Press conference, Jerusalem, Israel

  • Joint transcript, E&OE
Visit to the Middle East; Hamas-Israel conflict; Australian humanitarian assistance to the Middle East; Red Sea deployment, Australia-China relationship.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thank you very much for coming to this press conference. I said at the outset, when I was preparing to leave Australia, that I would be seeking to add Australia's voice to the effort to find a pathway to peace. And that is what we have done. That is what I have done. And I want to, at the outset, make a few observations about that. The first is that it is really clear, speaking to people, to civilians, to Israelis, to families of the hostages, to Palestinians, it is really clear just how heavily this conflict weighs on the peoples of this region. As I said at Yad Vashem, one of the things that is a takeout for me is the importance of us all remembering our common humanity. This is a region, this is a conflict which is complex and difficult. But actually, ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians want very similar things. They all want peace, security and dignity, and the ability to live their lives in peace, in security and dignity. The cause of peace is challenging, but it's one that we must strive for. And Australia does have an interest in a just and enduring peace, and we all have an obligation to deal with that challenge in its entirety, rather than simple binaries.

As you know, I've engaged with officials in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I have had the opportunity and the privilege of speaking with the families of hostages still held. I've had the privilege of visiting Yad Vashem. I've engaged with the Chair of the Foreign and Defence Committee in the Knesset. I've engaged today with representatives of communities affected by settler violence, as well as here in Israel, the Foreign Minister of Israel and the President of Israel, the National Security Adviser, and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister and I will be meeting with the Commissioner of UNRWA tomorrow. A great many issues have been discussed. They include, obviously, the October 7 attacks and I have repeated Australia's condemnation of those attacks. We have called for the immediate and unconditional release of hostages. We have spoken about a pathway to peace. We have spoken about the importance of a humanitarian ceasefire, which obviously cannot be one-sided, and that we want to see steps towards a sustainable ceasefire.

I've spoken about Australians' concerns. Australia is a friend of Israel's. We are also a friend of the Palestinian people. Australians are increasingly concerned about the civilian toll and are increasingly concerned about the urgent need for humanitarian access. I've spoken about the risk of regional escalation and we have spoken about settler violence. These and many other issues have informed my discussions. I appreciate the courtesy which has been shown to me by the people and Government of Israel and by the Palestinian communities and the Palestinian Authority. And I'm happy to take your questions.

Journalist: At the beginning of the meeting with the Prime Minister, he said that he was calling out for an end to the occupation. How does the occupation end when there are still settlers living in the West Bank? Did you discuss that with Israel?

Foreign Minister: Look, we have a very clear view about settlements. We have said, as a government, we believe settlements are contrary to international law. We have also consistently said that they are an impediment to peace. If there is one thing I would emphasise, it is clear from the conflict that the path to peace demands a just and enduring two-state solution. It demands the recognition of Palestinians' aspirations for statehood and it demands security for Israelis. And we don't believe, as the Australian Government, we've made that clear, that settlements are consistent with that pathway to a two-state solution.

Journalist: Minister, you called on Hamas to lay down their arms, but just hours before you arrived, they were firing a barrage of rockets into Israel. Is it your view, in calling for a ceasefire, that peace can be achieved through diplomatic negotiations with a terror organisation?

Foreign Minister: We believe that Hamas has no place in the future governance of Gaza. We believe that Hamas is a terrorist organisation which have engaged in atrocities and terrorist acts. That is clear.

Journalist: Can I just ask a follow-on question to that than perhaps? You've said also that Israelis and Palestinians want the same thing and that is peace –

Foreign Minister: I think peace, security and dignity. I think that was what I said, because I think it is important to recognise that for Israelis and you've been here, October 7 was a deeply horrific and traumatising event, and peace and security go hand in hand.

Journalist: I think, from the Israeli perspective, as rockets are still being fired across the border, how do you get that message through to Hamas to lay down their arms? Is that through diplomatic discussions?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, ultimately there needs to be, what we have been pressing for is humanitarian access. We have been urging the protection of civilian lives and we have been urging, as have many others, including the United States, a political horizon, that is a pathway towards a political process in which the aspiration for statehood can be resolved. Hamas has no place in that. Palestinian people have a place in that. And that is what we need to focus on.

Journalist: From your discussions today, would it be your expectation that the Palestinian Authority would be the authority to go into Gaza on the day after?

Foreign Minister: Well, that's ultimately a matter for the Palestinian people and the parties to this. Obviously, that's a discussion that is occurring, including internationally and including with the United States. But what we do know is that Hamas can, given who they are and what they believe, and they are an organisation dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel and to the destruction of the Jewish people, so they can have no place in a process for peace.

Journalist: In Jordan you said that you had grave concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. What discussions did you have with Israeli power brokers about how deep your concerns run, and what did they say to you about how they are going to address that because there are kids that literally are dying right now with malnutrition and dehydration?

Foreign Minister: I didn't just express my concerns. What I have consistently said is, what I have consistently sought to do is express the concerns that Australians have. That Australians are concerned with the loss of civilian life, which is mounting, Australians are concerned with the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which is dire, and that we want to see civilians protected and we want to see humanitarian access and we encourage the increase in humanitarian assistance going in. And, as you know, we've also provided additional assistance to UNRWA as a result. Yoni, did you have anything you wanted to ask?

Journalist: Yes. You've spoken previously of Israel's right to defend itself, and you say Hamas has no place in any future governance of Gaza. Could your calls for a ceasefire in Gaza mean you are no longer supportive of Israel's war against Hamas. And if so, were you ever supportive of Israel's war against Hamas?

Foreign Minister: Oh, really? I don't agree with the premise of any of those, I don't agree with how you have framed that question. We have been consistent in Israel having a right to self-defence. What we have also said is how it conducts itself in the pressing of that right, in the exercise of that right matters. And that has been my position from day one, that Israel does have a right to defend itself. It has a right to security, how it exercises that, matters. That is why we have international humanitarian law. That is why we have international obligations and norms around the protection of civilians, around proportionality, around distinction, and we have been very clear about that. So, I said at the outset, this is not about simple binaries. And your question seems to suggest that if we advocate for the application of international law, that somehow, we are not supportive of Israel's right to defend itself. I disagree.

Journalist: Are you saying that Israel is breaking international law?

Foreign Minister: No, I am simply saying we are a democracy. This is about who we are. And I spoke about this with our Israeli friends. We are a democracy. So, too is Israel. And we hold ourselves to higher standards because of who we are.

Journalist: My name is Ittay Flescher. I'm a Jewish-Australian from Plus61J media.

Foreign Minister: Hello, how are you?

Journalist: So, wonderful to see you here at this time, I know today you visited Yad Vashem. And for many Israelis, October 7 brought back many memories of the Holocaust. And I know you also visited Ramallah today. And for many Palestinians, the experience of what's happened in Gaza has brought back memories of the Nakba, the displacement and the loss of life. And I also know this war has torn apart many Jewish and Muslim communities that maybe once had relations before the war that have really broken down. And you've seen that sort of firsthand today from the places you've visited. I wanted to ask, what can Australia do to promote social cohesion? Maybe here, but even more so in Australia, between different communities that have been so heartbroken by this war?

Foreign Minister: Well, can I talk about here first? And I should come to this with some humility, because I'm an Australian politician and I don't have an answer for the Middle East. I can advocate our views, but I did meet today with an organisation called EcoPeace. And I asked them. As you know, they work in Jordan, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and also in Israel, and they have Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian staff, and they have been very successful in the work that they do, particularly in relation to water security. And I asked them, how is it you have been able to keep bridging the distance between those communities? And it was ultimately, I think, I don't want to speak for them, and I'm sure they could speak to you, but it was ultimately about shared objectives. There is history and pain and anger in so many parts of the Middle East. What my message is actually, ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis want peace, security and dignity. And what this shows us is we do have to deal with a pathway to a Palestinian state as part of that. You asked about Australia. I think what I would say is one of the great wisdoms of Australia and why our multiculturalism has been successful is we have understood that we might have differences of opinion, but we deal with them respectfully and inclusively, and I hope that we can hold on to that. I know that this is a conflict that is so distressing for so many Australians, but we must hold on to that. We treat each other with respect.

Journalist: There are a significant number of Australian-Israelis who are fighting inside Gaza at the moment. Has the government sought any advice, legal advice, about the legalities of them fighting there if Israel has breached any international humanitarian law?

Foreign Minister: No. Anything else?

Journalist: Can I just ask a quick question about Iran?

Foreign Minister: Sure.

Journalist: Of all the theatres of war that we're seeing playing out right now, including aggression in the Red Sea, in light of, there is one thing in common and that is Iran's influence, in light of the sustained attacks that we've seen on ships, clearly an attempt to disrupt the global supply chain, including ships that come and go from Australia, does that in any way change Australia's position on sending a warship to support coalition efforts in the region?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have spoken about this, and obviously, Australia is in the process of providing additional personnel. You're right, Iran has long played a destabilising role in this region. And when you come here, I think that is a much more greater part of the conversation because of the experience of this region than in Australia, but it has long played a destabilising role. Obviously, decisions as to the allocation of assets are made on the basis of advice and the priorities that Australia has in terms of our region. But this, we are very clear in our support for the actions of our friends and allies, and we will continue to do so.

Journalist: Just quickly, the funding announcement yesterday. The Australian Government pledged several million dollars to the UNRWA agency but we've seen evidence of UNRWA buildings and material being misused by Hamas in Gaza. Your former Labor colleague David Feeney has criticised this provision of funding and says investing in UNRWA is investing in hatred. What confidence do you have in UNRWA and what confidence do you have that Australian funding will not be misused?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, two things I would say is, one is we want services to be provided, we want health services to be provided, we want children to be educated. And UNRWA is the only entity which is able to do that for Palestinians and that is why we support them. You are right that we should ensure that our funds are used appropriately. We make that a priority. And in terms of the engagement of others, this is an issue I raised with the Palestinian Authority, I expressed my continued expectation about those funds being used appropriately. I expressed to them that it was extremely important, given the focus on this, that any funds Australia provides are used appropriately for the provision of the services that we are seeking to fund. And we wanted to make sure that there was appropriate transparency around that and work with them to ensure that that is the case. Last question.

Journalist: The Chinese Ambassador has blamed Japan for the sonar blast that injured Australian navy divers. Is he, in your opinion, trying to stoke divisions between us and our ally?

Foreign Minister: The Chinese Ambassador advocates for his country. That's his job. What I would say about that incident is we stand by the assessments of the ADF and the representations we made. Thank you very much.

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