Topics: Parliamentary delegation in Israel; UN ceasefire resolution; Israel – Hamas conflict;

04:35PM AEDT
14 December 2023


Sarah Dingle:  Opposition spokesman for Foreign Affairs Simon Birmingham is in Israel on a bilateral trip to the region. He joins me now from Tel Aviv. Simon Birmingham, welcome. What have you seen so far on this trip on the ground.


Simon Birmingham: Well, hello Sarah, and thanks for the opportunity. We’ve had the opportunity to visit and inspect some of the sites of the Hamas atrocities from October 7th. Some of the kibbutzes that that saw such slaughter, such raping, sexual assault, murders, beheadings that Hamas undertook, towns that were similarly invaded and saw significant fighting undertaken. We also had the opportunity to meet with government officials, those from Israel, as well as spokespeople with the Palestinian Authority and academics and a broad range of people to engage with, including some of those survivors and families of victims from the attacks. All that, of course, has reinforced the intense complexity of the situation that is being dealt here, but also the reality that Hamas acted with such brutality to inflict such terror on the Israeli population, something they have committed themselves to repeating at any opportunity they get.


Sarah Dingle: It is, as you say, a complex situation. The devastation caused by the Hamas attacks is undeniable. But watching the local media talking to people, do you get the sense that Israelis support the current campaign by the IDF in the Gaza Strip?


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. There is a very strong sense of unity in Israel. And in fact, if you think back to pre October 7 and some of the political debates that were happening in this vibrant democracy, there was deep division in politics across Israel. Today, there is a unified war cabinet in meeting with members of the Knesset from both the governing party and the opposition parties. All are clear cut in their belief and their strong conviction that Hamas must be removed as an ongoing terrorist threat against Israel. That it is intolerable for Israel, as it would be for any other country to live alongside such a threat that is so open in its determination to inflict murder and to attack Jewish peoples, and indeed any peoples within Israel.


Sarah Dingle: Talking about the conflict, though we mentioned previously in the intro, the thousands of people that have died, including in the Gaza Strip as a result of IDF operations there. Australia has supported a UN resolution in the last 24-36 hours, along with 152 other nations calling for a ceasefire in Gaza because of the catastrophic loss of life. You’ve criticised support for that UN resolution, saying it’s weak and appalling, but why not call for a ceasefire in the face of thousands of deaths?


Simon Birmingham: The simple answer is because the ceasefire would be used by Hamas to rearm, regroup, and then repeat the types of atrocities that have been undertaken in the past. That as much as we would all wish to see and desperately wish to see an end to the tragic loss of civilian lives, and as much as the footage of any child suffering in any war, conflict is something that grieves all of us and makes us all wish for it to stop. We also have to think about those complexities I spoke about at the beginning, and that is in this instance, that Hamas has spent 16 years since it was installed or elected as a government in Gaza after Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza. Hamas has built a tunnel network that is reportedly the size or bigger than the New York subway system. It uses that to operate under hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure to mount its war and its attacks against Israel. It shamelessly uses Palestinian people as human shields, and so simply having a ceasefire in the simplicity of calling for a ceasefire that doesn’t see Hamas removed only perpetuates the mistakes of the past and risks, of course, continued horror into the future.


Sarah Dingle: But declining to call for a ceasefire, saying that a ceasefire would allow Hamas time to regroup and rearm means that you support what is currently happening, continuing. We are seeing fighting throughout almost the entirety of the Gaza Strip. There is not enough food. The health system has collapsed. People are dying in the rubble. Families are dying. Children are dying. Are you okay with that situation continuing?


Simon Birmingham: I wish, I wish none of that was continuing. I wish that…


Sarah Dingle: So, why not call for a ceasefire? With a view to calling for a ceasefire, for permanent, to allow space for permanent peace negotiations.


Simon Birmingham: Sarah, a peace negotiations can happen at any stage, and ultimately the ceasefire that can best deliver peace and enduring stability in this region is one where Hamas terrorists lay down their arms, surrender, release the hostages that they have been holding for more than two months now. This is a situation where, yes, it is very, very difficult. And the horrors that that are occurring and the loss of innocent lives is something, as I said before, that should hurt anybody with any sense of humanity. But the simplicity of saying, well, let’s just have a ceasefire doesn’t recognise the fact that Hamas is committed to repeating those atrocities again. They’ve said that since the 7th of October that they would commit those atrocities again, that they are committed to the killing and murder of Jewish people and to the elimination of the Israeli state. This is not a neighbour that anybody can simply live alongside of, nor one that anybody can easily negotiate with. That’s why the Albanese government should have been strong enough that when proposed amendments and amendments Australia supported were unsuccessful with that motion, we should have stood with our AUKUS allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, in not supporting that motion. Because it does overly simplify a deeply complicated matter and to simply think that Israel laying down arms will have anything other than the consequence of Hamas rearming and regrouping is to ignore reality and ignore the history of this situation.


Sarah Dingle: But without Israel laying down arms, I mean, US President Joe Biden himself has said in recent hours that the IDF is practising indiscriminate bombing in the Gaza Strip. Does that not give you grave cause for concern?


Simon Birmingham: Well, obviously that’s something that Israel disputes. And clearly the United States voted against the ceasefire motion. President Biden can see the foolishness of the way in which the United Nations approached this, even if Anthony Albanese cannot. Now, in our meetings with Israeli government officials, we’ve been very clear that it is important Israel acts with regard for international humanitarian law. That it acts with regard for the laws in relation to the operation of armed conflict, that it ensures humanitarian support is able to be accessed by the Palestinian people in Gaza. But all of those things are again complex. Hamas doesn’t operate by the laws of international law. Hamas terrorists are not identifiable as soldiers in the traditional sense. They disperse themselves amongst Palestinian peoples and amongst the community. They don’t wear uniforms. They simply ambush and attack and so all of these situations are challenging when it comes to humanitarian aid. There is footage that can be clearly viewed of again, Hamas terrorists using their weapons to hijack humanitarian trucks entering the Gaza Strip, meaning that the terrorists get to receive the humanitarian aid. But the people who need it do not. So, all of these things are deeply, deeply complex, and they are complicated by the fact that Israel faces an enemy and Hamas that doesn’t operate by any of the rules and laws that we expect Israel to operate by.


Sarah Dingle: Speaking of rules and laws, you mentioned at the start that you had toured areas which came under attack on October 7. Israeli areas where people were killed, assaulted and otherwise harmed. Do you think Israel should allow in UN investigators to investigate and verify allegations of what happened there, the sexual assaults and the brutalisation?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there should be. It should be clear investigation. Indeed, yesterday we…


Sarah Dingle: By independent international observers is what I mean.


Simon Birmingham: Certainly. Yesterday we met with representatives of different women’s groups in Israel who had asked very explicitly for there to be greater engagement by UN agencies in recognising the atrocities that happened against women. The maiming of bodies, the sexual assaults that occurred which have been all too overlooked, it seems, by many UN bodies to date. And so, in that regard, yes.


Sarah Dingle: In order to condemn, these organisations need to be able to investigate and verify and if, if necessary, prosecute, document these as instances of war crimes. Do you think independent UN investigators should be allowed to go in to Israel and go through the evidence of what has happened on October 7th to Israeli people?


Simon Birmingham: So, I think there would be benefit in that. And as I said, in meeting with representatives of rape and trauma counselling services, of women’s advocacy services, of Equality Services, who, who we saw yesterday and heard from, they were expressing their disappointment in the disengagement of many of those United Nations agencies to date. So, I am sure that they would welcome that and encourage that if it were done in an open and transparent way, with fair and due independence in regard to the evidence.


Sarah Dingle: And just finally, we know that Gaza has come under sustained and heavy bombing. What will happen with Gaza once the military campaign comes to an end? Because you say any ceasefire will allow Hamas to rearm. So, the IDF presumably are, you know, you think should continue its campaign. What will Israel do with Gaza once the war is over? Will it become a district under IDF control in much the same way as the West Bank? Will it be rebuilt? Who will live there?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the sense that we get is that Israel has no desire to occupy Gaza. They withdrew from Gaza some 17 years ago and have no desire to be an occupying force there. But obviously they have an interest in seeing appropriate security in Gaza to make sure that you don’t have a situation where Hamas rearms and regroups in different ways. So, I expect there will need to be deep international engagement on this question. Ideally, the different Arab states, many of whom have normalised relations with Israel over recent years and have normal diplomatic relations under the Abraham Accords that have been signed. Would ideally step up and help to play a role in stabilising Gaza and providing security in doing so in conjunction with Israel and hopefully providing for a situation where the Palestinian peoples themselves can actually enjoy the type of freedoms that they don’t have under Hamas, the type of safety and security that they don’t have under Hamas, and that together they can work towards a situation where Israelis and Palestinians can live peacefully side by side, which is, of course, what we all ultimately wish to see.


Sarah Dingle: Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sarah. My pleasure.