By Matthew Knott and Olivia Ireland
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has defended Penny Wong’s decision not to visit any of the sites in southern Israel attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7 as the foreign minister faced a barrage of criticism from the political right and left as she departed on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East.
Albanese and Wong condemned the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as Labor MPs led by Julian Hill called for the government to take a hard line against extremist settlers by issuing travel bans and considering barring Australians from supporting settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories.
While the Greens and pro-Palestinian advocates demanded Wong forcefully insist upon a ceasefire during her trip, the Coalition and pro-Israel supporters condemned the government for not backing Israel’s defence against genocide charges in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the way it is conducting the war in Gaza.
Wong, who arrives in Jordan on Monday night, will meet with Israeli families of hostages taken to Gaza and survivors of the October 7 attacks, as well as Palestinian communities affected by Israeli settler violence during this week’s trip to the Middle East.
But Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executives Peter Wertheim and Alex Ryvchin said the decision not to travel to the southern Israeli kibbutzim targeted by Hamas was “insulting and deeply concerning”.
“Personally inspecting the south and witnessing the carnage and destruction would not only convey Australia’s support, it is essential to understanding the depth of evil that Israel faces and the necessity of its war to defeat Hamas,” they said in a statement.
“Intentionally bypassing such a visit is a serious error of judgment and we hope the foreign minister reconsiders this decision.”
Albanese said he was surprised by the criticism of Wong’s decision not to visit the homes of those attacked on October 7, arguing that her visit was “not about an opportunity for a photo op”.
“She’ll be talking first-hand with the people who’ve been impacted, both the survivors of that attack, but also the families,” he told ABC radio.
Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said: “A visit to ground zero of the worst antisemitic attack since the Holocaust would have been an important show of solidarity with Israel and Jewish Australians.”
Israel PM warns Hamas will be destroyed 100 days since the outbreak of war in Gaza.
He also noted the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Germany had backed Israel against South Africa’s charge it was committing genocide in the war in Gaza, while the Australian government had not outlined a position.
“Israel is looking for support from other democracies that seek to uphold the international rules-based order, which the South African case is undermining,” he said.
“By remaining silent on the ICJ case, and now refusing to visit the sites of the Hamas massacre, Australia is sending the wrong message.”
While foreign dignitaries such as British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, top European Union diplomat Josep Borrell and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier have visited kibbutzim targeted by Hamas on October 7, the Canadian and Japanese foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not do so during their trips to Israel.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison in November visited Kfar Aza, a kibbutz that suffered some of the worst atrocities on October 7, as did opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham, Labor MP Josh Burns and fellow members of a cross-party delegation that visited Israel in December.
Wong’s office has told the Israeli government she did not believe she would have time on her tight schedule for a kibbutz tour during the trip, which will include meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz and other senior politicians.
Describing the itinerary for Wong’s trip as “half-hearted”, Birmingham on Monday said: “The failure to visit any of the sites of the October 7 Hamas attacks will disappoint many and deprive Senator Wong of a full appreciation of the atrocities committed.
“Senator Wong will no doubt hear of frustration at the increasingly confusing stance of the Albanese government, which has said one thing about disabling Hamas but voted in contradictory ways at the UN [United Nations].”
Citing figures from the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health that 24,000 Palestinians had been killed since the war began, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said on social media that “even as Penny Wong travels to the Middle East today, the minister still refuses to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire”.
“Labor must hold Israel to account, and Senator Wong has an opportunity to do so during her visit,” she said. “A tour of the occupied territories won’t help Palestinians.”
Australia Palestine Advocacy Network president Nasser Mashni said it was “profoundly concerning that the foreign minister has framed her visit to the Middle East around continuing to reiterate her support for Israel’s right to defend itself”.
He urged her to go further than “merely expressing meek objections” to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza.
“Given she is not visiting the scenes of Israeli atrocities in Gaza, it is not appropriate for the foreign minister to visit a kibbutz,” he added.
Mashni backed Hill’s call for a crackdown on Israeli settlement building, saying: “It is well and truly time the Australian government committed to implementing tangible legal and policy measures, including sanctions, to ensure Israel immediately ceases its settlement activity, dismantles its settlements and moves its civilians from occupied territory.”
Both Wong and Albanese insisted that Australia was not a central player in the region but instead “a respected voice”.
Albanese told the ABC on Monday that “we have expressed our concern about settlements in the West Bank. That’s something that’s been a long-standing position of Australian governments because settlements can be an impediment to a two-state solution.”
Wong told a press conference in Adelaide before flying out: “Settler violence in the occupied Palestinian territories must be condemned and we do so, and in our efforts to use our voice to advocate for a pathway out of this conflict, we have made very clear that one of the priorities must be to avoid regional escalation.”
Wong backed Australia’s vote in favour of an immediate ceasefire in the war in Gaza at the UN General Assembly on December 13, which was a departure from Australia’s previous decision to abstain from voting, saying “an immediate ceasefire is a step towards that. No ceasefire is one-sided and no ceasefire is unconditional … I will say, however, that there is increasing concern about the protection of civilian lives.”