Radio interview, ABC - RN Breakfast

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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25 October 2023

SUBJECTS: Operation BEECH; Israel-Hamas conflict

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Richard Marles, welcome to the program.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Thanks for having me, PK. How are you?

KARVELAS: Good, thank you. You want people to explore commercial options first. What will Australia's capability be to evacuate our own citizens from the Middle East if there is a regional war?

MARLES: Well, the deployment that we're doing right now is to enable us to have that capability. And there'll be a significant capability with three aircraft in the region and a significant contingent of personnel which are attached to them. But we do very much make the point that if you're in the region now, if you're in a place like Lebanon and you want to leave, take the options available to you, because this is volatile and it's hard to know exactly how this will play out.

KARVELAS: You've said today, just confirm to me how many of our citizens are in Gaza and what efforts you're putting in to try and evacuate them.

MARLES: So there are 79 people who we are in contact with, so that's Australians, permanent residents and their immediate family, and we are working to provide for their assisted departure, but they're in a really difficult situation. We don't have a humanitarian corridor established out of Gaza as yet. That is the principal effort that we have in place, which is to try and have that corridor opened up. I mean, we have seen humanitarian supplies go through that Rafah border crossing with Egypt, but at this point, we have not been able to get people out through there. But we're continuing to work with the international community around that.

KARVELAS: Given you haven't been able to evacuate our own citizens, how can you support a ground invasion which will put them at risk?

MARLES: Well, they are separate questions. We are very much focused on doing everything we can to support Australians who are in a dangerous environment. The attack by Hamas a few weeks ago now was a terrorist attack- nothing justifies it was not in relation to combatants, it was on innocent people. And Israel does have a right to defend itself and to move against Hamas. Obviously, we have, in saying that been very clear, that the rules of war need to be adhered to and the protection of civilian life needs to be front and centre in terms of all the steps that are taken by Israel. And again, we've been making that point very clear, as well –

KARVELAS: You have, but your Cabinet colleague, Ed Husic, says it looks like collective punishment. Do you agree? It's collective punishment?

MARLES: We've made our position, really clear -

KARVELAS: So just be clear with me. Is this collective punishment?

MARLES: Well, Israel has a right to defend itself and to move against Hamas. What is absolutely essential in doing that is that the protection front and centre in all the steps that Israel takes and that the rules of war are adhered to, and we've been making that very clear as well.

KARVELAS: And is it your view that the rules of law are being adhered to or is there collective punishment that we're witnessing?

MARLES: Well, I'm not going to walk down that path because ultimately you're asking me to make a judgement in terms of whether the rules of war have been adhered to which can't be made unless you have all the information available to you and you are actually the ones making those decisions, which clearly we are not. But what is important is that we make our call very clear that the rules of war must be adhered to and that the protection of civilian life has to be completely paramount.

KARVELAS: Given what will happen if fuel doesn't go into Gaza, particularly to the hospitals and people in dire need. Would you like to see fuel enter the Gaza Strip?

MARLES: Well, again, we come back to what I've said. There are judgments that are being made here by the combatants. The protection of civilian life has to be front and centre in the judgments that are being made in the way in which this war is being prosecuted-

KARVELAS: Would you like then- I know that is the government's position, but do you think fuel should go in to, for instance, allow those hospitals to run?

MARLES: Well, again, these are judgments that are being made in the circumstances where Israel has the information in front of it and we don't. And so I'm not going to walk down the path of making judgments that would be made by those who are prosecuting a war when they have a series of information that I obviously don't have at hand now. The only point that we can make is the points that we have made, and that is that in making those judgments, given all the information that is at their fingertips, the protection of civilian life has to be front and centre.

KARVELAS: In the days following the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel, Qantas was cancelling flights and charging people as much as $10,000 to rebook. What's your message to Qantas?

MARLES: Well, we appreciate the effort that Qantas has made in relation to evacuating Australians from Israel. Obviously, we want Qantas to be providing the best possible service that it can be providing to its customers. And again, we've been making that point very clearly over a long period of time now. I mean Qantas needs to be providing the best service at the lowest price, and that requires competition, which, again, is what we've been pursuing in the Australian skies.

KARVELAS: Deputy Prime Minister. Well, Acting Prime Minister at the moment. I should be very clear. Do you expect advance warning of an Israeli ground invasion?

MARLES: I wouldn't expect that. We've seen Israel provide warning to those who are in northern Gaza, and I would expect that, which is what Israel has done. But we wouldn't be expecting Israel to forecast to us or to the international community what its steps are going to be.

KARVELAS: But how can we protect our own citizens that are stuck there, then?

MARLES: Well, they're in a war zone and that is really difficult. No one's suggesting anything different, but we are doing everything within our power to try and protect Australians. And that's why we've been working very closely with the 79 who we're in touch with, and over the last few weeks, that number has grown as we've kind of sought people to reach out to us who need help. And we continue to work with Australians, permanent residents, their immediate family, and doing everything within our power. They are in a very difficult situation, but also, it's why we're taking the steps that we're taking more broadly in the Middle East to give ourselves options to provide contingencies to support Australian populations within the region. If, in fact, this escalates- which I hope it doesn’t.

KARVELAS: Well, that's the key question but what is the likelihood that this is now going to turn into a regional war?

MARLES: Well, again, it's difficult for me to put-

KARVELAS: What advice are you being given?

MARLES: Well, we're watching this as the rest of the world is watching this and we're holding our breath as we do so. But the steps that we've taken to put in place contingencies which allow us to support Australian populations in the region speak for themselves. We want to make sure that we are prepared so that if this does escalate, if it does widen, we're in a position where we can act on behalf of the significant number of Australians who are in the region.

KARVELAS: And you're not outlining how many troops you're sending. Can you give us an idea of just the kind of expenditure and the broad kind of contingency that you're willing to deploy here?

MARLES: Well, it's in a sense, the outline that I've given, which is that there'll be three aircraft and the contingent of troops or personnel which are able to support the operation of those three aircraft, which gives us reasonably significant capacity to lift Australians out if an evacuation is required. And that's what is the prudent step here. I really hope none of it's needed, but we need to be prepared in the event that this does escalate.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles, thank you so much for joining us.

MARLES: Thanks, PK.


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