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As the people in Gaza experience a “living hell”, medical and humanitarian leaders step up pressure for a permanent ceasefire

Introduction by Croakey: On 12 December, Australia was among 153 member states to support a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages as well as humanitarian access.

On 13 December, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined the Prime Ministers of Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand in releasing a joint statement supporting “urgent international efforts towards a sustainable ceasefire”.

While welcome developments, Australia and the international community must do much more, and maintain pressure on all parties to reach a lasting ceasefire, and address the underlying causes of the conflict, according to Dr Sue Wareham OAM, President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW).

Beneath her article are links to recent comments from health and humanitarian organisations, as well as a statement from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and comments by an emergency physician who has just returned from Gaza, Dr Natalie Thurtle.


Sue Wareham writes:

As the death toll in Gaza from Israel’s bombardment and siege reaches well over 17,000 people, the Australian Government is slowly and belatedly taking steps towards ending the nightmare for the people there.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced, with his counterparts in New Zealand and Canada, support for “urgent international efforts towards a sustainable ceasefire”. This week Australia has also voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, having abstained on a similar resolution on 27 October.

These steps are very welcome, and may help to restore some faith in Australia’s capacity to respond appropriately to such appalling suffering as has been repeatedly reported from Gaza over the past two months.  The tragedy of the lost opportunities for Australia to act much sooner cannot be undone and will remain a shameful part of our history.  Our government must now do much more.

A snapshot of what health and other agencies have been reporting, even in the last fortnight since the bombing of Gaza resumed on 1 December after a brief pause, tell us why more is desperately needed.

On 4 December the International President of Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Dr Christos Christou, wrote an open letter to the UN Security Council, pleading for an immediate ceasefire. He said: “Words fail us to describe the absolute horror being inflicted on Palestinian civilians…Israel has shown a blatant and total disregard for the protection of Gaza’s medical facilities.”

On 5 December, WHO reported that the situation for the people of Gaza was getting “worse by the hour”, with hundreds of people killed and many hundreds more injured in a single day.

On 7 December, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, said that Israel had declared an “unrelenting war” on the health system in Gaza and that “the healthcare infrastructure in the Gaza strip has been completely obliterated”.  She also reinforced the message of many others that the root causes of the conflict must be addressed and that the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory must end.

On 7 December also, UNICEF reported that the extent of trauma in Gaza is “utterly unprecedented”.  On 8 December the Deputy Director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), Carl Skau, wrote after a visit to Gaza that people there are starving, with WFP operations on the verge of collapse.

With such reports, it’s important that we examine how far Australia’s position actually goes.

The statement by the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian leaders strongly and appropriately condemned Hamas for its “heinous” acts of violence and taking of hostages. However, there was no explicit condemnation of Israel and its grossly disproportionate actions.

Clearly there are still different sets of rules being applied. In addition the statement’s call for “urgent international efforts towards a sustainable ceasefire” (emphasis added) falls significantly short of the demands of MSF and others for an “immediate ceasefire”.

Actions matter

Even more important than Australia’s words are our actions.

What pressure is Australia applying to demonstrate that we will not be complicit with nations that commit war crimes? Thus far, there’s been very little.

Despite Defence Department claims that our weapons exports are assessed for any risk of facilitating serious human rights abuses, there has been no announcement of the suspension of Australian weapons exports to Israel.

World leaders are speaking out on this, however.

On 4 December “The Elders”, a group that includes former national and UN leaders, called for governments that are providing military assistance to Israel to review their approach, warning that “Israel’s renewed military campaign in Gaza risks fuelling an escalating cycle of mass atrocities.”  Without urgent action to prevent more Australian weapons being exported to Israel, we risk being complicit in such atrocities.

Others are leading the way in applying strong political pressure too. In South Africa – a nation that suffered under apartheid for too long while the world looked away – lawmakers voted on 21 November in favour of closing down the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and suspending all diplomatic relations until a ceasefire is agreed in its war with Hamas.

Beyond applying such military and political pressure with teeth, Australia should call for the International Criminal Court to investigate all allegations of war crimes in this war. The very many thousands of victims deserve no less, and accountability for war crimes is imperative.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing role of civil society in Australia in urging recognition from our government of the plight of the people of Gaza, and the need to address it.

Many Palestinians, Jews and others have taken personal risks to advocate for civilians in Gaza. Healthcare workers speaking out for the protection of medical facilities and patients in Gaza have faced professional threats, including being reported to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra).

We owe them all a debt of gratitude. Similarly the efforts of parliamentarians who are speaking out are to be applauded. All of this must continue, because there is a long way to go yet. Readers are encouraged to take action: see here.

The words of UN rapporteur Dr Mofokeng explain what’s at stake, in addition to the lives of over 2 million people in Gaza: “The practice of medicine is under attack…We are in the darkest time for the right to health in our lifetimes.”

• Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President, Medical Association for Prevention of War


More from X/Twitter

In his presentation to the Global Refugee Forum on 13 December, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini described Gaza as “a living hell” where “there is nowhere to feel safe”.

Most of Gaza’s population has been forcibly displaced, largely into the southern part of the Strip, Rafah, which is now hosting well over a million people without the infrastructure and resources to support such a population, he said.

Lazzarini described the lack of shelter, food and sanitation and the hunger, trauma and desperation, and warned of the imminent collapse of UNRWA’s humanitarian response.

“Many of our staff, who are themselves displaced, take their children to work with them to ensure that they are safe together or die together,” he said.

“The people of Gaza are running out of time and options, as they face bombardment, deprivation, and disease in an ever-ever-shrinking space. They are facing the darkest chapter of their history since 1948. The events in Gaza are taking place against a backdrop of 75 years of displacement. 75 years of failure to find a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine Refugees. During this time, they have been deprived of their basic human rights and their right to self-determination.”

Lazzarini sounded the alarm on campaigns to dehumanise and smear Palestinians and those providing them with assistance and protection. He called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, a meaningful increase in humanitarian assistance – “I have no answer to a father of five in Rafah who asked me how he and his children can survive on one can of beans for three days” – respect for International Humanitarian Law and the revival of a genuine political process “to end the cycle of violence”.

UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Read the WHO Director-General’s assessment of “the unimaginable conditions”. Read the VALS statement in solidarity with Palestinians (8 December).

VALS calls for an end to violence and for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and across all of Israel and Palestine.

“We are joining a chorus of leading international NGOs, including Amnesty International, World Health Organisation (WHO), Oxfam, Plan International, Save the Children, and UNICEF who are demanding a permanent ceasefire, and justice for any breaches of international law and perpetration of war crimes,” says the statement.

“Peace and freedom can only be achieved with justice and accountability.”

The statement says anti-racist work, and the organisation is committed to opposing racism and doing what it can to dismantle it in all its forms – anti-Indigenous racism, antisemitism, anti-Palestinian racism, and Islamophobia.

“We stand firm that criticism of the Israeli state is not inherently antisemitic and just like criticism of the Australian Government is not criticism of its citizens, our criticism of the Israeli Government is not criticism of its civilians. We know that many people in Israel and Jewish people across the world oppose the actions of the Israeli Government,” says the statement.

“We are troubled and concerned about the harm that conflating criticism of the State of Israel with antisemitism is causing to our Palestinian staff, Jewish staff, friends and community. It is contributing to an increase of hate speech and racism.

“It is also deeply unhelpful when working to combat the violence that Israel perpetrates against Palestinians: this is not a religious or ethnic conflict, but rather a problem of colonial state violence and apartheid.”

Upon her return home, Dr Natalie Thurtle, spoke with media about the traumas of Gaza.