Too little, too late, say critics of the government’s evacuation
plans for dual citizens stuck in Lebanon. But is it a fair call?

In East Timor, the Federal Government “was decisive in its action and
Australians were immediately evacuated”, Rockdale mayor Shaoquett
Moselmane told the ABC. “In
Lebanon, though, the Federal Government’s delayed reaction was so
apparent that it can only be described as shameful in the full meaning
of the word.”

Rather than use its Australian mission in Beirut to put in place an
immediate action plan, the Federal Government “decides to shut all
embassy doors and run for cover,” Mr Moselmane said.


It’s pretty disappointing that when people call the
Australian Embassy in Beirut, they only get the answering machine –
“there’s no-one to speak to”, says Charlie Khouri, spokesman for the United
Australian Lebanese Movement, whose parents are in Lebanon.

But while he’s heard a lot of criticism about the evacuation process, Khouri says that mostly, it’s
“unfair and unfounded”. After all, the government is “very limited in their options”, especially
given the attacks made by Israel on Lebanon’s infrastructure.

The fact is, without a ceasefire it will be difficult to evacuate people. After
all, “if the Americans are finding it difficult” with all their
resources, says Khouri, it’s unsurprising that Australia is having trouble. (USA Today reports that “the pace of the
evacuation angered some in the USA with relatives in the country”.)

Speaking purely from a military perspective, I’m not sure what more
they could be doing, says David Horner, professor of Australian Defence
History at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Unlike Britain, Italy, France, Greece and the US, who
have ships in the Mediterranean, Australia’s closest ship is stationed
in the Persian Gulf – that’s 17 days away, says Horner. It’s not that
the ADF is over-stretched – more that
its ships are not in the right place at the right time. So “ships are
out”.

As for air options, we have Hercules in the Middle East, but they’d
have to fly across Syria, Jordan and Israel to get to Lebanon. And even
then, there might not be anywhere for them to land given that airstrips
have been bombed. For the same reason, you can’t just send a Qantas
plane in, says Horner.

So for now, Australia must charter other countries’ ships and rely on
the kindness of allies. Unfortunately, this means we’re also at
the mercy of conditions – the government’s arrangements to charter a private
vessel from Turkey were
“gazumped” by an unnamed country (which presumably upped Australia’s price) leaving hundreds stranded in Beirut.

Over the past 24 hours, 40 Australians have been
evacuated by a Greek ship (another 200 or so weren’t able to board
because of an Israeli curfew on the Beirut port). Approximately 48 were also
evacuated by British helicopter and around 57 Australians by UK
ship HMS York.

Or so the DFAT website says at the time of publication. But news.com.au has a different story – when the HMS York
unloaded in the port of Limassol at about 4am AEST, Australian consular
officials
dressed in bright yellow shirts with green sleeves were waiting to
greet the Australian nationals, but they weren’t there. About 100 Australians arrived on the HMS Gloucester instead.

Peter Fray

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