Tim Watts MP – opposing a Greens’ motion calling for the Government to end support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza

Photo of Tim Watts MP
February 7, 2024

The motion before the House is absolutely correct in citing the appalling death toll of this conflict and the increasing scale of humanitarian suffering, but we cannot forget, as this motion does, that more than 130 hostages are still being held by Hamas, nor can we forget the murder, the rapes and the sexual abuse of 7 October conducted by Hamas, as this motion does.

Mr WATTS (GellibrandAssistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) (10:40): In the wake of Hamas’s appalling terrorist attacks of 7 October, the Albanese government has taken a principled and consistent approach to the conflict in the Middle East and the way it rebounds in our community at home. We’ve had five priorities in this conflict: to keep our country united; to assist Australians abroad; to work with countries that have influence in the region to help protect and support civilians; to help prevent this conflict from spreading in the region; and to reinforce the need for a just and enduring peace. We understand that Australia is not a central player in this conflict, but we do have a respected voice and we’ve used it with countries who have influence in the region to pursue our objectives.

Both the foreign minister and I have travelled to the region to advance our principled position with parties in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in Jordan, in Qatar and in Egypt. We’ve directly engaged government officials, UN aid agencies, community and civil groups, and NGOs to try to further and realise our objectives.

From the outset of this conflict we’ve been consistent in the way that we’ve used our voice in saying that Israel does have a right to defend itself against these appalling terrorist attacks but that the way that Israel exercises that right matters and that Israel must respect international law. We’ve been consistent in calling on Israel to honour its commitment to uphold international law and protect innocent lives and to conduct its military operations lawfully. We’ve consistently set out our view that international humanitarian law requires the application of principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in military operations, that international law requires that states distinguish between lawful military targets and civilians, that international law requires that a state’s use of force must always be proportionate and that international law means that, in conducting military operations, states must exercise constant care and take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure from harm.

We’ve said that we understand that Hamas has buried into civilian infrastructure, but that does not obviate the requirement to observe international law. As a strong demonstration of our commitment to international law and respect for international institutions, we’ve been clear in responding to the International Court of Justice’s interim decision on the conflict. We’ve made plain our expectation that Israel act in accordance with the ICJ’s ruling, including to enable the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance.

The world has witnessed a harrowing number of civilian deaths in this conflict, including children. We have reports from the UN that 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza are starving and that a million are at risk of starvation. There are an estimated 1.7 million people in Gaza internally displaced, and there are increasingly few safe places for Palestinians to go. This must not continue.

The motion before the House is absolutely correct in citing the appalling death toll of this conflict and the increasing scale of humanitarian suffering, but we cannot forget, as this motion does, that more than 130 hostages are still being held by Hamas, nor can we forget the murder, the rapes and the sexual abuse of 7 October conducted by Hamas, as this motion does. The Australian government has consistently called for the immediate return of all hostages held by Hamas and the end of Hamas rocket attacks on Israel.

The unimaginable human suffering being experienced in the region is why Australia is part of the international diplomatic efforts supporting an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to enable increased aid to flow and hostages to be released. That’s why we joined with 152 other countries at the United Nations to vote for a humanitarian ceasefire as a critical, urgent step on the path to a permanent ceasefire. Like any ceasefire, it can’t be one-sided. We’ve made it clear that such a ceasefire would require Hamas to return hostages, to stop using Palestinians as human shields and to cease rocket attacks on Israel.

In the meantime, Australia has continued to work with international partners to ensure that desperately needed food, fuel, sanitation and medical supplies reach those in need in Gaza. We’ve consistently worked with countries who have influence in the region to call for safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access, and we’ve committed $46.5 million in humanitarian assistance to the region since the 7 October attacks. Of this total amount, $6 million of our humanitarian response funding was allocated to UNRWA, with the remainder being provided to other major trusted humanitarian organisations, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, UNICEF, the UN Population Fund and the UN Office for Project Services. This is on top of the more than $30 million in annual development assistance that Australia provides to Palestinians, including $20.6 million in core funding for UNRWA, which was dispersed in 2023—twice the amount committed by the previous government.

We need to recognise two things with respect to UNRWA. First, it does vital life-saving work, and no organisation has the mandate or logistical infrastructure to provide the services it does. Second, we also need to recognise that the recent allegations against its staff are grave and need to be urgently investigated. Australia welcomed UNRWA’s swift response to those allegations, including terminating staff and launching an investigation, as well as its recent announcement that former French foreign minister Colonna will chair a full independent review of UNRWA. We’re now working with a number of countries in the same position as us. We want to provide urgent humanitarian aid to people in Gaza, and collectively we’re making clear to UNRWA that it needs to demonstrate strong, transparent and accountable leadership for the international community to move forward together.

Importantly, through this conflict the Albanese government has always highlighted the need for an enduring negotiated settlement to this conflict where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side within recognised borders and with peace and security, and this has never been so urgent. This is why I’ve called out obstacles to peace, including the settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We’ve called out increasing settler violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the need to hold those responsible accountable. We’ve made clear there can be no enduring Israeli presence after the conflict and no diminution of territory in Gaza. We’ve made it clear that we support Palestinian aspirations for statehood as part of a negotiated settlement because neither side will be able to realise their aspirations to live in peace and prosperity without the other side’s being realised.

We’ve taken a principled and consistent approach throughout this conflict, and regrettably this stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Greens and the opposition. All too often those opposite have shown that their priority on this issue is not good-faith engagement—on one of the most complex emotive issues around the globe. Instead it’s to play domestic politics, to seek to divide our community for political gain, to never let the truth get in the way of a campaigning opportunity, to use more and more extreme rhetoric designed to inflame opinions and demand that the government does the same, and to perpetuate misinformation to stoke outrage.

Time and time again, this government has had to clean up misinformation spread by the Greens and the opposition. I reiterate what the government has already made very clear: Australia has not provided weapons to Israel since the conflict began or for the last five years. Australia has a stringent export control framework which is designed to ensure our military and dual-use items are used responsibly outside of Australia. Similarly, the foreign minister has been accused of breaching Australian law over UNRWA funding—the kind of ridiculous claim that has become all too characteristic of this Leader of the Opposition.

This kind of misinformation has consequences for our community. It spurs people into more and more extreme rhetoric and to take more and more extreme action. In my own home town we’ve seen places of worship disrupted on the basis of misinformation and the disturbing targeting of people on the basis of their religion and family associations. The Albanese government won’t play politics with this issue. We understand the importance of taking a principled approach to this conflict, not just because it’s the best way to navigate this incredibly serious and complex issue in the Middle East but also because it’s the best way to maintain social cohesion at home.

As leaders in this place, we need to recognise the complex and conflicting feelings of Australians on these issues and we need to encourage Australians to engage with each other with empathy, not contempt; to be curious about different perspectives of fellow Australians, not judgemental; and to recognise the complex feelings of the overwhelming majority of Australians on these difficult issues. Everyone deserves better than motions like this in this place that seek to divide rather than unite, that seek to find difference rather than common ground and that play domestic politics rather than look for solutions. Israelis deserve better, Palestinians deserve better and Australians deserve better.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard