?

Mr Maclachlan : In the broad, it’s a constant dialogue with our partners about the threat of terrorism. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a meeting this week of the Global Coalition against Daesh. I think that will be in Istanbul. More broadly, through the diplomatic efforts at the moment, we’re trying to convey the priorities of the Australian government with regard to the situation: addressing the threat posed by Hamas alongside the other issues that we are trying to deal with, including humanitarian access, access for our citizens to leave Gaza and the like.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. While looking at contingencies, what activities is Australia engaged in to look beyond the period of the immediate conflict; to look at the types of efforts that may be required at that stage to stabilise Gaza, particularly, in the absence of Hamas—pretending, as it has been for years, to govern Palestinians in Gaza? What types of efforts and international dialogue are underway in seeking to look to how that period may be addressed?

Mr Maclachlan : I’d characterise it in this way: countries with which we are engaging in dialogue are, for the most part, focused on the immediate issues—the present situation, how we address the humanitarian needs and the security needs. The longer term issue that you’re pointing to is certainly a feature in these discussions, but it is not foremost at the moment because people are so focused on trying to address these immediate issues. But that time is coming, and I imagine it will become an increasing part of the international dialogue about finding resolution.

Senator Wong: It’s actually a very important question, Senator Birmingham. Mr Maclachlan is right: there’s a great deal of focus on the now. I’d make two points. The first is that we’re not going to go back—I think the Israelis have said this—to where we were on 6 October. Therefore we need to think about where we are after this. The motivation behind your question is also the same motivation which is compelling all of us to do what we can to try and prevent the conflict from escalating. That has been one of the pressing matters that we have engaged on. If you look at what President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said over these last weeks since 7 October, and if you look at other P5 members—France, the United Kingdom—it has also been one of the things that we have really focused on in the outreach to partners. It is also why I made the comment I did that the way Israel exercises its right to self-defence matters, not only to civilians but also to Israel’s ongoing security. The deep concern that international partners are focusing on—apart from what is occurring in Gaza, what is occurring in relation to Hamas et cetera—is what can be done to prevent this escalating or spilling over into the broader region. Not only would that have such serious consequences for the people of the region but it then makes the task that you identify—the next task—even more difficult.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Minister and Mr Maclachlan. I appreciate that containment is critical for seeking to minimise loss of lives as well as longer term consequences. Of course, it’s also unknown as to when the time will be coming for trying to address stabilisation in Gaza and peacekeeping, potentially, in Gaza, as well as trying to build an environment in which Palestinian people in Gaza, at some point in the future, will be in a position to be part of negotiations with Israel to try to achieve a more peaceful outcome. That is unquestionably a long way down the track, following those issues of stabilisation and peacekeeping—and that depends upon the removal of Hamas as a force and influence, first and foremost. So removal of Hamas necessarily comes first. The containment of conflict is equally a precondition, but the importance of those broader discussions happening is critical. Did the cancellation of President Biden’s engagement with Middle Eastern leaders on his visit set back some of those discussions, and, from dialogue and engagement, can we have hope that, since then, dialogue has been able to be resumed, notwithstanding that unfortunate cancellation?

Mr Maclachlan: I think that what we’re seeing is actually a continued effort of dialogue. I’m sure, but it’s not really my job to speak for the US government about how they felt about that cancellation. All I’d note is that actually what we see is very determined diplomatic engagement across the region, notwithstanding what was an unfortunate cancellation. But it is ongoing. I would say it’s deep and it’s energetic.

Mr Jadwat : Could I just add that, overnight, President Biden reiterated: ‘When this crisis is over, there has to be vision of what comes next, and, in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.’ President Biden has reiterated that, and the diplomatic efforts continue to encourage that.

Senator Wong: I’m grateful that you are asking this question, Senator, because it’s easy in the crisis—well, nothing is easy about this. But, in the crisis, the tendency is to just focus on the now. But, if we are wanting to see peace in this region, we do have to think about that now as well. That is in part why we are engaging in the way that I’ve described, and in part why we’re working with others to do what we can to contain the conflict. But we do also need to work with others to build that political process that I referenced at the outset, in the opening statement, because it is a political process which is the only way we can see a just and enduring peace in the form of a two-state solution. That requires both sides to respect the right of the other to exist, and it requires the removal of Hamas.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Indeed. Thanks, Minister. I want to bring us back a little bit to the here and now, because I appreciate the limitations on what we can discuss about the medium to longer term, for which we have shared hopes but obviously many uncertainties. What systems has the government put in place for how we manage as a country—and the government, in particular, in its communications—disinformation during this conflict? That particularly flows on from the cancellation of President Biden’s meetings with Middle Eastern leaders, which was a result of what proved to be disinformation being spread by Hamas and other entities that, sadly, was accurately reported, which proved to be deeply inaccurate.

Mr Maclachlan : The way in which we manage this crisis is principally through the IDETF, the Inter-Departmental Emergency Taskforce. Through that process there has been a line of effort, led by Home Affairs, on social cohesion, an element of which is to try and tackle these issues around disinformation. Mr Jadwat has been directly engaged in this work to align and ensure that there’s connection between our international effort and our domestic effort. I might ask Mr Jadwat just to unpack some of that for you.

Mr Jadwat : We in DFAT have been working closely with the Department of Home Affairs, with Minister Giles, and also have sat in on meetings with state and territory ministers for multiculturalism, and we’ve been very determined to ensure that, on the domestic front, there is no domestic spillover from what is happening in Israel and Gaza, and that our domestic agencies understand the foreign policy implications and that we ensure, as Minister Wong has said repeatedly, that our social cohesion is protected and supported. From a DFAT perspective, it’s very important that we work with all of the agencies on the home front to ensure that this does not become a problem and that it doesn’t spill over into the streets of Australia.

Senator Wong: I would make the point that it has a particular relevance in this conflict but it’s a broader problem for our democracy, isn’t it? We should have a political culture and a polity that is grounded in fact. We can have different views about what we do as a consequence of those facts, but we see a much greater prevalence of assertions online and elsewhere which are not factual and which become the basis, then, of narrative and debate.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: There are many broader questions there, and, of course, the increasing role that technology will play in being able to create and spread disinformation will become more powerful. I know those discussions are ones that will be had across Home Affairs and challenge many aspects of democracies, in particular, as to how we respond. But, on the specifics here, it is focused on the real flow of challenging information that is misreported or can be misreported from the region.

The Prime Minister, following the hospital explosion, at a press conference, stated, ‘We condemn any targeting of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals,’ which, of course, we would all condemn and would do if and where such targeting did occur. That was then posted to social media and, I understand, is still there, notwithstanding the fact that it’s become clear that this was not a targeted attack. Has the government provided updates internally in terms of how to describe that attack? Could I encourage that the Prime Minister’s post be removed, given the implications of describing that in terms of a targeted attack?

Mr Maclachlan : Would you mind repeating the last phrase of your question? I’m sorry, I missed that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: There were two parts: one was in terms of the information being provided to government, and especially in relation to the explosion at the Gaza hospital; the other was a request for the Prime Minister’s office to look at removing that post, given the insinuation it creates that the hospital explosion was a targeted attack, which it was not.

Mr Maclachlan : It’s not really my position to respond to the second question. In relation to the first, we obviously rely on partners for a lot of the information that we get, and some of that is sensitive information. From our point of view, I think we are guided by the US National Security Council statement that indicates that Israel was not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday. This was a few days ago.

Senator Wong: Last week.

Mr Maclachlan : Last week, sorry. That’s our view—that it’s likely to have been a malfunctioning rocket.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m conscious very much of time, and I’ve put the request in for the other matter, and that will be for the PMO to deal with. This is the last one from me for now, because I know other colleagues have plenty of other issues they want to try to get through, but it still relates to potential disinformation. I note a tweet—if that’s what we still call them—overnight, or in the early hours of this morning, from the Israeli Defense Forces, which goes to some of the debate that existed about the availability of fuel within Gaza, highlighting, it claims, fuel tanks inside Gaza potentially containing more than 500 litres of fuel. This was in response to a particular tweet made by UNRWA, warning that, if they do not get fuel urgently, it will impact operations in Gaza. Does Australia have an understanding as to whether there is, in fact, fuel available inside Gaza, as the IDF has reported?

Mr Maclachlan : I’m sorry, I’m not in a position to comment on the tweet nor the assertion in that tweet.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Does Australia have an understanding in relation to the availability of fuel inside Gaza?

Mr Maclachlan : Not in the same way. What we’re hearing through the humanitarian reporting is that fuel is in short supply.

Ms Delaney : Yes, that is what we’re hearing, that fuel is in short supply, including during conversations directly with UN counterparts.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is it possible that fuel is in short supply to those humanitarian or other functions within Gaza but that there is actually fuel within Gaza that authorities in Gaza, namely Hamas, may not be releasing?

Senator Wong: We’re not on the ground, Senator. But the concerns you raise—obviously, the negotiations between the parties to enable access include Israel.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: To enable access, yes.

Senator Wong: Humanitarian access and whatever is provided. Their views are obviously going to be part of the negotiations to enable any humanitarian—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I understand that’s key to access, obviously. My question was specific to the suggestion there is a fuel shortage or fuel availability and—

Senator Wong: My point is: I’m sure that, if that is the Israeli view, they will bring it to the discussions about what is enabled to be provided, and they will make their assessment in the context of those negotiations because no humanitarian access into Gaza is going to be facilitated without Israeli agreement.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That was the last question from me. I know that Senator Chandler has questions.

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