Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Hamas-Israel, humanitarian corridor into Gaza, advice for Australians in Lebanon.

Tom Connell: Welcome back to the program. Well, we have, of course, plenty of reaction, ongoing reaction to what's happening at the moment in Israel. We've had from the start of this Labor saying they're backing Israel's right to defend itself, but there has been increasing comments in recent days around how far that defence should go in terms of restraints, and also allowing aid to enter Gaza as well.

Joining me is Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister, Tim Watts, for more on this. Thanks for your time.

So that support of Israel to defend itself, so far, Israel hasn't heeded the message from Penny Wong to pause hostilities in order for aid, more aid, to enter. Does that support from the Australian Government remain without caveat?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, we've been clear and consistent in our position on this since the outbreak of this conflict after those appalling terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel. And what we've said is that Israel has a clear right of self‑defence in the face of these terrible terrorist attacks from Hamas, but that it matters the way that that right of self‑defence is exercised, and it also is fundamentally important that innocent civilian life is prioritised in this conflict, Palestinian and Israeli.

Now we have articulated the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law, the Laws of War, not only because that is the best way to protect innocent civilian life, but also because it's in Israel's security interests. You know, we assess that the best way of preventing this conflict from spreading throughout the region, what the experts call a "horizontal escalation", is to prioritise civilian life and to comply with Humanitarian Law.

So that's what we've been expressing. Clearly there is widespread suffering in Gaza at the moment, and that's why we've been arguing for this humanitarian pause. We're not alone in arguing for that, a number of other nations have done that, and the objective for that is to give time for much‑needed humanitarian support to reach people who desperately need it at the moment, food, water, hygiene, sanitation, medical supplies.

Tom Connell: We've had response from Israel on that though, for example, on fuel in particular that it would be used for Hamas for military capabilities, so that they wouldn't be allowing more fuel to get into the area. Is that a fair enough response?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, it is very important that we are always distinguishing between Hamas and the Palestinian people in this conflict. It's Hamas that committed the appalling, heinous terrorist atrocities that the entire world watched in recent times.

The Palestinian people are not Hamas, and in fact, Hamas hides behind the Palestinian people. It doesn't advance the interests of the Palestinian people; harms the interests of it, it's on opponent of peace, and an obstacle to a just and enduring peace and the realisation of the Palestinian people's legitimate aspirations.

Now what we've said is that it's important that there is a humanitarian pause to enable safe, sustained unimpeded humanitarian access over that Rafah border, in order for aid to reach the people who desperately need it.

We're working with the United States, with Egypt, with other partner countries in the region to ensure that's happening, and we'll continue those discussions.

There's been some access in recent days, but nowhere near enough. We need far, far greater supplies to be reaching those desperately needed people at the moment.

Tom Connell: The problem ‑ I mean you're right, Hamas and the Palestinian civilians are two totally separate entities, but they are intertwined in Gaza, and essentially often at the design of Hamas.

Now your colleague, Bill Shorten, said that whilst he wouldn't go into sort of technical details of war crimes, Hamas uses civilians as human shields. So if you've got on one side the desire to avoid human casualties, civilian casualties, which everyone agrees with, but the other side that is Israel has a right to defend itself, how do you balance out what one trumps the other, if there's an Hamas target, a military target, it might be a senior Hamas figure, but they've made sure civilians are in and around that target. What is Israel supposed do then?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, you're absolutely right. These are very, very difficult issues, and you know, we are not well‑placed to judge these issues from the other side of the world, nor judge the intricate details of these issues from the other side of the world.

What we have done is be very clear about the principles of our expectations, and that's that international humanitarian law is complied with, that innocent civilian life is protected, Palestinian life, Israeli life, and that given the widespread suffering being experienced in Gaza at the moment, that there is a humanitarian pause to enable safe, unimpeded sustained humanitarian supplies to get to the people that desperately need them most.

And we're not alone in arguing for that, you know, we are working with the United States, with European countries, with other countries in the region to do that, and you know, as I say, this is in Israel's security interests to minimise the chances of horizontal escalation in the region.

Tom Connell: So I guess though, if you go to that previous question, does it highlight that while the desire would always be to avoid civilian casualties, and you know, you see vision of children, toddlers, and the injuries that they sustained, and as a human, it's totally natural to want to avoid that and to be, you know, shocked by it. But at the same time if the bar for Israel is to not have a single civilian casualty, with Hamas and the way they operate, that's unrealistic, isn't it?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, as I said, Tom, we've set out our expectations and our principles really clearly, but about the point you raise, I think it's a really important one for everyone to appreciate, that any human watching this conflict cannot help that be moved by the suffering that is being experienced at the moment.

And Australia, we're a diverse country, you know, half of Australians were either born overseas or had parents born overseas, and on a positive side, that connects us with the world, and it gives us great influence around the world, but also at times of crisis it directly connects us with that suffering.

And you know, there are a lot of people in the community at the moment, in our Jewish communities, in our Muslim communities, who are carrying a very heavy weight at the moment, who are feeling this emotion, you know, very intently.

So it's on all of us, not just to work to prevent regional escalation of this conflict in the Middle East, but also to build social cohesion in Australia, to recognise each other's common humanity, to understand that there are a lot of Australians who are going through it at the moment, who are suffering, who are being moved as human beings by the suffering that they're seeing in Gaza, in Israel at the moment.

Tom Connell: Just finally, when we look at some of the neighbours of Israel; Turkey, Egypt, Iran in particular, Jordan, and after October 7, and the completely horrific attacks, some of the acts just don't bear even mentioning, there was a broad sort of call for calm, and then after Israel's retaliation, it was a lot of blame on Israel, a much stronger condemnation for that.

Is it a reminder of how much animosity and even existential threat Israel constantly faces from its neighbours?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, frankly, the neighbour of Israel that's been most forefront in my mind in recent times has been Lebanon, and that's because of the direct Australian connection there; there are 15,000 long‑term Australian residents in Lebanon. There are thousands more who are there on a short‑term basis, tourists, visiting family, working, doing those kinds of things, and when we talk about the prospect for regional escalation, one of the big concerns is Lebanon.

Now we've recently moved our travel advisory for Lebanon to "Do not travel." So my message to all Lebanese Australians, if you know friends and family in Lebanon, please tell them to register with DFAT through the Crisis Portal, so that we can get in touch with them if the assistance is required, but also to seriously consider the first available flight out of the country, if it is safe to get to that flight.

It's a volatile situation. We have concerns about the way that this situation could evolve. We can't make any guarantees about what the situation in Lebanon may look like tomorrow, in the coming days and the coming weeks. So our strong advice for all Australians in Lebanon at the moment is to seriously consider the next available flight out of the country, that the time to leave is now.

Tom Connell: Fair enough, and I understand why you make that point as a Minister, important information to get across. But just on my question, do you understand why Israeli's would have a sense of feeling that they do, they would like peace, and many others around them ultimately probably don't?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Absolutely, Tom. This is a really complex region. Our guiding principle has always been a just and enduring peace where Israel and Palestine can live in secure borders next to each other.

Unfortunately, the recent days have seen that goal move further away, thanks to the very deliberate actions of Hamas, an obstacle to peace, a sabotager of peace. So there's going to be a very serious challenge for peace‑building after this conflict, and that's going to require all nations of good faith in the region and around the world to work together in accordance with that guiding principle.

Tom Connell: Tim Watts, appreciate your time. Thank you.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks, Tom.

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