PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Thank you for coming on a Sunday. I wanted to update the Australian people, through you, about the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories. So I have a range of detailed information I need to work through, but I will take your questions.
As you know, the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories continues to change rapidly. As you know, we have been working on assisted departure for Australians affected by the situation in Israel and in Gaza. Last night, it was very disappointing that we were in a position where flights had to be cancelled. But as I said at the time, we are persisting in pursuing all options to help our fellow Australians.
This afternoon, I can confirm that the Australian Government is planning multiple flights to depart from Tel Aviv today for Australians wanting to leave. This is a mixture of government chartered and Air Force planes. I want to stress, these flights remain subject to factors including the security environment. And I'm not in a position to go into details for operational and security reasons. We are also coordinating options with partners who are held helping their own citizens with departures.
For Australians wishing to leave I repeat the message that I have given over a number of days, if you wish to leave we strongly encourage you to take the first option that becomes available to you. Please do not wait for a different option.
The government is also working with commercial carriers to arrange flights to assist travellers with their onward journeys, including from Dubai to Australia. Registered Australians will hear directly today as flights are confirmed. We are continuing to work on options for Australians wanting to leave the occupied Palestinian territories.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is of serious concern and continues to deteriorate. Australia is providing an initial $10 million in humanitarian assistance for civilians affected by the conflict in Gaza, to fund urgent needs like medical support, emergency, water, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene services.
We again call for safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians affected by the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Australia's $10 million donation will go in part to UNICEF, this is the UN children's fund, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a component to UN operations to enable logistics to ensure it can be brought into where it is required.
We are engaging regularly with counterparts to continue to press for safe and unimpeded access to civilians affected by this humanitarian crisis and we support the work of the United States, Egypt and others towards the establishment of a corridor to enable humanitarian needs to be met.
I again say this, we stand with Israel. We reiterate Israel's right to defend itself. We unequivocally condemn Hamas for these evil attacks. We also echo calls from around the world, including from President Biden, for Israel to operate by the rules of war in its response to Hamas attacks. We have already witnessed a devastating loss of life and innocent civilians on all sides are suffering. Our position, Australia's consistent position in all contexts is to call for the protection of civilian lives and the observation of international humanitarian law.
If I may turn now to travel advice. As you know, earlier this week we updated the travel advice for Israel, Gaza and the Gaza border. For Israel the travel advice is reconsider, need to travel. For Gaza and the Gaza border it is do not travel. Please continue to observe Smart Traveller for any further updates to advice. There has also been an update to our travel advice for Lebanon today. The existing travel advice for Lebanon is reconsider your need to travel due to the security environment. I am now saying to Australians, if you are in Lebanon you should consider whether your need to remain there is essential. Again, if you are in Lebanon please consider whether your need to remain there is essential. If you wish to leave, you should know that a crisis could limit commercial options for departure and you should consider the first available option.
If you need emergency consular assistance, please contact the Australian Government consular emergency centre, it is operating on a 24 hours basis, +61 2 6261 3305, if you are overseas.
In relation to Gaza, I can also indicate this. We are obviously doing all we can in a very difficult situation to facilitate departure for those Australians in Gaza who wish to leave and again, reiterate, we support the work being done by Egypt and others to make the crossing available for humanitarian purposes, including the outward passage of civilians. We have engaged, including me personally, with our Egyptian counterparts and the Israelis to this end. Officials in Cairo and in the region are engaging in support of these efforts. Yesterday a proposed window for approved foreign nationals to cross through the Rafah Border did not eventuate and the Rafah Border remains closed at this time.
I want to say I know how distressing this is for Australians in Gaza and I want to reiterate our commitment to do everything we can with others to ensure that the border is open.
In relation to consular numbers, I can indicate we have 1540 Australians registered. Some of those, about 300, are registered for information only. 939 who have previously registered have departed Israel. Some, many on an assisted departure which you might recall has already landed in London and others by other means facilitated through other flights. There are a number of - I think that's all I have to say on that.
Can I take questions? I'm sure some of you have questions on the Voice etc, but if I could deal with Israel and Gaza first please, I would appreciate that and then we can move to other questions.
JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister, how many Australians are expected to be able to get out on these flights today we're talking 500, 1000 people? And on Lebanon, are you already working on contingency plans for charter planes if that becomes necessary?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Our focus at the moment is in relation to Australians in Israel and Gaza commercial flights are still in place in Lebanon but I have today made the statement I've made publicly and Smart Traveller has been updated and I'd asked Australians to look at that. In relation to numbers, I'm reluctant again to indicate, I can say to you, we have a number of scheduled flights. It is a mix of charter and Australian Air Force planes. Obviously, the numbers that we will be able to facilitate will depend on the ability of those flights to proceed, which obviously is in a very challenging situation.
JOURNALIST: How many Defence planes are currently in the Middle East –
FOREIGN MINISTER: I'm not going to go to that. But you saw the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence saying we have assets prepositioned.
JOURNALIST: What are Australians in Gaza are being told?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Exactly what I've outlined to you, that we are working as hard as we can, that the Rafah crossing is the crossing into Egypt. It is obviously a very, very difficult situation. There are foreign nationals, including Australians, who are in Gaza. We are working very hard with counterparts, the Egyptians, the Israelis and the Americans, for example, to try and see if we, to try and facilitate passage out of Gaza.
JOURNALIST: You've talked about partnering with other countries. Can you say what countries they are and how that partnership would work?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I think I just did.
JOURNALIST: So, what would happen? What countries and how would it work?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we are working with in particular the Israelis, the Egyptians and the United States on seeking to facilitate humanitarian passage. Obviously there are many other countries who both have foreign nationals, but also there is the broader principle and objective that all countries want, our like-minded partners want, which is to avoid this situation broadening and escalating.
JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister, some other nations around a week ago were already doing military evacuations, flights out at Tel Aviv. Do you believe you’ve being too slow to consider that as an option?
FOREIGN MINISTER: A week ago?
JOURNALIST: Yeah around a week ago some other countries.
FOREIGN MINISTER: No, I think that, well, the attack occurred. I haven't had a lot of sleep, but it's Saturday night, Australian Time. I requested, I think, this has been public, the Department to on Monday to work on assisted departures. At that stage, there were commercial options available. Obviously, this is a very fast moving situation.
JOURNALIST: How long is this operation feasible? Is there a deadline that people should be aware of in getting out?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, my advice is, as I've just outlined, which is for those Australians in Israel who wish to leave, we have been urging for a number of days for you to not delay and to take the first available option. I am conscious that we were not able to proceed with assisted departures yesterday. We are working very hard to see if they can occur today at Israel time.
JOURNALIST: You've talked about opening up supply channels into Gaza. Do you think that Israel's gone beyond self defence in cutting off food, water, energy supplies?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, look, I think that we should articulate the principled position about observation of international humanitarian law. We also understand Israel has been subjected to an attack. As others have said, it's not a war that they sought, they were attacked, a heinous attack by Hamas, and Israel's right to defend itself and secure its borders is legitimate. But like the US President, I would also urge for the observation of international humanitarian law, because whether - civilians on all sides are being harmed, and that is a very distressing situation.
JOURNALIST: You've talked in recent months or voiced concerns about the aggressive expansion of settlements into Palestinian teriroties –
FOREIGN MINISTER: We have but what we also see, and what we should be focused on at this stage is what Hamas engaged in and the situation that we now see in Gaza and in Israel more broadly, and on what we have to do as a government with our partners to get Australians who wish to leave out.
JOURNALIST: What's the government's perspective on Palestinian's right to protest?
FOREIGN MINISTER: We have a right to peaceful protest, but there is no place in this country for anti-Semitism or hatred or prejudice or any kind. And this really leads me to a point I've made about social cohesion over the last few days. This is a very distressing situation. We have members of the Jewish community who have lost family members. We have members of the Jewish community who have family members at risk. And the attack on the Israeli people, Israeli civilians, men, women and children has been extremely distressing for the Jewish community.
JOURNALIST: But aren’t –
FOREIGN MINISTER: Please let me finish. And we must make sure that the Jewish community feel supported and protected against articulations of anti-Semitism. In relation to your question about Palestinian protests, people, we have a right of peaceful expression in this country. We do not have a right to engage in hatred or prejudice or anti-Semitism. It has no place in Australia. And what we need to do as a country is come together.
JOURNALIST: But isn't there also a Palestinian community in Australia that is also losing loved ones?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Yes, absolutely there are.
JOURNALIST: And so you've spoken in support of the Israeli community. But shouldn't the Palestinian community also have a right to voice how they feel about what has been happening?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Which is why I said people have a right to peaceful protest and why I have said that we advocate and urge the protection of all civilian lives.
JOURNALIST: Some of those protesters are saying the Australian Government shouldn't give Israel a blank cheque. What do you say to that?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I think I'd refer you to my comments, which I think are principled and clear about the position Australia takes.
JOURNALIST: Just a question on the Voice.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Has everyone finished on Israel, Gaza? Okay, thank you. Yes, go ahead.
JOURNALIST: How will you explain the No vote to like-minded countries in the region? What does it say about Australia's reputation?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Yeah, well, can I first say this, I know that there are many Australians, particularly our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, there are many who are hurting today, and I want to acknowledge that. I want to say that it is important to remember that Australians voted against this constitutional change. Australians did not vote against Closing the Gap. And the great majority of Australians support reconciliation in this country. I want to say, as the Prime Minister said last night, we respect and accept the decision of the Australian people and we know how difficult referendums are. I think only 8 out of 44 have been successful and none without bipartisan support. At this time, with what is happening in the world, I make this point. We can all give thanks in this country that we make these big decisions equally and peacefully. There was an exercise in Australian democracy, people had strong views. But in this country we can resolve these big questions peacefully. Our task now is to ensure we do heal, there is a lot of hurt, we need to come together. And the Prime Minister spoke about the importance of coming together last night. We are not Yes of No voters, ultimately we are all Australians.
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