Ahead of Australia’s decision to back a United Nations resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza this week, key federal cabinet ministers had been moving to change Australia’s position, which had seen the country abstain from an earlier resolution on the conflict.
Since that October vote, which Australia said it could not support because it didn’t explicitly condemn Hamas, there has been debate at the top levels of government about how to respond next time.
In parallel to these internal discussions, on-again off-again negotiations with other countries had been under way for weeks. The talks were around the possibility of a joint leaders’ statement calling for a humanitarian pause as the forerunner to a more permanent ceasefire. Before the latest UN resolution, the leaders of Australia, New Zealand and Canada had agreed to issue a statement together and the wording was being drafted.
The Saturday Paper understands the government had been hoping to signal a more incremental shift in its position via the joint statement, before being required to cast a vote again at the UN.
But this week’s sudden push by Arab states to reopen last month’s suspended emergency special session of the UN General Assembly brought forward those deliberations. Member states were asked to consider an immediate ceasefire resolution after the United States vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council. Emergency sessions of the full assembly can only be called in direct response to a Security Council decision and must be held within 24 hours.
The government faced an urgent decision. With voting against the resolution never in contemplation, it had to either abstain again or vote in favour. After frenzied consultations involving members of cabinet’s national security committee, and dialogue with like-minded countries, Australia voted yes.
“This resolution, which we have supported, is a call for immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong said at a news conference in Adelaide on Wednesday morning, soon after the result of the UN vote was reported. “This is the world coming together to urge that these pauses be resumed so civilians can get the humanitarian aid they desperately need.”
To get ahead of the vote, the joint statement from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, counterpart Justin Trudeau of Canada and New Zealand’s new leader Christopher Luxon, was rushed out early on Wednesday morning. The subsequent vote on the assembly floor was overwhelming – 153 of 193 member states voted in favour, with 10 against and 23 abstaining.
The earlier leaders’ statement condemned Hamas – which the UN resolution did not – for its October 7 attack on Israel involving “appalling loss of life” and “heinous acts of violence”. It also noted the unacceptable treatment of hostages, calling for their immediate release.
“We recognise Israel’s right to exist and right to defend itself,” the three leaders said. “In defending itself, Israel must respect international humanitarian law. Civilians and civilian infrastructure must be protected ... The price of defeating Hamas cannot be the continuous suffering of all Palestinian civilians. We remain deeply concerned by the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and ongoing risks to all Palestinian civilians. Safe and unimpeded humanitarian access must be increased and sustained.”
On one point, the three prime ministers went further than both the Australian statement and the UN resolution. “There is no role for Hamas in the future governance of Gaza,” they said.
UN vote stirs divides in Canberra
The government’s decision to vote for the UN resolution represented a significant shift. Despite it lacking direct condemnation of Hamas and its October 7 attack, the government decided the deterioration in Gaza – and the bombing of areas in the south to which Gazan residents had been encouraged to flee – necessitated the change.
“That terrorist attack precipitated this crisis,” Australia’s representative to the UN, James Larsen, told the assembly. “This critical fact should be clearly recorded in this place.”
There has been, and still is, tension in the Labor caucus over the positions the government has taken on the conflict and the way they have been communicated both publicly and internally.
Jewish Labor MP Josh Burns, who is visiting Israel as part of a parliamentary delegation, dismissed the UN vote as not relevant “to the people here on the ground”.
After calling on Tuesday for more action to stop the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Muslim Labor minister Ed Husic posted on his Instagram page the following morning: “People should be able to express their concern and stand with humanity and say that they are very concerned about what they’re seeing in Gaza. And they shouldn’t have to face professional retribution as a response.”
Both the Australian statement to the UN and the message from the three prime ministers emphasised that any ceasefire cannot be one-sided and that Hamas must release all hostages, stop using civilians as human shields and lay down its arms.
Explaining Australia’s change of position at the UN, Wong said it was “a collective statement” that the world was supporting. “So this is not a unilateral decision by Australia,” she said. Wong emphasised that there had been changes in the wording between the previous resolution and this
one. However, she acknowledged that this new resolution did not condemn Hamas.
“I think we also are conscious – the whole world is conscious – of the ongoing loss of civilian life and the humanitarian situation, the dire humanitarian situation, in Gaza,” she said.
Australia’s decision drew derision from the federal opposition, which is steadfastly supporting Israel. Liberal MP Julian Leeser, who is Jewish, called it a “tawdry” decision motivated by domestic political considerations that lacked moral courage and clarity.
“Today’s call by Australia for a ceasefire is another example of the Wong doctrine of moral equivalence that continues to weaken Australia’s place in the world,” Leeser said.
Israeli offensive will ‘take time’
Israel this week signalled its military offensive would “take time” and could continue for months, as aid groups warned the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was worsening due to a lack of food and the spread of diseases such as meningitis.
The UN World Food Programme said its operations in Gaza were “collapsing” and half of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents were starving. It said not enough supplies were entering Gaza and, due to the fighting, officials were struggling to distribute food that made it through.
A resident of Gaza, Abu Khalil, said: “At night we can’t sleep because of the bombing, and in the morning, we tour the streets looking for food for the children.”
Israel opened the Kerem Shalom border crossing as a site to be used to inspect aid, which the UN said would deliver a “huge boost” to the flow of supplies. But distribution inside Gaza will remain difficult.
Most residents in Gaza are in the south of the enclave following Israel’s evacuation of the north. Heavy fighting continued in Gaza City in the north, but Israel also intensified its attacks in Khan Younis, a city in the south where Hamas’s senior leaders were believed to be hiding.
Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said the current phase of the war – involving ground forces and air strikes – was likely to continue for weeks or months and would be followed by less intensive fighting against “pockets of resistance”. He said Israeli troops were now operating “deep underground” and had uncovered networks of tunnels beneath schools, mosques and other civilian infrastructure.
“We are going to defend ourselves,” he told reporters. “I am fighting for Israel’s future.”
Gallant said Israel did not plan to stay permanently in Gaza but would take “any measures” to eliminate Hamas.
Israel declared a war aimed at toppling Hamas in Gaza after the attack on October 7 in which Hamas militants entered Israel and killed 1200 people and took about 240 hostages. As of Wednesday, Israel’s attacks in Gaza had killed 18,205 people, including 7729 children, according to local officials. Israel said it had killed more than 5000 militants in Gaza. More than 110 Israeli soldiers have died during the ground invasion.
Hamas freed more than 100 hostages in Gaza in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel during a seven-day truce last month. A further 19 hostages are believed to have died in Gaza.
Qatar, which brokered the truce between Israel and Hamas, said this week there was little prospect of a further deal.
Biden and Netanyahu spar
United States President Joe Biden this week warned Benjamin Netanyahu to end Israel’s “indiscriminate” bombing of Gaza, as a stark split emerged between the two leaders over the war and its aftermath.
Despite staunchly backing Israel’s war against Hamas and opposing calls for a ceasefire, Biden on Tuesday publicly aired concerns about the Israeli prime minister’s military tactics and approach to a future resolution of the conflict. He said Israel still had strong international support but added: “They’re starting to lose that support by indiscriminate bombing that takes place.”
Biden was addressing a fundraiser, hours after Netanyahu said he would not back the US proposal to hand future control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank and is led by Fatah, a secular party.
Netanyahu said in a statement on social media: “I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism and finance terrorism. Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan.”
In unusually blunt remarks about Israel’s domestic political affairs, Biden said Israel’s ruling coalition – the most right-wing in its history – was preventing Netanyahu from agreeing to compromises with the Palestinians such as a diplomatic process towards the creation of a two-state solution. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, previously said he was open to a Palestinian state as long as it had no security forces, but he has resisted any moves towards negotiations.
“I think he has to change,” Biden said. “This government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said he believed Fatah should rule Gaza in cooperation with Hamas, which is Islamist and backed by Iran. This position is at odds with Biden, who described Hamas as “animals” who “exceeded anything that any other terrorist group has done ... in memory”.
Shtayyeh told Bloomberg Hamas should be invited into a ruling partnership if it accepted Fatah’s platform, which included recognition of Israel. Hamas rejects Israel’s existence. Previous efforts to form a ruling coalition between Hamas and Fatah have repeatedly failed.
“Palestinians should not be divided,” Shtayyeh said.
Threat of regional war
Israel this week said it would consider using military force to push Hezbollah away from the Lebanese border in response to missile and drone attacks across Israel’s north.
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed movement in Lebanon, began launching attacks after October 7, saying it wanted to support the Palestinians in Gaza.
Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah politician, said the group had escalated its attacks following Israeli air strikes on towns in southern Lebanon.
The clashes have killed more than 120 people in Lebanon, including at least 85 Hezbollah militants.
In Israel, seven soldiers and four civilians have been killed. About 80,000 residents of northern Israel have been evacuated.
Israel has called for the enforcement of a UN Security Council resolution that requires Hezbollah to disarm south of the Litani River, about 30 kilometres north of the border. Israel’s military chief, Herzi Halevi, signalled Israel might use military force to push Hezbollah northwards if diplomatic efforts failed. “Israel has never said that war is the first solution to try, but we understand that with the situation here [in the north], it should end in a very, very clear change of situation,” he said in a video statement.
A war between Israel and Hezbollah could spill into a broader regional conflict, drawing in the US and Iran. The US has moved aircraft carrier groups to the region to try to deter Iran and Hezbollah from broadening the war.
The Houthis, an Iran-backed group in Yemen, stepped up attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, saying they would target vessels travelling to Israel or that had links to Israel. On Tuesday, the Houthis attacked a Norwegian tanker, saying the ship was travelling to Israel with fuel. The ship’s owner said it was travelling to Italy with palm oil.
The US is seeking to assemble an international naval force to maintain security in the Red Sea and to protect some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Australia is considering a request to join.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Australia’s ceasefire position hastened by emergency vote".
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