Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has faced immense resistance from the opposition and Jewish leaders after asking the Israeli government to take steps towards a ceasefire.
In what marked a language shift on behalf of the Labor government, Senator Wong called on Israel to stop the “attacking of hospitals” and voiced concern about the safety of civilians. She said how Israel defended itself mattered but when “we affirm Israel’s right to defend itself, what we are also saying is Israel must comply and observe international humanitarian law.”
“We know Hamas is a terrorist organisation. It has demonstrated it has no respect for international law, but Australia is a democracy and so too is Israel, and the standards that we seek and accept are higher,” she told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
Opposition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan condemned Senator Wong’s comments as a display of “moral equivalence” and said they were extremely damaging amid reports of anti-Semitism towards Jewish and Israeli communities.
“She needs to get her language right and she needs to condemn Hamas for their actions. She needs to condemn Hamas for holding Israeli hostages and she has to condemn Hamas for wanting to make sure that Israeli doesn’t exist as a state,” Mr Tehan told Sky News.
More than 11,000 people in the Gaza Strip have been killed since October 7 when Hamas launched an attack on Israel, killing thousands and taking hundreds of people hostage. The Australian government has asked Israel to show restraint in its response to the terrorist attacks and allow for humanitarian pauses over recent weeks, with Senator Wong’s recent remarks signalling a major policy shift on the issue.
The Zionist Federation of Australia and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry said in a joint statement they were “highly concerned” by calls for Israel to stop striking hospitals in Gaza. Both groups have resisted Senator Wong’s remarks and claimed there was “no evidence” Israel was not abiding by the rules of armed conflict.
“We remind the government that Article 19 of the Geneva Convention explicitly states that hospitals lose their protection if they are used for military purposes. It is incontrovertible that Hamas uses Shifa and other hospitals for military purposes,” the statement read.
According to humanitarian medical charity Doctors Without Borders, about 650 patients, including 36 children, are trapped inside al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s biggest hospital complex, amid bombardment by the Israeli military.
The World Health Organisation released a statement on Sunday calling the situation “dire and perilous”.
Escalating conflict in the Middle East has triggered reports of death threats and street abuse against Jewish Australians, with violent clashes between Palestinian and Israel supporters reported in Melbourne over the weekend.
This came after “shocking” figures from Victorian police showed there had been on average three reports of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic behaviour made every day since October 7.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie said she had serious concerns for children’s safety and claimed there were kids who were “frightened to go to school” and express their religious identity in public. She joined the opposition in criticising Senator Wong’s choice of wording about a ceasefire and said the “sooner we rid the world of terrorists, the better world we will have”.
“Penny’s not quite got her words right, but if you start having these ceasefires all you are letting (is) these terrorists regroup. For us to sit there and judge – we’re not even there on the ground with weapons in our hands. We need to be careful with our language,” Senator Lambie said.