Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign affairs minister, visited the Middle East this week as the region faced a series of worsening conflicts, including the Israel–Hamas war, the United States-led battle against the Houthis in Yemen, and Iranian strikes in three countries.
Attempting to steer a delicate path between Israel, which is still reeling from the Hamas attacks of October 7, and the Palestinians, who have suffered devastating losses during Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, Wong said she wanted to push “for a pathway out of this conflict”.
On Monday, she told reporters: “Australia is not a central player in the Middle East, but we are a respected voice.”
Wong’s trip started with a visit to Jordan, where she announced an extra $21.5 million in aid for Palestinians.
She then travelled to Israel, where she met families of hostages held in Gaza, though she was criticised for her decision not to visit a kibbutz attacked by Hamas.
During meetings in Jerusalem on Tuesday, she backed Israel’s right to defend itself but expressed concern about the death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“We too are a democracy,” she said during a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. “So when we say that the way that Israel defends itself matters, that springs from who we are.”
On Wednesday, Wong travelled to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian leaders and with Palestinian victims of Israeli settler violence.
After her visit, she told reporters the Israeli settlements in the West Bank were an “impediment to peace” and called for a pathway towards the creation of a Palestinian state.
“The path to peace demands a just and enduring two-state solution,” she said. “It demands the recognition of Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood and it demands security for Israelis.”
This week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revealed Canberra would not take a position in the genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel in the International Court of Justice, saying the lawsuit would not lead to a “durable” peace.
In a separate case brought by Ukraine against Russia, Australia intervened last year and argued Russia had falsely accused Ukraine of genocide as a pretext for its invasion in 2022. This week, Albanese said Australia did not typically intervene in cases in which it was not a party.
“What we want is to see a political solution,” he told ABC Radio. “We need to have a pathway to security and peace and prosperity in the region. That’s the main game. Not any court case, not anything else.”
Western countries such as the US, Britain, Canada and Germany have denounced the genocide claims as baseless. Others, including the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, have backed South Africa’s position and accused Israel of “indiscriminate targeting” of civilians.
At initial hearings in The Hague last week, South Africa accused Israel of attempting to destroy the Palestinians in Gaza and called for an order to halt Israel’s military campaign.
“No matter how monstrous or appalling an attack or provocation, genocide is never a permitted response,” said Vaughan Lowe, a member of South Africa’s delegation.
Israel said it faced “extremely complicated circumstances” during its campaign against Hamas, which operates from civilian areas.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement the case highlighted “an upside-down world”, in which “the state of Israel is accused of genocide at a time when it is fighting genocide”.
The court action is likely to take years to complete but interim measures could be issued within weeks.
Famine in Gaza
Israel this week signalled it would scale back its military operations in Gaza, as the United Nations warned aid flows to the enclave had slowed and a famine was under way.
As Israel’s military focused its assault on the heavily populated southern part of Gaza, where Hamas’s leadership was believed to be hiding, a UN official, Martin Griffiths, told CNN 400,000 Gazans were at risk of starving and most of these were “actually in famine, not just at risk of famine”.
According to the UN, the war has displaced 85 per cent of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, most of whom have fled to the south of the enclave at Israel’s direction.
Raghad Al-Salem, a 35-year-old Gaza resident, told America’s ABC News this week: “We are trying to escape death by any means possible, but we do not know if we will succeed or not.”
Israel declared a war aimed at toppling Hamas in Gaza after an attack on October 7 in which militants from Hamas, an Iran-backed group, entered Israel and killed almost 1200 people and took about 240 hostages. As of Wednesday, Israel’s attacks in Gaza had killed 24,285 people, including 9600 children, according to local officials. Israel said it had killed more than 9000 militants. About 190 Israeli soldiers have died during the ground invasion.
Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said this week the “intensive phase” of the offensive had ended in the north of Gaza and would soon be completed in the south. He told reporters Israel would fight until Hamas no longer posed a military threat.
“It may take a long time, but it will end with a single scenario: total victory,” he said.
Region at war
In Yemen, the Houthis, an Iran-backed group, struck three cargo ships with missiles this week, dampening hopes a US-led international coalition would be able to prevent further disruption to shipping through the Red Sea.
Australia sent defence personnel to support the coalition’s command centre in Bahrain, saying the Houthis’ attacks posed a threat to global trade. However, Albanese resisted calls to deploy a ship or other hardware, saying Australia’s focus was on the Indo-Pacific region.
“We would hope … that the Houthis get the message that the international community won’t just sit back and allow for this trade to be disrupted,” he told ABC Radio on Monday.
The Houthis, who have been involved in a civil war in Yemen that has caused an estimated 377,000 deaths and left 17 million people facing extreme hunger, have attacked about 30 ships since November, saying they are targeting Israel-linked vessels in response to Israel’s war against Hamas.
The attacks prompted major shipping and energy firms to avoid sending vessels through the Red Sea, which usually accounts for 15 per cent of global maritime trade. Instead, ships are travelling around Africa – a significantly longer and costlier journey.
In response to the attacks, the US and Britain launched strikes on Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen last week, saying they were targeting the group’s weapons and air surveillance capabilities. The US launched further strikes this week. On Tuesday, the US said it seized a shipment of missile parts heading to the Houthis from Iran.
The operations failed to deter the Houthis, who vowed to expand their targets to include US ships. On Monday, a ballistic missile hit a US-owned cargo ship, which suffered minor damage. On Tuesday, a missile hit a Greek-owned ship. On Wednesday, a drone hit another US-owned ship.
Nasruldeen Amer, a Houthi spokesperson, told Al Jazeera the US was “on the verge of losing its maritime security”.
Meanwhile, Iran launched attacks in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan in the past week. Iran said it targeted a headquarters of Israel’s Mossad spy agency in Iraq’s Kurdistan region and Daesh facilities in Syria as well as a Sunni militant base in Pakistan. On Thursday, Pakistan said it conducted retaliatory strikes against “terrorist hide-outs” in Iran.
Daesh has claimed responsibility for a bombing attack in Iran earlier this month that killed almost 100 people during a memorial for Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian commander who was killed in a US strike in Iraq in 2020.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 20, 2024 as "Wong’s path to peace".
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