In an interview with The Saturday Paper, the foreign affairs minister notes the way events in the Middle East are ‘refracted’ in Australia, while continuing to call for ‘restraint and protection of civilian lives’. By Karen Middleton.

Penny Wong on the Israel–Hamas war

A Free Palestine march.
A Free Palestine march in Sydney.
Credit: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong is acutely aware of what words can do. She is also aware of the distress in the community at the deaths of civilians in the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack and in the subsequent Israeli military retaliation in Gaza, and the risk of a binary debate that rejects complexity.

“What happens in the Middle East is refracted into the Australian community in a really profound way,” Wong told The Saturday Paper in an interview on Wednesday. “The government understands that for each of those communities, the reality, or the experience, of what’s happening in the Middle East is also their emotional experience. They are not disconnected from it … So it’s visceral. And it’s real for people.”

The numbers attending weekly capital-city protests against the civilian death toll in Gaza are the largest since the rallies against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The political atmosphere surrounding this current issue, however, is dramatically more volatile.

In the weeks since Hamas attacked Israel, killing at least 1200 people and taking a further 240 hostage, and Israel launched its military response, killing an estimated 11,000 or more in Gaza, the Australian government’s language has shifted several times.

On the night of October 7, Wong faced a backlash from the Jewish community over her first public comments on the Hamas attack, which included a call for “restraint” in Israel’s response.

“Australia unequivocally condemns the attacks on Israel by Hamas including indiscriminate rocket fire on cities and civilians,” Wong’s social media statement read. “We call for these attacks to stop and recognise Israel’s right to defend itself. Australia urges the exercise of restraint and protection of civilian lives.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese posted his own response the following day.

He drew criticism from the Coalition, which has more forcefully aligned with Israel and which has not endorsed the public concerns about whether Israel’s military response upholds international law or joined calls for greater care to protect civilians.

The Coalition said Albanese was too slow and not strong enough in his condemnation of the October 7 attack.

The Labor leadership is also under pressure from within. On Monday, Labor’s international legal caucus committee held a special meeting to provide an opportunity for Labor MPs to hear from Wong, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and others about the government’s position on the conflict.

In Labor’s weekly partyroom meeting on Tuesday, Albanese described what he said was an increase in anti-Semitism, and condemned intimidatory weekend protests in Jewish communities, but also acknowledged how Palestinians and their supporters were feeling.

“Many in Muslim and Palestinian communities feel hurt, believing there has been less emphasis on Palestinian lives,” he told his colleagues. “We need to be unequivocal in our opposition to what happened on October 7, but there have been too many civilian deaths in Gaza.”

Victorian Labor MP Peter Khalil, an international relations specialist with an Egyptian–Australian Coptic Christian background, spoke of the nation being in a “political and moral storm” and said the government had to hold fast to the principles that underpinned its policies, including upholding international law and promoting justice and self-determination.

Some Labor MPs, especially those with strong ties to the Muslim community, believed the government’s first responses to the Hamas attack did not acknowledge adequately the wider circumstances of the Palestinian people or speak forcefully enough against the rising civilian death toll in Gaza. Three ministers made their own unauthorised public statements in defence of Palestinians in the days that followed the Hamas attack. One of them, Industry Minister Ed Husic, of Bosnian Muslim heritage, spoke out again this week.

“Too many Palestinians have paid a price,” Husic told the ABC. “I’ve said we needed to see a much more strategic and precise way to deal with this … This is a real concern and I don’t think it is just a concern for me as an MP of the Muslim faith. I think everyone who sees images of what is happening to kids will go ‘that is a line too far’.”

In one of her shifts in language, Penny Wong has emphasised that it matters how Israel defends itself. Last weekend, her language hardened again when she called for “steps towards a ceasefire”.

“We all want to take the next steps towards a ceasefire, but it cannot be one‑sided,” Wong told the ABC’s Insiders program. “Hamas still holds hostages. Hamas is still attacking Israel.”

That drew condemnation from the Coalition and Greens on opposite sides. Speaking later to The Saturday Paper, she emphasises that, in responding, Israel must uphold international law.

“We accept it is true that Hamas is burrowed into civilian infrastructure,” Wong says. “But that actually doesn’t obviate the need to observe international law. There are three principles that matter: the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in military operations.”

Most strongly shaping the government’s responses, along with the need to support Australians caught directly in the conflict, is the need to hold the Australian community together. It continues to press for a two-state solution, encouraging other countries with influence in the region to emphasise the protection of civilians and the need to stop the conflict from spreading. While the government acknowledges its language has changed, Wong insists the government’s fundamental position has not.

This week, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton ramped up his political attack on the prime minister in particular, linking a rise in anti-Semitism to the release of 84 immigration detainees following a High Court ruling that found their detention was unlawful. Dutton accused Albanese of failing to adequately defend the Jewish community from rising anti-Semitism and failing to keep the wider community safe. He called for a special national cabinet meeting to deal with the issue and demanded Albanese abandon his plans to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco to deal with it – demands Albanese did not heed.

“I fear that there will be a significant act within our country that will cause harm to people in the Jewish community, or in the community more broadly, at a time when temperatures are rising, and the prime minister should be showing strong leadership to lower those temperatures, and he’s completely failed that test,” Dutton said.

The opposition leader tried unsuccessfully to move a motion condemning the prime minister.

In response, Albanese said: “The weaponisation of … anti-Semitism in this chamber to make it a partisan issue is frankly beyond contempt.”

Speaking to The Saturday Paper, Wong points to the wording of a different parliamentary motion, condemning the October 7 attack, that was negotiated with the Coalition and passed with bipartisan support on October 16.

“If you go back to the motion that Peter Dutton supported, it is all in there,” she says. “We drafted that very carefully and those propositions we have continued to go back to.”

The shifts in language, also coming from other countries, have been in response to the rising civilian death toll.

On the other side of the debate, however, the Greens accuse the government of failing to adequately and clearly condemn the killing of Palestinian civilians.

“We have adopted a principled position from the beginning and have been consistent all the way through,” Greens leader Adam Bandt says. “This is a push for peace and action in accordance with international law, and we have been consistent with that since day one. It may come as a shock to some in Labor that parties will act according to principles, but that’s what we’re doing and the calls for a ceasefire are growing louder and louder.”

On Thursday, a group of doctors presented a petition to members of parliament calling for a ceasefire. Appearing at a news conference to receive it were several members of the Greens, Labor’s Maria Vamvakinou and Fatima Payman, and Nationals MP Mark Coulton, the only Coalition member who has aligned himself publicly with Palestinian advocates.

The government has accused both the Greens and the Coalition of inflaming community tensions.

“I believe leadership is not amplifying distress so that it leads to anger and violence,” Wong said in response to criticisms from the Greens in the senate on Tuesday. “I believe leadership is trying to hold our country together to unify our community and stand against all forms of prejudice and hatred because we, as Australians, value and treasure our peaceful community.”

As parliament sat this week, rallies outside highlighted the distress on both sides. On Monday, Palestinian advocates protested on the lawns in front of Parliament House. On Tuesday, supporters of Israel did the same. Inside, Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, who is of the Muslim faith, has been wearing a Palestinian scarf, a keffiyeh. This week, Jewish Liberal MP Julian Leeser wore his kippah.

“There’ve been Jews in Australia since the First Fleet,” Leeser tells The Saturday Paper. “I can’t remember a time where our community has felt as fearful as they are at the moment.”

Leeser says he wore his kippah as a form of reassurance to Jewish Australians who are frightened to display the symbols of their faith.

“It’s actually really important that people be able to exercise their religious tradition in accordance with their tradition, peacefully, as they have always been able to in this country,” he said. “That’s fundamental to what makes Australia such a wonderful country to live in and I think it’s a terrible thing that we’ve got a situation where people are fearful about expressing their religious traditions in public, regardless of what their religious tradition is.”

Parliamentary advocates on both sides of the debate attest to the sensitivities in both the Muslim and Jewish communities in the way comments from political leaders are expressed. Jewish Australians tell them they are offended at the calls for “restraint”, which they argue are Israel-specific and would not be directed at other countries in a similar situation. Muslim leaders tell them they are offended at being asked to preface every public contribution with an explicit condemnation of Hamas, which they believe implies they are terrorist sympathisers without it.

In the wider community, as in parliament, the issue is a tinderbox.

On October 23, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, issued a statement urging “all individuals to consider the implications for social cohesion when making public statements” about events in the Middle East. He said: “ASIO has previously seen direct connections between inflamed language and inflamed community tensions.”

Burgess said the threat level remained at “possible” in relation to terrorism and ASIO was not seeing evidence of planned violence but “the likelihood of opportunistic violence remains real, particularly if tensions, protests and rhetoric increase”.

Events in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield last weekend – when protests following the fire-bombing of a fast-food shop owned by a Palestinian Australian led to the evacuation of a nearby synagogue on shabbat – prompted alarmed local MPs to speak out.

Labor’s Josh Burns, who represents the seat of Macnamara, where the burger shop is based, says parliamentarians’ main focus must be the home community.

“It’s incorrect to assume that just because Australia calls for one thing or another, that we have control or influence on the ground – we don’t,” Burns says. “What we have is a responsibility to maintain social cohesion, to lead, and to protect our local communities and to ensure that people are living respectful and peaceful lives in Australia.”

Burns says he wants both the Jewish and Muslim communities – and all Australians – to feel safe. He says political leaders must discourage people from seeking out conflict.

“The potential blowback, if something were to happen, would be catastrophic for both sides because not only would there be a community dealing with even more tragedy and more anxiety-creating events but you would also have backlash and public disharmony and anger. And all of those things are the things that we want to avoid right now.”

In the house of representatives on Thursday, independent MP Zoe Daniel pleaded for calm in parliament and in the community. Daniel, a former foreign correspondent, represents the neighbouring seat of Goldstein, which includes the targeted synagogue. An emotional Daniel said she feared Australian multiculturalism was now facing its greatest test.

“Let it not fail,” Daniel said. “We must pull this up here in Australia. We must pull back from this tipping point where hate and anger become so dominant that any nuance, any capacity for reasoned conversation, for empathy for others, is lost.”

Earlier, Daniel told The Saturday Paper community debate was at a point where “no matter what you say, people will interpret it from their own positions”.

She cited her experience as a journalist when tensions reached flashpoint in trouble spots around the world.

“Now is not the time for politics,” she said, accusing the Coalition and Greens of seeking political advantage on the issue. “This is life and death. It’s offensive. It’s more than offensive; it’s dangerous.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Penny Wong on the Israel–Hamas war".

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