Senator Dave Sharma

NSW Senator


19 Feb 2024

The Israel-Hamas conflict: an Australian view

Over the summer I spent some time reading Henry Kissinger’s first published work, A World Restored.


Kissinger died in November last year, at the ripe age of 100, and I was feeling somewhat nostalgic for his wisdom.


A World Restored is predominantly a history of how anew order in Europe was created in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, at the Congress of Vienna and elsewhere, and the reasons this order endured and provided Europe with a high degree of stability for the next 100 years.


But it also contains a few reflections that remain relevant today.


Kissinger counselled that peace was the by product of an international system that was willing to use force if necessary to maintain its underlying principles.


But he warned that if peace alone was the primary objective of such a system, with a desire to avoid war at all costs, it would quickly fall prey to the most ruthless states.


“Whenever peace – conceived as the avoidance of war – has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community.


Whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace, stability based on an equilibrium of forces was at least conceivable.”


Kissinger was a witness to and victim of the great breakdown of peace in Europe in the interwar period, having been forced to flee Bavaria in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution.


He found his way to the United States, and his doctoral thesis, which forms the basis of A World Restored, was written in 1954 at Harvard.


His point was that the priority placed on avoiding conflict at all costs after the horrors of the First World War was, while entirely understandable, cynically exploited by the most ruthless state sat the time: Italy, Japan and of course Nazi Germany.


Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Italy occupied and annexed Abyssinia, whilst Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria, both in violation of League of Nations rulings.


By failing to enforce the principles of the interwar system, built in order to safeguard peace, the Western powers ensured that peace itself collapsed, ending with the conflagration of the  Second World War.


We are at risk of repeating a similar mistake today.




In today's world, there are currently two significant conflicts underway involving major powers


Both have the potential to spill beyond their current theatres and escalate into larger conflicts, with global implications for peace and security.


The implications for Australia are particularly stark because like all middle powers, Australia benefits disproportionately from an international order underpinned by just and enforceable norms and principles.


A world where "might is right" or "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" is not a favorable one for Australia.




The current war in the Middle East wasinitiated by Hamas, the terrorist group that is the de facto authority in Gaza.


Its attack on Israel of 7 October was oneof the most deadly - and brutal - terrorist attacks in global history.


1200 civilians were killed. Another 240were kidnapped, many of whom have since died.


In terms of the loss of Israeli civilianlife, it was the equivalent of twelve '9-11' attacks in a single day.


It was the deadliest day for Jewish peoplesince the Holocaust.


It's important to remember, and be clear,that this was a terrorist attack. Civilians were the primary target of Hamas'operation.


Women, children, infants, the elderly andmany others were terrorised, slaughtered, murdered, decapitated, defiled andsexually assaulted in barbaric and inhuman fashion, in a way redolent of theworst depravities of Islamic State.


This has all been well documented, mostsickeningly by the Hamas terrorists themselves …


… whether it was the 364 young peopleslaughtered at the Supernova open-air music festival, or the charred bodies ofvictims whose hands were bound before they were burnt alive.


Beyond the sheer magnitude of the loss,however, the attack has delivered a deep and profound shock to Israel's senseof security as a nation -- much as the 9/11 attacks did in the United States.


We all remember in Australia how the Baliterrorist bombings of 2002, which killed 88 Australians, shook our nationalsoul.


Imagine that this attack took place onAustralian soil, and that several thousand of our citizens were killed, howmuch more profound that shock would have been.


Only if we reflect on and appreciate thedeep national trauma this attack has inflicted on Israel can we begin tounderstand its response, and its insistence that such an attack can never beallowed to happen again.


We also need to be clear that Hamas is nota national liberation movement, but an Islamist terrorist organisation.


Hamas has no interest in the welfare of thePalestinian people it governs.


Hamas's ideological commitment and purposeis not to secure a sovereignPalestinian state.


Its ideological commitment and purpose isto destroy the state of Israel andevict the Jewish people from their current and ancestral homeland in the MiddleEast.


Witness how it has promised to repeat the 7October terrorist attacks again and again, notuntil such time as a Palestinian state is created, but until such time as Israel is eliminated.


Witness how it has put its own militaryinfrastructure under civilian facilities, whether hospitals or schools orapartment blocks, and actively puts civilians in harm's way.


Witness how it has diverted massive amountsof international aid to build an underground tunnel and bunker network that haskept its fighters safe whilst its civilians have nowhere to hide.


Witness how it has dug up Gaza's ownplumbing and sewerage network to repurpose the piping into rockets and shells.


In fact, Hamas seeks to exploit -- andsometimes to magnify -- the suffering of the Gazan civilian population in orderto gain international diplomatic leverage and delegitimise Israel and itscurrent military operation.


There is no doubt the current war has seena tragic loss of Palestinian civilian life in Gaza, and an immense amount ofsuffering.


But the moral responsibility for this liesnot with Israel, but with Hamas.


We would all like to see this war, and thissuffering, end as quickly as possible.


But howit ends is critically important to the prospects for future peace.


If the war ends with Hamas in place, thenit would be disastrous for the region, and almost certainly guarantee morebloodshed and suffering in the years to come.


Hamas would re-equip and re-build, andlaunch further terrorist attacks, and provoke further wars, with Israel.


Hamas has initiated four wars with Israelsince it ousted the Palestinian Authority and seized power in Gaza in 2007,with each conflict more bloody than the last.


Future conflict is almost certain: Hamashas promised as much.


Hamas would also frustrate any futureefforts at the advancement of a two-state solution or broader moves towardsregional peace.


Just as it scuttled the last majorIsraeli-Palestinian negotiating effort in 2014, when it abducted and killedthree Israeli teenagers.


Just as with the October 7 attacks it aimedto scuttle the growing momentum towards an Israeli-Saudi normalisationagreement, which would have set the stage for a broader regional peace.


And if Hamas is left in control of Gaza,then Hamas will be seen to have secured a victory against Israel.


Such a victory will marginalise moderatepolitical actors in the region, give fuel to extremists, and empower Iran andits proxies.


This will threaten not only the survival ofIsrael, the only democracy in the region, but it will destabilise the entireMiddle East, and encourage more Iranian adventurism.


Finally, if Hamas is left in power in Gaza,the people who will suffer the most are the civilian population of Gaza.


They will continue to be deprived ofopportunity, held hostage to Hamas' militaristic and irredentist aims, and bearthe brunt of future conflict.


By contrast, if the war ends with thedefeat of Hamas and its removal from power, the future of the region looksconsiderably brighter.


The lives of those in Gaza would moreclosely resemble their West Bank Palestinian cousins, who enjoy considerablygreater freedom, security and prosperity.


There could be a single Palestinianpolitical entity -- hopefully a reformed Palestinian Authority -- that governsthe Palestinian population, that is committed to co-existence with Israel, andthat can serve as a negotiating partner for a two-state solution.


This could in turn allow Israeli-Saudinormalisation, and efforts towards a broader Israeli-Arab peace, to resume.


It might lead not just to the end of thiswar, but the end of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, which has run now for 75years.


The defeat of Hamas would be a setback forIran and its proxies, discourage their destabilising activities, and strengthenmoderate political forces and actors in the region.


This is why I said how this war ends is critically important to the prospects forfuture peace.


Not all ceasefires are equal. Will aceasefire be enduring and sustainable, or will it just stoke future conflictand misery?


People who are calling for a ceasefire,without prescribing what sort of ceasefire, have lost sight of this importantdistinction.


Many of these people seem to forget thatthere was a ceasefire on 6 October. Hamas broke that ceasefire on 7 October.


Few seem to acknowledge that the surest andquickest way of ending this war would be for Hamas to unconditionally releaseits hostages, and surrender its military leadership.


None of this is to deny that Israel has anobligation to adhere to international humanitarian law and the laws of armedconflict.


That it needs to seek to minimise civiliancasualties and suffering whilst pursuing its military objectives.


But I would say that Gaza is an incrediblychallenging operational environment, one that any western military wouldstruggle with,


and that the Israeli Defence Forces taketheir commitment to international humanitarian law seriously, because theyrealise it has strategic repercussions for state legitimacy.


The sad truth is that war entails terriblesuffering, even when the laws of armed conflict are being observed. This is whyHamas is so culpable and so irresponsible for starting this war.


And when we are discussing internationalhumanitarian law, we should also recall that the intentional murder ofcivilians and the holding of hostages, both of which Hamas has engaged in, areclear war crimes, and there is only one party here -- Hamas -- which has statedand demonstrated a clear genocidal intent.




This war is already having regionalimplications, with Iran having activated its proxies to put pressure on Israeland the western countries supporting it.


Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy terroristgroup which controls much of Lebanon, has stepped up its attacks againstnorthern Israel.


Houthi rebels in Yemen, another group thathas been trained, armed and financed by Iran, have succeeded in largely closingthe Red Sea and so the Suez Canal to commercial shipping, with piracy and theuse of armed drones and missiles.


Iranian-supported Shia militias in Iraq andSyria have mounted frequent attacks against US facilities and personnel in theregion, notably killing three in the northeastern corner of Jordan a few weeksago.


Israel, the United States and others havebeen responding, with targeted strikes on Houthi bases, on Iranian-alignedweapons convoys and military facilities throughout the region, and on seniorHezbollah figures and commanders in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, orIRGC.


The forceful and resolute response of theUnited States in the early days of this crisis, sending two aircraft carrierbattle groups and indicating its willingness to use force to keep regionalactors at bay, has largely been successful in keeping the regional dimensionsof this conflict contained, and deterring Iran.


But it is a day-to-day proposition, and therisks of an accident or miscalculation leading to regional escalation remainhigh.





Australia cannot remove ourselves from theimplications and consequences of this conflict.


As a trading nation that depends for ourlivelihood on the maintenance of the global order, and a significant populationwith family and other ties to the affected regions, we have a profound nationalinterest in the resolution of this conflict, and the terms on which it isresolved.


But the Albanese Labor government isfailing us here, and on three fronts.


Firstly, the government has flip-floppedwhen it comes to defending an important point of principle in the internationalsystem, and that is the right to self-defence.


The Albanese Labor government says that itsupports Israel's right to defend itself and that Hamas's removal from power isa necessary precondition for peace.


But then we vote for a UN General Assemblyresolution that would leave Hamas in place, and echo calls for an immediateceasefire without specifying conditions that would need to be met.


Penny Wong was alone amongst foreignministers in demanding 'restraint' from Israel whilst the 7 October Hamasterrorist attack was still underway, with Israel seeking to rescue civiliansbesieged in their communities.


Israel must abide by internationalhumanitarian law, but its right to self-defence clearly includes using force torecover its hostages and militarily defeat Hamas.


Too often from this government we hear allthe emphasis on the former, and none on the latter.


Second, the Albanese Labor government isfailing to maintain social cohesion here in Australia.


Inevitably, conflicts like that in theMiddle East that arouse strong feelings can inflame local tensions.


It is the role of leaders in government tokeep such tensions in check, especially in a multicultural nation such asAustralia, and ensure that they are not allowed to spill over into outrightanimosity against fellow Australians, and undermine our cohesion as a nation.


But from the Prime Minister down, thisgovernment has been too slow and too hesitant -- for whatever reason -- tocondemn rising antisemitism in Australia, with the result that it has now takenroot and even become normalised.


From the shameful crowds at the Opera Houseglorifying Hamas' terrorism a mere two days after the attacks, to the failureto condemn extremist sermons from Islamic preachers, to the slow and inadequateresponse to the doxxing attack against Jewish Australians.


We have also had senior Labor ministersfreelancing with inflammatory language and accusations, and a false conflationof a quite evident rise in antisemitism with the spectre of an Islamophobiathat has not materialised.


To be clear. Australians should be entirelyfree to protest against the war, to criticise Israel's policy and itsgovernment, and to lobby the government towards this end.


Just as Australians should be entirely freeto protest against Hamas, to call for the release of hostages, and to expresssolidarity with Israel's right to defend itself.


But what should not be tolerated orpermitted, and what we are seeing far too frequently, is Australians harassing,vilifying, demonising and seeking to hold to account their fellow Australiansfor the religion they observe, the opinions they hold, or the behaviour of aforeign entity.


And this is only happening to one group ofAustralians: Jewish Australians.


As Vic Alhadeff, a man who has devoted hisprofessional life to building harmonious relations between differentAustralians, wrote last week:


"the tsunami of anti-Jewish hatredsweeping our nation is the most all-pervasive and terrifying of our lives and,in fact, our country's history".


That we have allowed this situation todevelop, by failing to check this movement in its infancy, is a profoundfailing of collective leadership.


Finally, the Albanese Labor government isfailing us by not making a meaningful contribution to the maritime task forcein the Red Sea.


Twenty percent of the world's containertrade passes through the Red Sea. Avoiding the Suez Canal and the Red Seabetween Europe and Asia, and instead going via Africa, takes twice the fuel anddays more at sea, doubling the price of moving a container from Rotterdam toShanghai.


These increased costs are being passed onto consumers in Australia, adding to inflation and cost-of-living pressures.


As a trading nation that depends uponfreedom of navigation and commerce on the high seas for our prosperity, andthat has historically contributed to such maritime security operations in theMiddle East, it should be a no-brainer for Australia to make a modestcontribution to this task force.


This is especially true given this requestcame from the United States, our most important ally, and only a week after theUS Congress, in an historic decision, agreed Australia could take threeVirginia Class nuclear-powered submarines from US production lines.





To conclude:


In today's world, two importantinternational principles are on trial.


And the test we face is whether we areprepared to pay the price to uphold these principles


Or whether, through a lack of resolve, wewill weaken the order that has underpinned peace since the end of WW2, emboldenreckless actors, and risk a much greater conflagration down the road.


Russia's invasion of Ukraine is testing theprinciple that one sovereign state cannot use force against the territorialintegrity of another or acquire territory by force.


Hamas's terrorist attack of 7 Octoberagainst Israel, and Israel's legitimate military response, is testing theprinciple of the right to self-defence.


Both wars are exacting a heavy human toll.


The Russia-Ukraine war has resulted in some200,000 deaths, whilst the death toll of the Israel-Hamas war is close to25,000.


And in both wars there are loud voices,growing louder, insisting that the costs have grown too high, and demandingthat a settlement should be found — on any terms.


It can be hard to argue with the moralclaims and sentiments of peace.


Who is not in favour of an end to war, andno more civilian deaths?


But the settlements these proponents arearguing for will only accelerate and supercharge a greater collapse in globalpeace.


As Kissinger warned, a failure to defendunderlying principles only advantages the most aggressive actors and stores upgreater conflict down the road.


If Russia is allowed to keep itsterritorial gains in Ukraine, and Putin's aggression is seen to pay dividends,then all of eastern Europe and the Baltic states become vulnerable.


China will be emboldened to seize Taiwan byforce. North Korea will be encouraged to test South Korean resolve.  


If Israel is stripped of its right toself-defence, and Hamas remains in control of Gaza, then Hamas will be seen tohave secured a victory against Israel.


Such a victory will encourage terroristgroups throughout the region, from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon to the Houthisin Yemen, and their patron state, Iran, that terrorism provides the means tosecure political objectives.


This will threaten not only the survival ofIsrael, the only democracy in the region, but it will destabilise the entireMiddle East, and encourage more Iranian adventurism. Saudi Arabia and the Gulfstates, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan will all be vulnerable.


If we truly want peace, then we need to bedefending the principles which underpin the order that deters aggressors.


The Albanese Labor Government talks up itscontribution to safeguarding global order.


At his Lowy Institute address in December,Albanese proclaimed Australia had a responsibility to uphold and defend theglobal framework.


But at every test, at every juncture wherethe international system is being tested, this government goes to ground.


Whether it is meaningful military supportto Ukraine, a contribution to the Red Sea maritime task force, or activediplomacy to achieve a sustainable ceasefire in the Middle East, the Albanesegovernment is missing in action.


Where events have called for decisiveaction and moral clarity, Labor has responded with superficial moralising andmagical thinking.


How else do you explain Labor’s apparentbelief that the destruction of Hamas - an objective I think all reasonableobservers of this conflict would agree is a legitimate war aim - can beachieved without bloodshed, tragic though it is?  


How else do you explain Labor's apparentbelief that the Houthis in Yemen can be deterred by a press release?


There is also a dangerous naivete at workhere: a failure to understand that foreign policy is not transacted inisolation, with decisions taken on one side of the world having little or nobearing on the other.


Rather, it is a wholistic undertaking, oneguided by a commitment to principles and a clear sense of the nationalinterest.


A desire for peace on any terms, no matterhow just the fight against an enemy may be, will be interpreted in Beijing andMoscow as weakness on the part of the West, and rightly so.


That weakness will embolden autocrats inour region, something that brings danger closer to our own shores.


The Liberal Party knows this. We havealways known this.


If the Labor government is genuine aboutprotecting Australian interests in a more dangerous world, rather than justsitting back and letting our fate be decided for us, then there are fourrelatively easy steps it could take.


First, Australia should become activelyinvolved in the diplomacy to support a ceasefire deal in the Middle East thatis genuinely sustainable, and that lays the groundwork for a more hopefulfuture for both Israel and Palestinians.


Statements issued from Canberra are notgoing to do this: it takes active and ongoing engagement with the major actorsin the region: Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the United States, the PalestinianAuthority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the European Union.


If Penny Wong -- who took over 3 months tomake her first visit to the Middle East after the 7 October terrorist attacks-- is not prepared to do this, then she should appoint a senior Special Envoyfor the Middle East, someone who carries weight in the region, and who canargue Australia's interests.


Second, we should make a meaningfulcontribution to Operation Prosperity Guardian, the multinational maritime taskforce seeking to deter Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and make it safe forcommercial shipping.


As we heard from the Royal Australian Navylast week in Senate Estimates, we have the capability and operational readinessto contribute to this mission. The decision not to do so was a political one.


Third, we should strengthen our support forUkraine, as it fends off Russian aggression.


Rather than dismantle and bury our Taipanhelicopters, we should send them to Ukraine, who desperately needs them toprotect the lives of its soldiers on the front lines.


And we should reopen our Embassy in Kyiv,as an important show of solidarity with Ukraine.


As we learnt in Senate Estimates last week,Australia continues to pay rent on the premises, and pay the salaries of ourlocal staff ... the only thing missing from our embassy is an Ambassador, whoremains bizarrely stationed in Poland.


Fourth, the government needs to starttaking antisemitism seriously, and begin to combat it rather than wishing itaway.


Normally, the lead on this sort of issuewould fall to the Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Minister ...


but the hapless Andrew Giles is too busyseeking to evade responsibility for the government's failure to prepare for andrespond to the release of 149 criminals from immigration detention, endangeringour community.


So he either needs to step up or step down,and a senior Minister in the Albanese government needs to take seriously thechallenge of community cohesion.


As we are always being reminded, includingby this Government, the world is becoming less certain and more dangerous forAustralia.


That's why we cannot afford the sort ofcomplacency we are seeing.