Interview with Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Hamas-Israel conflict; Australians cross the Rafah border.

Rafael Epstrin, Host: Penny Wong is Foreign Minister in Anthony Albanese's government. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good morning. Good to be with you.

Epstrin: Can you tell me what you know about the condition of the Australians who did get out of Gaza overnight?

Foreign Minister: Well look, we are supporting those families and Australian citizens who did get out overnight and can I say, we've been working towards this for a very long time. I spoke to my Egyptian counterpart just two nights ago and I'm so relieved. We have seen some Australians able to leave, a lot of work in the international community to open the Rafah crossing up to enable people to go from Gaza to Egypt, but there is a lot more to do.

Epstrin: So, 20-something out. How many people remain stuck there trying to get out with an Australian passport?

Foreign Minister: Yeah, in total we were assisting 88 people. Some of those are people with Australian passports so, Australian citizens, then there are permanent residents and family members. So, we had 23 people who were able to get out overnight Australian time. Of those 20 Australian citizens, one permanent resident and two family members. So, that means we have just over - we have about 20 Australian citizens plus family members remaining. So, we still have work to do, but after so much international lobbying, I'm just so relieved that the Rafah crossing has been opened at least overnight. And we will keep working to ensure we get as many of that Australian cohort out as possible, if it is opened again, as we anticipate is possible.

Epstrin: Of those that did get out, did any need to be taken to hospital? Do you know?

Foreign Minister: Look, I don't have all of that information. Now, what I can say is we were prepared on the Egyptian side with Australian officials to ensure that people were met and needs were assessed. We'll continue to provide that consular assistance. Obviously, this is a very difficult situation, but I'm glad we're in the position of being able to provide consular assistance in person and not just trying to contact people in Gaza by phone or email.

Epstrin: More broadly on the conflict itself, is what Israel is doing, is that okay, their tactics, the way they're conducting their campaign?

Foreign Minister: We have seen a devastating loss of innocent life. And in affirming Israel's right to defend itself after the horrific attacks by Hamas on the 7th of October, we, along with many other countries, emphasise that the way it exercised that right matters, and again would say what I've said for some time now, Israel must observe international law and the rules of war. That's what our parliamentary motion said, the whole parliament urged Israel to observe international law. Remember even in war, there are rules. And I would also make this point that there are ongoing civilian deaths. You've seen the international response. I think the reality is the international community won't accept ongoing civilian deaths. So, when friends like Australia urge Israel to exercise restraint and protect civilian lives, it is really critical that Israel listens.

Epstrin: You've urged Israel to observe the laws of war. The UN Secretary General António Guterres said that they had broken the laws of war. He used the phrase collective punishment. Are you just urging Israel to observe the laws of war or would you say they have broken them?

Foreign Minister: Well, I would say again what I have said previously. I would say to Israel, even in war, there are rules. Our parliament and our government continues to say that Israel must observe international law and the rules of war. And I would also say this, that the innocent civilians should not pay for the horrors perpetrated by Hamas. And that is why we have international law and international principles of engagement in conflict. So, we would continue to publicly assert that Israel should abide by these and observe them.

Epstrin: Do you think you'll get to the point where you'll need to say Israel has broken those rules or you won't - Australia would never do that?

Foreign Minister: Well you know, this is a very, very difficult situation with a lot of innocent life lost. What I will say as the Foreign Minister of this country again, is Australia's position is to say to Israel and to say to all, we want you to protect civilian lives, we want you to observe international law, we want you to exercise restraint because this matters for those innocent civilians who should not be paying for the atrocities that were committed by Hamas, who does not represent the Palestinian people.

Epstrin: As Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, some of your staff, effectively staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Melbourne were labelled war criminals. They were directly labelled war criminals by some protesters in Melbourne. What's the right way for Australians to take a stand?

Foreign Minister: Look, that's a very good question, Raf, and it's a discussion that we have been having with members of the broader community, members of the Islamic community, members of the Jewish community, and obviously within government. And this is a conflict which has been extremely distressing for Australia's Jewish community, for the Palestinian community, for the Australian Islamic community and many more. And all of us, people may have different views about the conflict, people may have different views about the way forward, but it is very important that we try to not allow this conflict to fracture our community. Remember what the motion in the Parliament said, which is the government's position, we support justice and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Epstrin: If I can interrupt, labelling your staff a war criminal. Is that - like is that just free speech or?

Foreign Minister: Yeah, I don't think - our officials are working extremely hard. We remember, people might have forgotten because it's only a couple of weeks ago, people worked around the clock to get Australians who wanted to leave Israel out of Israel. We are working on what we do if the conflict spreads. We have provided consular assistance to so many Australians. So, Foreign Affairs officials are decent Australians who represent frankly, the diversity of our community who are trying to do the right thing by their fellow citizens and to act in a way that - in accordance with the policies of the government. And I don't think those sorts of words and labels have any place in our society.

Epstrin: Two quick issues, if I can, before the news. Firstly, your cabinet colleague Tony Burke has no problem with the local council in his Sydney electorate flying the Palestinian flag. Is that okay? Is that an okay way to sort of express solidarity?

Foreign Minister: Well, you know Tony explained that's a decision of the council. We have a view in this country about freedom of expression and what we have said is we should express those - our differences respectfully. We should do so without resorting to anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, because discrimination and prejudice have no place in our society.

Epstrin: And the Palestinian flag is okay, I assume?

Foreign Minister: Well, that's a matter for the council. If that's what the council wishes to do. I think that the more important issue is to continue to urge, as we have from the beginning, that the way in which these differences are played out is done so respectfully, and consistent with how Australia deals with differences of use in our democracy.

Epstrin: And finally, the US President says he doesn't really believe the death numbers coming from the Health Ministry in Gaza, the casualty figures, because Hamas runs Gaza. Do you accept that those figures are close to accurate? Something like 8,000 deaths. Do you think they're roughly accurate?

Foreign Minister: Look, I'm not going to start to - I think we have seen loss of life in Gaza, just as we saw loss of life also from the Hamas attack, the abhorrent attack, and we also, remember, have hostages, Israeli hostages and hostages from other countries in Israel. But whatever the number, I think the international community can see, including from the reports from UN agencies, that there is widespread suffering and loss of life in Gaza. And that is why - and I'm not going to minimise that. So, that is why we must do what I have outlined which is articulating why –

Epstrin: - All you can. Sorry to interrupt Foreign Minister. Do you question the toll or not?

Foreign Minister: Well, we're not on the ground.

Epstrin: Okay.

Foreign Minister: We're not on the ground. And, no, obviously Hamas is not what you'd call a reliable source, but I think we have all seen, from what the UN has said and from the images we have seen, widespread loss of life. And that is why we must urge Israel to observe international law and the rules of war.

Epstrin: I need to leave it there. Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate you joining us.

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