ASEAN, Australia call for Gaza ceasefire, support UN agency for Palestinian refugees

Arie Firdaus and Tria Dianti
ASEAN, Australia call for Gaza ceasefire, support UN agency for Palestinian refugees Palestinians wait for humanitarian aid on a beachfront in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Feb. 25, 2024.
[Mahmoud Essa/AP]

Australia and ASEAN jointly called on Wednesday for a swift and enduring ceasefire in Gaza, where Israeli strikes have killed more than 30,000 people and left nearly 600,000 starving, five months after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. 

As Australia and the Southeast Asian bloc concluded a special summit in Melbourne, their leaders also expressed support for the beleaguered U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, despite Canberra having suspended funding for it.

Along with about a dozen other countries, it paused funding for the agency over unproven Israeli allegations that some of its staff were involved in the attacks by Hamas militants on Israel that killed more than 1,100 people in October.

Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their Australian counterpart reportedly had vehement arguments about the situation in Gaza before agreeing on these statements in the joint declaration that they issued at the end of the three-day summit marking the 50th anniversary of Australia-ASEAN ties, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

“We condemn attacks against all civilians and civilian infrastructure, leading to further deterioration of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza including restricted access to food, water, and other basic needs,” said the joint statement contained in the so-called Melbourne Declaration.

“We urge for an immediate and durable humanitarian ceasefire. We support the U.N Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in the execution of its mandate ….” 

The statement reiterated the need for a peaceful solution to the conflict that would achieve a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders in line with international law and U.N. resolutions. 

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War in June 1967, and formally annexed east Jerusalem in 1980, a move not recognized by the U.N. and many of its member states.

The Gaza Strip has been under Israeli blockade since 2007, when the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized control of the territory from the rival Fatah faction, which leads the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left) speaks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo before the leaders are photographed at Government House during the 50th ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, March 6, 2024. [William West/AFP]

The joint statement, which called for people in Gaza to be given quick, safe and unhindered humanitarian access, came out almost a week after what has come to be known as the “flour massacre” that killed at least 112 people in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

United Nations experts on Monday condemned as a “massacre” the Feb. 29 incident, which they also described as “violence unleashed by Israeli forces” who “fired on crowds of Palestinians”  who had gathered to collect flour.

Israel said its troops did not fire on people seeking aid, but only fired warning shots when “a mob” tried to pull food off the aid trucks and in the process trampled many to death.

The U.N. experts also accused Israel of “intentionally starving” the Palestinians in densely populated Gaza.

Displaced Palestinians walk around in the compound of a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which is housing displaced Palestinians, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, March 4, 2024. [AFP]

According to AFP, some ASEAN members wanted to include what the U.N. experts said about the alleged deliberate starvation of people in Gaza in the joint statement but member-state Singapore refused to agree to that. The city-state and the Jewish state have close bilateral ties particularly in the military and security sectors.

There were also heated debates on whether the joint declaration should call for a ceasefire or a pause in hostilities to deliver humanitarian aid, AFP reported.

Islam is the most practiced religion in Southeast Asia, with the region hosting 240-242 million Muslims according to various sources. The majority of the population of founding ASEAN members Malaysia and Indonesia is Muslim, with the latter the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

ASEAN member Brunei also has a majority Muslim population, while parts of southern Thailand and the Philippines have sizable Muslim populations as well.

‘Stop the genocide in Gaza’

In his speech at the meeting in Melbourne, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo reiterated the importance of a ceasefire and continued support for UNRWA, according to his Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi.

“We must show our solidarity with Palestine and stop the genocide in Gaza,” he had said in his speech on Wednesday, by Retno’s account.

Meanwhile, Australia urged Israel to cooperate fully with U.N. investigators and provide evidence about the allegations against UNRWA staff, the Australian ambassador and permanent representative to the U.N., James Larsen, said during a briefing at the General Assembly on Monday.

“We have consistently called on Israel to provide all available evidence so that these serious allegations can be properly assessed, and appropriate safeguards put in place. Australia repeats that call today,” Larsen said. 

“The humanitarian crisis is dire. We seek the urgent assurance that will allow us to restore funding.”   

He also said that Australia has committed A$46.5 million in assistance to meet humanitarian needs in Gaza and the wider region.

A displaced girl brushes her sibling’s hair at a school a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which is housing displaced Palestinians, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, March 4, 2024. [AFP]

Referring to the statements on the situation in Gaza, some analysts said they doubted the Melbourne declaration would carry weight.

“Australia knew the declaration was only a moral appeal. At the end of the day, the U.S. still has the most influence on the situation,” Vinsensio Dugis, head of the ASEAN Studies Center at Airlangga University in Surabaya, told BenarNews.

He added that because Australia’s relations with China have deteriorated, Canberra’s involvement in the joint declaration with ASEAN “was motivated by its economic and political interests.”

Australia can put pressure on Israel’

Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations lecturer at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, agreed, noting that ASEAN with its total of 670 million people is a big market for Australia.

“Australia is concerned that [some ASEAN nations’] negative sentiment toward Israel could hurt its [own] economy,” he said. 

For instance, Indonesians and Malaysians, who have trenchantly criticized Israel and don’t have diplomatic relations with it, see Australia as a supporter of the Jewish state.

But Yon Machmudi, an international relations observer at the University of Indonesia, said Australia’s involvement in the declaration was a positive development.

“Australia, as a close ally of the U.S., can put pressure on Israel to stop the attacks in Gaza and resume the peace talks,” he said.

“I think this is a good step when ASEAN and Australia called for a lasting and permanent ceasefire.”

The Melbourne summit discussed future cooperation between ASEAN and Australia, especially in the areas of trade, investment, digital economy, health, education, and climate change.

The summit declaration also reaffirmed their commitment to keeping the South China Sea peaceful and stable. 

Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta contributed to the report.


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