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From a ‘pause’ to a humanitarian ceasefire: emails reveal why Australia shifted its position on Gaza

<span>Emails reveal the advice the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, as the government shifted its position on Gaza. </span><span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Emails reveal the advice the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, as the government shifted its position on Gaza. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Australia voted for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza after officials privately advised the government the “unprecedented crisis on the ground” and “shifting positions” of allies could justify a policy change.

Guardian Australia has obtained documents revealing the confidential advice given to the foreign minister, Penny Wong, before she authorised a “yes” vote at the UN general assembly in December – a decision that continues to fuel tensions with the Israeli government.

The private advice reveals Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials felt that “it would be open to us to vote Yes this time” and that Australia would be in “good company”, six weeks after it abstained in a similar vote in October.

The documents provide insights into the diplomatic manoeuvring behind scenes, at a time when centre-left political parties across the west are grappling with how to respond to the increasing death toll in Gaza without abandoning support for Israel.

Keir Starmer’s Labour party in the UK avoided a possible rebellion over its ceasefire position on Wednesday, while Joe Biden’s administration faces renewed domestic pressure after the US vetoed another UN security council ceasefire resolution on Tuesday.

Under pressure

In Australia, Labor has come under pressure from rank-and-file members and constituents to take a stronger stand. Dozens of Labor branches passed motions calling for a ceasefire in the lead-up to an emergency session of the UN general assembly in December.

The new documents show that on 12 December, Dfat officials informed the government of growing international support for a ceasefire.

“Overall, we assess the number of Yes votes will go up (from 120 on the last resolution),” said one of several internal emails obtained under freedom of information laws.

“Given the improvements in the text and shifting positions of some like-mindeds, we think it would be open to us to vote Yes this time.”

Related: Australia shifts position to vote in favour of UN resolution calling for Gaza ceasefire

But the same email said a yes vote would need to be accompanied by a speech, known as an explanation of vote (EOV), that “was very firm in articulating the deficiencies in the text”.

An email the day before said: “What remains problematic is that the resolution does not reference the 7 October attacks nor condemn (or even mention) Hamas, which perpetuates a trend of erasing Hamas from the record in UN decisions on the crisis. If we were to vote yes in spite of this, we would need an EOV that was firm about our concern that Hamas’s actions weren’t recognised and condemned in the resolution.”

‘We could live with this text’

Despite these shortcomings, Dfat officials explained why the draft text of the resolution proposed by the Arab Group was “largely something we could support”.

“It includes language demanding the immediate and unconditional release of ‘all hostages’ (whereas the previous resolution only called for the immediate and unconditional release of ‘civilians who are being illegally held captive’); refers to protecting Palestinian and Israeli civilians; and calls on all parties to comply with [international humanitarian law],” said an email on 11 December.

Related: ‘Shockingly amateurish’: Australian government delivers veiled rebuke to Israel over UN agency comments

The preliminary advice acknowledged that the call for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” was a policy shift for Australia, but officials played down the scale of the shift. They appeared to believe it was not a major change from Australia’s pre-existing calls for “pauses” in the fighting.

“While supporting such text would be a step forward for us, there appears little practical difference between a humanitarian ceasefire (as we understand it) and the extended humanitarian pause we saw recently,” the advice said.

“We think we could ultimately live with this text …”

Dfat officials noted the situation was “fast moving” and listed two competing options for the government to consider, without firmly recommending which one should be taken up.

One option was to vote in favour of the ceasefire resolution, noting the “strong and unanimous messaging across relevant UN agencies and many member states on the critical need for a humanitarian ceasefire” and the “unprecedented crisis on the ground”.

A second option was to abstain again, based on the resolution’s failure to condemn Hamas. An argument raised in favour of this course of action was that “it was not the [general assembly] resolution that led to humanitarian pauses last time, but careful mediation on the ground by Egypt, Qatar and the US”.

‘The foreign minister has decided’

At 7.29pm on Tuesday 12 December, Dfat received an email confirming Wong’s decision to back a ceasefire.

“After reviewing this advice, and in consultation with her colleagues, the Foreign Minister has decided that: Australia will vote Yes on this resolution.”

Wong also decided Australia would support two amendments, proposed by the US and Austria, to add condemnation of Hamas, even though officials had privately predicted that these attempts would fail.

Kate Wallace, a Dfat assistant secretary, reported back the following morning: “Both proposed amendments (by Austria and the US) failed to receive the required 2/3rd majority. Australia voted in good company for the resolution and both amendments.”

Wong defended the decision in public, saying more than 150 countries had voted in favour including close allies and partners Canada, New Zealand, Japan, India and France. However, the US and Israel were among 10 countries to vote against the resolution, while the UK abstained.

Australia’s stance prompted immediate criticism from the Coalition opposition and from Israel’s ambassador, Amir Maimon, who said a ceasefire would “embolden Hamas and enable it to resume its attacks on Israelis”.

Legal advice remains secret

The emails are the third set of documents obtained by Guardian Australia under FoI since the conflict erupted on 7 October.

An earlier tranche of documents showed Wong met with Maimon at 6.30pm on 25 October at Parliament House, although the contents of the talks were blocked from release.

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On 27 October, Wong spoke with Australia’s ambassador to the UN, James Larsen, and “confirmed instructions to abstain” on a Jordanian-drafted ceasefire resolution that failed to mention Hamas.

Guardian Australia also applied for any advice provided by Dfat to Wong “in relation to Israel and/or Hamas’s compliance or non-compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) or other international laws”.

This revealed that Dfat’s legal division prepared a “briefing on international law principles relevant to the current conflict” at least twice in October, although the contents were redacted.

The FoI decision-maker cited multiple reasons for blocking some parts of the documents, including “legal professional privilege” and that disclosure “would be reasonably likely to cause damage to Australia’s foreign relationships”.