FRESH AIR

Australian Government shows seriousness about accountability for Palestinian aid

Jun 16, 2021 | Naomi Levin

Australian Foreign Minister Senator the Hon Marise Payne (credit: Marvin Lynchard )
Australian Foreign Minister Senator the Hon Marise Payne (credit: Marvin Lynchard )

The Australian Government told a Senate estimates hearing last week that it has sought assurances that funding provided to rebuild Gazan buildings damaged in the most recent conflict will not be commandeered by Hamas to use for military purposes.

This is the latest in a series of accountability measures that have been prioritised by the Australian Government with respect to its Palestinian aid program. 

In the wake of the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in May, the Australian Government announced it would provide $4 million to the United Nations Office for Project Services, better known as UNOPS, for relief efforts. Australia also pledged an additional $2 million – on top of a previously allocated $8.9 million for COVID-19 relief – to the International Committee of the Red Cross, this time specifically to support Gazans.

The $4 million destined for UNOPS has been allocated to help with the delivery of and coordination of humanitarian supplies into Gaza.

While the Government has not yet specified what specifically it expects to fund for $4 million, UNOPS is responsible for the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, helping Gazan residents “rebuild their lives”. To that end, UNOPS has transferred 2.5 million tons of construction materials into Gaza since the Israel-Hamas conflict in 2014.

Hold it there, you might be thinking, we know what happens to construction materials transferred to Gaza – they get commandeered by Hamas to build military infrastructure.

In fact, Dore Gold, the former Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and recent AIJAC guest, told a UN summit in 2016 that as much as 95% of cement shipped to Gaza for civilian use was confiscated by Hamas.

Gold said: “Since October [2015], Israel has let into Gaza 4,824,000 tons of building materials and these have oftentimes been seized and used to build new attack tunnels penetrating Israeli territory.”

One hundred kilometres of such Hamas-dug tunnels – including an underground system that protected Hamas fighters deep below Gaza, while leaving civilians exposed above ground – were reportedly destroyed by Israeli forces in the May conflict.

So how do we know this $4 million of Australian taxpayers’ money is not going to end up being used by Hamas to rebuild its military infrastructure?

Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, Senator Eric Abetz, asked Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne precisely this question.

Minister Payne said she had spoken with both Palestinian Authority (PA) Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and then-Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to seek assurances that the funds would not be funnelled to Hamas.

“UNOPS is a joint UN-Israeli government team that clears the humanitarian convoys into Gaza, so the Israelis are very aware that any compromise of its activities is only counterproductive in terms of the sorts of issues you are raising,” Minister Payne said. 

She continued: “Foreign Minister al-Maliki is also very aware that UNOPS is also focussed on preventing the smuggling of weapons.

“I think it would be a reasonable observation to say that what the recent events have shown us are exactly the sorts of issues that you have pointed to, and the international community, the Palestinian National Authority, and Israel are acutely aware of that.”

Foreign Minister Payne’s reassurance that she has reminded all parties of their need to remain accountable to donors continues the Morrison Government’s policy of focussing on ensuring transparency and accountability in Australia’s aid contributions to the Palestinian people.

In 2018, then-foreign minister Julie Bishop announced Australia would redirect $10 million in funding away from the PA, after PA President Mahmoud Abbas refused to assure Bishop that the funding would not be used to pay convicted terrorists and their families.

Bishop also requested an investigation into Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, one of the Government’s NGO partners in the Palestinian Territories, following allegations that members of terrorist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine may have been employed on aid projects it funded.

Australian Government officials have similarly sought reassurance on many occasions from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) that education materials provided to Palestinian children do not teach antisemitism or hatred of Israel, or incite violence.

To this end, in January this year, a senior Australian official wrote to UNRWA officials “reiterating Australia’s expectations about tolerance, non-discrimination, equality and neutrality and expressing our deep concern about the production of those [hateful or violent educational] materials.”

Australia has also requested the $10 million it has allocated to UNRWA in 2020-21 be spent on “health security outcomes” for Palestinians, not UNRWA’s other programs.

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