Interview with Raf Epstein, ABC Melbourne

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australians urged to leave Lebanon, Consular crisis in 2006, Israel asks Secretary-General to resign.

Raf Epstein: The Australian Government is stepping up its efforts to help get Australian citizens out of the region affected by the conflict in both Israel and Gaza, but of course, there are fears the conflict will spread even wider.

Tim Watts is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs in Anthony Albanese's Government. He is the MP as well for the western suburbs seat of Gellibrand right here in Melbourne. Tim Watts, good morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good morning, Raf, how are you going?

Raf Epstein: Let's focus on Lebanon. What's the Government want people there to know?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Raf, we've been monitoring the security situation in the region since the start of this conflict, and we've recently moved the situation in Lebanon for the travel advice to be "Do not travel".

Now what this means is that if you are in Lebanon, we want Australians in Lebanon to consider leaving on the first available commercial option, if it's safe to do so.

Now the reason for this is we have serious concerns about the volatile security situation there, and the risk of this security situation deteriorating further. We're working really hard to try and prevent this conflict spreading through the region, what they call "horizontal escalation", but no one can rely on these efforts being successful. It's a volatile situation, and the safest time to get out may well be now, so take the option. There's our advice.

Raf Epstein: How many Australians in Lebanon are you talking to, or talking about?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, there are many Australians in Lebanon, Raf. My community in Melbourne's West is one with a significant Australian Lebanese community, and people have roots in Lebanon. There's about 15,000 Australians that live in Lebanon long‑term, many thousands on top of that who might be visiting temporarily, seeing relatives, going on a holiday.

So, it's quite a significant issue. There are a lot of people there. That's why we're asking everyone there ‑ everyone in Lebanon should be registering with the DFAT Crisis Portal so that we can get in contact and provide assistance if needed. But the advice we are giving now to everyone in Lebanon is – consider the next available flight out of the country.

Raf Epstein: How many flights are there in and out of Lebanon right now? I assume it's reduced a bit because of the conflict.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, part of the reason that we are saying to consider flights leaving now is that there are flights operating out of the region now. If the conflict escalates and spreads to the region, we can't make any guarantees.

Now we saw a significant consular crisis in Lebanon in 2006 and this did very severely impact the number of flights leaving the country and, in fact, there weren't flights leaving.

I went to Lebanon in June of this year, through the consular contingency planning, and there were really two things that were clear to me on that visit: one, there are a lot more Australians there today than there were in 2006; and two, there are a lot fewer routes out of the country if the security situation deteriorates. Can't rely on flights, commercial flights out.

The overland journey out of Syria is obviously significantly complicated now by the conflict in that country. And then the ferries that we've used to get people out in the past, there are fewer ferries in our assessment in that part of the Mediterranean than there were in 2006. So that's why we're saying the time to act really is now.

Raf Epstein: I'll come back to the consular crisis in '06, but does this mean you think the war is going to ramp up, or whatever the conflict is right now between forces in the South of Lebanon and Israel, does this mean the Australian Government think that's going to get worse?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Raf, Australia, like all other countries in the region, is working hard to prevent this conflict spreading regionally, what they call "horizontal spread", and that's why when we talk about Israel having a right to defend itself against Hamas and the appalling terrorist attacks that were committed against it, we also emphasise that the way that it expresses that right matters, and compliance with the International Humanitarian Law, respect for individual civilians, because that's what's most likely to prevent this conflict from spreading regionally.

Raf Epstein: It would be kind of catastrophic, wouldn't it, if there's a whole lot of Australians in Beirut, the conflict at the moment doesn't go that far into Lebanon. Just the fact the Government's contemplating something spreading, how much of a concern should that be to people just watching and listening and observing?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Raf, as I'm sure many people know, the situation in Lebanon has been very difficult for some time. You know, we had the port blast, and there has been difficulties in setting up a government there after election. So, the situation is fragile, and a security incident on the Southern Border of Lebanon, we can't make predictions about how that would unfold in the country.

I just say, I know the depth of the roots that Australians have in Lebanon, I've seen it firsthand in my own community and on my visit to Beirut. I know the family connections, the business connections, you know, the apartments people have rented, the NGOs they work in, but I'm really encouraging people, if you know that you can safely get out now, seriously consider that, because we don't know what the situation is going to be like in the coming days and the coming weeks.

Raf Epstein: Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts, is who you are listening to, urging people to get out of Lebanon if and when they can.

Just more broadly, have any Australians made it out of Gaza yet?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Raf, one of the things that we have been focusing on our diplomatic efforts is civilian passage through the Rafah Border Crossing there, working with Egypt, United States, Israel, to facilitate that.

It's a good thing that we've been able to get a small amount of humanitarian aid trucks going into Gaza there, although much, much more is needed, and that's why we've committed $25 million extra humanitarian funding for that purpose. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to get people, Australian civilians out the other way.

Raf Epstein: No one yet?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, it's very disappointing for us; we're working hard on that.

Raf Epstein: A broad diplomatic question to finish on. The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres; Israel's actually asked for him to resign. One of the things he said was that, "'The grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas, that those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people". Collective punishment, of course, is a war crime.

Is Antonio Guterres right, those appalling attacks can't justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, Raf, we've been really clear and consistent from the start that Israel does have a right to defend itself against appalling terrorist attacks committed by Hamas. They have the right to go after Hamas, the source of this conflict.

We've also said that it matters the way that right of self-defence is exercised, and it matters not just for the protection of individual civilian lives in Palestine, although that is absolutely paramount, it also matters to Israel's security, because if the tensions in the region are inflamed, if International Humanitarian Law is seen as not to be complied with, you know, that increases the chances of other countries in the region becoming involved in this conflict, and that's not good for anyone's security.

So that's what we've been clearly and consistently articulating throughout this conflict, that this is a time for calm voices, for reducing tensions throughout the region, and that's the focus of extensive diplomatic efforts from Australia and other countries around the region.

Raf Epstein: Yeah. You said it would be a problem if they did break international law, the UN Secretary-General is saying they have broken international law. Do you want to say whether or not he's got that right or wrong?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Raf, I'm using my words, the Secretary-General is using his words. This is a time, I think, for, you know, clearly setting expectations, and that's what we're doing.

Raf Epstein: If you've got any relatives or friends in Lebanon with Australian connections, that's why Tim Watts joined us, get in touch with the DFAT Portal. Tim Watts is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. Thank you for your time this morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks, Raf.

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