Press Conference - Adelaide

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

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good afternoon. Overnight 20 Australians plus 2 family members and a permanent resident were able to cross the border at Rafah out of Gaza into Egypt. As you know, we've been part of an international push to allow safe passage for foriegn civilians out of Gaza and particularly, obviously, advocating for Australians. I'm so relieved and grateful this first cohort was able to cross. They're being supported by our consular staff in Egypt. They've been transported to Cairo and travel arrangements are being made for them to get home free of charge.

Just a short while ago, I spoke to Australia's ambassador to Egypt, Dr Axel Wabenhorst. It was about 4:00am in Cairo and I can tell you, I was speaking to him and I could hear children in the background. And I said to him, "Are they our kids?" And he said "yes”. Some of the Australian children who made it to Cairo today. They had a seven hour journey, which was obviously pretty tiring. I asked about the health of all the Australians. He said that people seemed in good health and were relieved. But we are ensuring anyone who needs medical attention will receive it.

Can I thank all of the staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, all of the staff from all the Australian agencies who have worked so hard here in Canberra, on the ground, in Egypt, in Israel and in the region for their dedication, their compassion and their contribution to this outcome. Those staff are a credit to themselves and to Australia. So, please accept my thanks. I also want to thank publicly my counterparts in Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the United States who've been so critical to brokering these arrangements.

I would say to you, this is really good progress and we're very grateful and relieved this has occurred, but there's a lot more to be done. There are still Australians in Gaza, Australians, permanent residents and their families. I know how distressing this situation is for them and for their next of kin. Please be assured we will continue to press for all of you to cross the border out of Gaza. We will continue to do what we've been doing for the last few weeks, which is to engage with all that we can to ensure safe passage.

I would say, in the situation in the Middle East, I again reiterate Australia's call for humanitarian pauses on hostilities. We want humanitarian supplies of food, water, medicine, fuel to reach people in desperate need. The people of Gaza cannot wait.

I've said that in affirming our view that Israel has a right to defend itself, Israel's friends, including Australia, have emphasised that the way Israel does that matters. We know that Hamas is a craven terrorist group. We know that it has burrowed itself into civilian infrastructure. We know that it's using civilians as a shield. We know that terrorism must be confronted. What I would say is all of these challenges do not lessen Israel's obligation to observe international law and the rules of war. Even in war there are rules, and I again would make this point, the international community will not accept ongoing civilian deaths. So, when Israel's friends urge Israel to exercise restraint, when Israel's friends urge Israel to protect civilian lives, it is critical that Israel listens. It matters to Israel's own security, which faces grave risks if the conflict spreads. Happy to take questions.

Journalist: So, has the Australian government been given any indication on when the remaining Australians will be allowed to leave Gaza?

Foreign Minister: Just to give you some sense of the dimensions of this challenge, there are thousands of foreign nationals in Gaza. Thousands. I think around 350 were permitted passage finally overnight, and obviously 20 Australians, plus the additional three were on that first list. And again, we are very grateful and relieved for that, but there are a lot more foreign nationals to get out. We hope that the parties who have brokered this arrangement can continue to assure passage for civilians out of Gaza. We will continue to do what we can to press for that. Obviously, as I said, the numbers are substantial, but I can assure Australians and all of the Australians who are worried about those relatives, friends in Gaza, that we will continue to press for Australians to have safe passage out.

Journalist: There's one specific case of interest overnight, and that was a man who was an Australian passport holder and was offered exit but refused because his wife was refused - a Palestinian passport holder. Is there anything been done to help them?

Foreign Minister: Well, one of the reasons, which is why I wanted to break the numbers up into different categories, you've heard me talk about in excess of 80 Australians is we were including Australian citizens, permanent residents and visa holders and their families, because we're very conscious of people in this sort of situation.

Journalist: So, are you helping that family?

Foreign Minister: I assume he is registered with us and we are in contact with - as much as we are able to. Obviously, communications have been disrupted at times in difficult circumstances, but we're in contact with all the Australians who are registered and we are seeking to assist all of those who wish to leave.

Journalist: I think you said free of charge before, but I'll just clarify those that are leaving on flights, they don't have to pay for those flights?

Foreign Minister: Well, the advice I have, and obviously this has been moving pretty fast, is that the travel arrangements will be made for people to get home free of charge.

Journalist: So, the man, the 77 year old Australian man has chosen - who chose to stay in Gaza because his wife was denied entry, she is an Australian visa holder. So, are you aware why some are being permitted entry and why others aren't?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'd refer to my previous answer. We have put to the Egyptians and others some 85 names, which include citizens, permanent residents, visa holders and family members. So, we are working to ensure those family groups are able to come out. Obviously, we don't control the border crossing. And you've seen it's taken a broad international effort to get the border crossing open. It's taken weeks. I wish that were not so, but I am very pleased that it has finally occurred.

Journalist: And how concerned are you about reports of Palestinian families being forced out of villages in the West Bank? And what is your message to the Israeli government in that regard?

Foreign Minister: Well, it's the same message that I put yesterday and that I saw the United States has also put. We say to the Israeli government, this needs to stop. Attacks on civilians in the West Bank who are entitled to be there. Violence against civilians needs to be ended. And it's not good for Israel's security either to have violence against Palestinian civilians on the West Bank in the West Bank underway.

Journalist: The vote for the ceasefire, why didn’t Australia?

Foreign Minister: Well, I've explained that previously we obviously shared the concern of so many in the international community about the ongoing loss of life. We supported a Canadian amendment to the UN General Assembly resolution, which did reference the attack by Hamas. We thought that was important, that was not supported. And in those circumstances, Australia felt it could not vote for the resolution. Equally, we obviously are supporters of international humanitarian law, so we didn't wish to vote against it. So, Australia, along with many other like minded countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, chose to abstain and made a very clear statement about our position.

Journalist: Overnight, you probably haven't had a lot of sleep, and I'm sure this has been a lot of work behind the scenes. Have you been able to talk directly with any of those people that you've helped today?

Foreign Minister: Well, not since they arrived in Cairo at 03:00a.m. Egyptian time, which is why I thought it was probably better to speak to the ambassador than to speak to people who probably needed a bit of sleep after, I think, a seven hour bus ride. But as I said, it was nice to hear the kids in the background.

Anything more? Okay, thank you very much.

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