Australia must use sanctions to hold Israel accountable for conduct in Gaza, MSF chief says

<span>MSF has called for an immediate ceasefire to prevent more civilian deaths in Gaza.</span><span>Photograph: Hatem Khaled/Reuters</span>
MSF has called for an immediate ceasefire to prevent more civilian deaths in Gaza.Photograph: Hatem Khaled/Reuters

The global president of Médecins Sans Frontières has urged Australia to impose sanctions on the Israeli government, saying he has “run out of words” to describe the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the collapse of the health system.

Dr Christos Christou is due to meet the Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, on Wednesday to request “immediate, concrete actions to hold Israel to account” for its conduct during the war.

“Australia must apply appropriate sanctions on Israel, as it would to any other global state that refuses to comply with UN security council resolutions,” Christou told the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday.

Related: Global shock after Israeli airstrike kills dozens in Rafah tent camp

Christou said Israel was conducting an “indiscriminate and disproportionate military campaign” and “pursuing a policy of deliberate deprivation, only allowing a trickle of food and water to enter Gaza”.

The Israeli government has repeatedly rejected those allegations and has said it is seeking to minimise impacts on innocent Palestinians, in a context where Hamas embeds itself among civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Israel is facing an outcry from global leaders after an airstrike caused a huge blaze at a tented area for displaced people in Rafah, with medics putting the death toll at 45.

Israeli forces said they were targeting senior Hamas militants but the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that “something unfortunately went tragically wrong”.

Wong told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the incident “reinforces why we and the international community” had urged the Netanyahu government not to proceed with an offensive in Rafah.

“The death and destruction in Rafah is horrific. This human suffering is unacceptable,” Wong said.

“We reiterate to the government of Israel: this cannot continue.”

Christou described the incident at the area for displaced people as “unimaginable”, saying those affected had “followed evacuation orders to leave northern Gaza, only to be bombed in the south”.

He asked: “What could more clearly show that there is nowhere safe in Gaza?”

Christou said MSF – which is also known as Doctors Without Borders – was doing what it could to care for 180 people injured in the attack.

But he said MSF was “working from a very small clinic in a shed” in an environment where Gaza’s health system had been “dismantled” and “overwhelmed”.

Christou said MSF was “horrified” by Israel’s assault on Gaza and by Hamas’s 7 October attack.

He called for an immediate and sustained ceasefire to prevent further civilian deaths and allow aid in, saying he was “appalled by the continued and complete disregard for life we are witnessing in Gaza”.

“Honestly, I have run out of words,” he said.

“I wish I could find the words to express the smell of infected wounds, the cries of mothers who’ve lost their children, the constant sound of drones, the level of desperation of my colleagues.”

Related: The ICC will consider arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders. How has Australia responded?

Asked whether he could understand Israel’s intent to pursue Hamas and rescue hostages, Christou said: “Yes, of course, we do understand that. What we ask is for everyone to respect the laws of war.”

Jennifer Tierney, the executive director of MSF Australia, said Israelis and Palestinians were “traumatised” and “hurting”.

“From a human level you can understand the rage and the hurt and the pain, but the civilian casualties that we are seeing are so outside the bounds of acceptability of any law of war that there is no way to contextualise it, to excuse it away,” she said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Wong said Israel’s strikes had caused “horrific and unacceptable consequences”.

The Australian foreign minister said the fatal incident in the Rafah camp showed why “we must see a humanitarian ceasefire now so that civilians can be protected”. She also called on Hamas to release all hostages and lay down its arms.

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, asked the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, in parliament to reaffirm Australia’s “full commitment” to the international criminal court after its prosecutor applied for warrants for the arrest of Netanyahu and the Israeli defence minister and three Hamas leaders.

Bandt also pressed Albanese to condemn calls from the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, for Australia to consider cutting ties with the ICC if the court’s pre-trial chamber agrees to issue the warrants.

Albanese did not answer directly, but said the government had been “very clear from the beginning” in condemning the Hamas attacks and calling for the protection of civilian lives and the observance of international law in Israel’s response.

“Every innocent life matters, whether it is Israeli or Palestinian,” Albanese said.

Comment has been sought from the Israeli embassy in Canberra.