Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi has criticised the government and opposition for failing to condemn Israel for “committing war crimes” against Palestinians in Gaza.
The deputy Greens leader said the situation was worsening every day, and that Israel was inflicting collective punishment against Palestinians.
“I think people are horrified, and I think it is completely untenable and disgraceful the Australian government do not come out and call it what it is – collective punishment and war crimes,” she said.
For weeks, the government and the opposition have voiced their support for Israel to defend itself after Hamas launched its deadly attacks on October 7.
But on Thursday Senator Faruqi said “committing war crimes is not defending yourself”.
“Throwing bombs of white phosphorus is not defending yourself, denying 2.3 million people of food, water, electricity, fuel is not defending yourself. Let’s call it for what it is … this is not self-defence … this is collective punishment, and is absolutely a war crime,” she said.
So far, Labor MPs Ed Husic and Anne Aly have been the only government members to voice their concern over innocent Palestinians.
Senator Faruqi said she hoped more MPs came out.
“But what is more important is that the prime minister and the minister for foreign affairs actually call it what it is,” she said.
The Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham was asked whether Israel cutting off food, water, and energy, and blocking aid envoys into Gaza was an “appropriate response”.
Senator Birmingham said there was a lot of “disinformation” circling.
We give, again, all support to parties to work with Egypt and others to try to get those foreign nationals out, get the humanitarian assistance in and critically, those people who should be able to get out of Gaza are the hostages who we should not forget are still being held by Hamas and along with the Palestinian people in general are being used as a human shield by the terrorists,” he told ABC News.
He said Israel was acting to “remove Hamas from a position of influence”.
“That is an appropriate response, they should act in accordance with international laws and they should be absolutely mindful in terms of civilian lives lost … but this is a very challenging, very difficult situation that Israel finds itself in to attempt to remove a terrorist power acting on its doorstep,” he said.
Senator clashes with Wong
Earlier in foreign affairs estimates on Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong stopped short of saying the suffering in Gaza amounted to collective punishment when asked during a fiery exchange with a Greens senator.
Greens senator Jordon Steele-John asked whether the government would condemn the “siege of Gaza” as a “crime of collective punishment”.
Senator Wong acknowledged the “terrible suffering” of civilians in the Gaza Strip but declined to adopt Senator Steele-John’s characterisation.
“This is precisely why the government has called for a humanitarian pause, along with others, to find the space to enable the convoys we’ve talked about already, to get assistance to innocent civilians in Gaza,” she said.
Senator Wong said “this is an extraordinarily difficult, complex and distressing crisis”.
But Australia believed in “Israel’s inherent right to exist and … right to defend itself”.
“There is clearly widespread suffering in Gaza, there clearly is. And we know that Hamas, which is a terrorist organisation, has burrowed itself into Gaza’s civilian population, so none of this is easy. This is all tragically difficult,” she said.
Senator Steele-John pushed back: “It is a complete siege, a textbook definition of collective punishment … Why won’t your government condemn this crime against humanity.”
“They are your words – I will use my words and I have responded,” Senator Wong responded.
DFATs acting chief counsel Marie-Charlotte McKenna told the committee that “sieges are not in themselves prohibited under international humanitarian law”.
Thousands of Aussies in Lebanon
Australians have been warned to leave Lebanon amid fears the Israel-Hamas conflict could spiral into a wider regional conflict.
About 15,000 Australians are in Lebanon but less than 400 people have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, officials confirmed on Thursday.
“Our travel advice is do not travel to Lebanon due to the volatile situation,” Senator Wong said.
“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.”
We continue to advise Do not travel to Lebanon due to the volatile security situation & the risk of the security situation deteriorating further. If you want to leave Lebanon, take the first available commercial option. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/mcyqnn5Jms
— Smartraveller (@Smartraveller) October 25, 2023
But department officials raised concern that their message was not being heeded.
“I think we have every indication that it’s not,” deputy secretary Craig Maclachlan said.
“We are not alone in that experience either. We are obviously co-ordinating our efforts with like-mindeds and other partners.
“We have, as the minister outlined, increased our messaging … but frankly the levels of calls that we receive in relation to Lebanon have diminished to very low numbers.”
He cited Australians’ long-term connections with family and friends in the country and said people might not be leaving because they hoped a diplomatic solution might be found.
“We don’t have the luxury in the sense of relying on hope. We are trying to, we are doing everything we can to plan for a future crisis,” Mr Maclachlan said.
“We can’t be certain, despite all of the planning that is under way now, that we will be able to exercise those plans because we cannot know at this point what the nature of the security environment will be like at that time.”
In 2006, the Australian government evacuated more than 5000 Australians from Lebanon when war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah.
Mr Maclachlan said the 2006 evacuation was “seared” into consular officials minds.
On Tuesday, Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Amir Maimon, said his country was prepared for war in Lebanon if provoked by the militant group Hezbollah.
“We do not have any desire or interest to open another front but, if forced to, Israel is ready. We will not be surprised again,” Mr Maimon told the National Press Club.
The Hezbollah leader met with senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders to discuss “an all out victory” over Israel, according to a Hezbollah statement.
Additional $15m in aid to be given to Gaza
Meanwhile, the federal government’s announcement of an additional $15m in aid to civilians in Gaza has brought the total package of humanitarian assistance to $25m.
Senator Wong said the funding would be delivered “through trusted partners to help address immediate and emerging needs including food, water, medicine and other essential services”.
The first-aid package, department officials said, provided through the International Committee of the Red Cross, helped with the provision of beds and medical supplies including stretchers and body bags.
“They were able to also support the installation of 25 water storage tanks within Gaza,” Humanitarian division’s first assistant secretary Beth Delaney said.
More than 5000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air strikes since Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians on October 7 killed at least 1400 people.
After the Hamas attack, Israel cut off access to water, food and electricity to Gaza.
Several aid trucks have crossed from Egypt to Gaza in recent days but the Foreign Minister said the access was “nowhere near enough”.
“We call for humanitarian pauses on hostilities. So food, water, medicine and other essential assistance can reach people in desperate need, and so civilians can get to safety,” she said.
Prior to the crisis, 400 trucks a day were allowed to pass over the border between Egypt and Gaza, department officials confirmed.
She reiterated her position that Australian wanted “an enduring peace in the Middle East grounded in a two-state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians can live securely behind internationally recognised borders”.
The Foreign Minister said Australia “stands with Israel” and recognised its inherent right to defend itself but insisted “the way Israel exercises its right to defend itself matters”.
“It matters to civilians throughout the region, and it matters to Israel’s ongoing security. Innocent Palestinian civilians should not suffer because of the outrages perpetrated by Hamas.”
The government has assisted more than 600 Australians and 242 foreign nationals leave Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories through eight flights.
Another 79 people are trapped in Gaza and have been unable to leave, while 51 Australian citizens remain in the West Bank.
“We are deeply distressed that international efforts to secure civilian passage out of Gaza, efforts Australia has engaged in and is actively supporting, are yet to be successful,” Senator Wong said.