Interview with Emma Rebellato, ABC News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australians cross Rafah Border, consular support, Hamas-Israel, High Court ruling on Abdul Nacer Benbrika.

Emma Rebellato: Well let's get more on that breaking news of 20 Australians being allowed to leave Gaza through the Rafah Border crossing overnight. The Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts, joins me now. Tim, good morning. Thanks for joining us this morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Great to be with you.

Emma Rebellato: What can you tell us about the Australians who managed to get over the border?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, we're incredibly relieved that overnight 23 individuals who had been registered the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including 20 Australians, were able to cross the border at Rafah. They were met by Australian consular officials who are on the ground there in Egypt who were able to provide assistance with ongoing travel arrangements.

Now, crossings like this are the result of an enormous effort from Australian consular officials and diplomats in the region, so many conversations at the officials level, at the ministerial level, Foreign Minister Wong spoke with her counterparts in the region, and we're incredibly grateful that this initial cohort has been able to make that crossing from Gaza to Egypt.

Now we know that there are still 65 Australians in Gaza that we are supporting, providing consular assistance to at the moment, and we are continuing to push for them to be able to make that passage across the Rafah crossing as soon as possible.

We know this is an incredibly distressing time for Australians in Gaza and their families, and we're providing all possible support we can, communicating through all available channels, the best information and options we have about their safety in a very, very difficult situation.

Emma Rebellato: Do you know if all Australians in Gaza got those communications from the consular staff, because we know an email went out telling them, "If you can, make it to the border crossing", but we know communication also has been quite difficult and challenging over recent days. Do you know if all those Australians got that message to try and get out?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well these circumstances on the ground are obviously incredibly challenging, and they are changing on a day‑to‑day basis. That's why Australian consular officials use all available communications channels to try and make sure that this information gets to the people who need it.

Now that requires a range of different communications methods. It's not always perfect, you know, this is a conflict zone, it's a very difficult operating environment, so we do the best job that we can in the circumstances.

Emma Rebellato: Of those people who did make it out into Egypt, made it through the crossing, what happens next? Where are they being taken? How much help are they getting?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, from the region, from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, around 2000 people have left, and many of them come directly back to Australia, some have other places of safety that they can go to nearer to the region. But the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade supports them in those choices.

I really just also want to, at this moment, make a shout‑out to our consular officials. In crises like this, they're working 24/7 for weeks on end to try and support Australians in desperate need. They've done an extraordinary job.

Emma Rebellato: What about the immediate support for those who have got out of Gaza? What happens over the next 24 hours?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, they are in direct contact with consular officials, they provide that communication and support, some of it just that basic emotional human‑to‑human support, and I've heard from so many Australians just how much it means to hear an Australian accent, you know, someone from the home country to help them out. But often it's logistical support, so travel arrangements, how to get to the next stop where they're going.

Emma Rebellato: And will that involve a repatriation flight, or will it involve the Australian ADF personnel who have been deployed to the region?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So there have been eight assisted departure flights that have left the region since the start of this conflict. There's not currently a demand for more of those flights at the moment, there are commercial options that get people where they need to go, but as you say, as a part of Operation Beech, there are two RAAF planes in the region ready for consular contingencies, and we're doing a lot of work preparing for, if there's a need, for a large‑scale departure from Lebanon.

Emma Rebellato: We also heard from our correspondent, Alison Horne, this morning, who said she spoke to a man with an Australian passport, his wife has an Australian visa, they got to the border crossing, but they were told they weren't allowed through, to turn back. Do you know any details about that and why that happened?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, it's obviously difficult for me to talk to an individual case, but the general approach we take on these consular matters is, if you're an Australian citizen, Australian permanent resident, and your direct family members, we'll provide assistance to you.

So I just encourage all Australians to register their details with DFAT in advance, to get all that information upfront so that we can try and clear any of that logistical barriers.

Emma Rebellato: We know there are thousands of Australians in Lebanon as well, and the advice went out recently to leave Lebanon. Do you know if Australians have taken up that advice?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, I actually visited Lebanon earlier this year to review consular contingency planning, and I saw first-hand there that, you know, there are more than 15,000 Australians who live there long‑term, including thousands more who visit on a short‑term basis. These are people with deep roots in the country, you know, they have properties that they rent, they have jobs, they support local NGOs.

So I understand the deep roots, and sort of the reluctance to leave. But our strong advice to Australians in Lebanon is, take the option to leave now. We can't make any guarantees that, for example, Beirut Airport will remain open if the conflict spreads to the South of Lebanon, and at that point departure options become much more complex, much more difficult. So we are really strongly encouraging all Australians in Lebanon, take the opportunity now to leave, because we don't know what the situation's going to look like in the coming days, in the coming weeks. It may become much more difficult to leave, and it may become much more difficult for the Australian Government to assist you to leave.

Emma Rebellato: Yesterday Anthony Albanese spoke for the first time with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Do you know what he spoke to him about? Did he push for a humanitarian cease fire, and for more opportunities for Australians to leave Gaza?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we obviously don't talk about private conversations between leaders, but our private messaging is consistent with our public messaging, and that's been to very clearly say that Israel has an absolute right to defend itself in the face of these appalling terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas; 1,400 people killed, murdered, tortured, the most terrible barbarism you can imagine, but it is really crucial that that right to self‑defence is exercised appropriately in compliance with international humanitarian law, with respect for civilian life.

We've been really clear that civilian life, the preservation of it is fundamental, not just for Palestinian and Israeli lives but for the security of the broader region. Respect for civilian life is what's going to help prevent this conflict spreading to places like Lebanon.

Emma Rebellato: We saw a High Court ruling here yesterday that the former government was ‑ the ruling was the former government was unable to cancel the citizenship of a convicted terrorist, Abdul Nacer Benbrika. What is your government going to do about that? How is it reacting? Will it look to invoke his citizenship in a different way or look at other avenues of doing so?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, I've been focused on the consular crisis that we're currently facing in the Middle East, but I know that my ministerial colleagues will put the security of Australians at the forefront of any response that we have to that case.

Emma Rebellato: Tim Watts, thank you very much for joining us this morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you.

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