With the announcement this week that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has sought assurances from Palestinian leaders that Australian aid is being appropriately directed, it is a good time to look more comprehensively at Australia’s Palestinian aid program.
As in previous federal budgets, the Australian Government has this year allocated millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian people.
A total of $43 million in official development aid was provided in the 2018-19 federal budget to assist a variety of Palestinian causes. According to information provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) this aid is “a tangible demonstration of our long-standing support for the Middle East peace process”.
The 2018-19 allocation is virtually unchanged from Australia’s 2017-18 headline aid commitment of $43.8 million.
Australia’s recent foreign aid contributions to the Palestinians are significantly down compared to 2014-15, when Australia committed $69.2 million in aid to the Palestinian Territories. This reflects a more general foreign aid freeze by the Coalition Government.
This AIJAC investigation looks at where that money is going and how it is being spent.
AUSTRALIAN AID TO NGOS OPERATING IN THE PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES
Australian aid is directed in three general directions: to non-government organisations (NGOs) operating in the region, to the Palestinian Authority and through the United Nations.
Using the money nominated for NGOs, Australia currently supports Palestinian farming through phase three of the Australia Middle East NGO Cooperation Agreement (AMENCA 3).
AMENCA 3 is a five-year plan aimed at increasing productivity in the Palestinian agricultural sector and objectives include construction of farm roads, vegetable seed multiplication, arranging deals between small dairy producers and larger distributers and developing a grape packing house.
AMENCA 3 funding is currently provided to four organisations to pursue these objectives: Oxfam, Care, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA and Cardno Emerging Markets.
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is a particularly controversial recipient of Australian Government money. The funding received from the Australian Government by Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA appears to be provided to the MA’AN Development Centre, based in Ramallah.
According to its 2018 brochure, MA’AN Development Centre – with the support of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA – has among other things repaired 49 water points, rehabilitated 11 wells, repaired five water tanks damaged by Israeli shelling and repaired 7.7 kilometres of water pipelines.
While these achievements are commendable, other material published by MA’AN Development Centre is highly critical of Israel. It does not shy away from calling Israel the occupying force and accusing it of war crimes, labelling the security fence on the West Bank an ‘Apartheid wall’ and promoting a view that Israel is “profiting from both the destruction and aid of Gaza”. AIJAC has also previously noted that MA’AN Development Centre supports the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is closely affiliated with the Australian Labor Party as the charity arm of the Australian union movement. It is also increasingly affiliated with members of the Greens, including Senator Lee Rhiannon, who was hosted by the NGO during a recent trip to Israel.
World Vision has previously been a recipient of AMENCA funds from the Australian Government. However, following the arrest of World Vision’s Gaza branch director Mohammed El-Halabi in August 2016, DFAT suspended aid to World Vision. Halabi is facing criminal charges for allegedly funnelling aid money meant for World Vision programs to Hamas. His case appears to still be ongoing.
DFAT’s performance report on aid to the Palestinian Territories notes that following the Halabi situation, the Department has provided additional training for staff and strengthened its risk and fraud processes. The report also noted “DFAT will implement the Department’s new Counter-Terrorism Financing (CTF) policy, including upgrading all relevant contracts with new CTF clauses.”
AUSTRALIAN AID FOR THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY
Australia’s Aid Investment Plan Palestinian Territories 2015-2019 outlined some changes in the way Australia directed its aid. Whereas previously, Australian aid had supported Palestinian “state building”, following advice from the World Bank, development aid is now focussed on supporting the Palestinian economy.
Reflecting this, Australia now provides funding to the World Bank’s Palestine Recovery and Development Plan Multi-Donor Trust Fund. This fund was established as an independent mechanism for donor countries to provide money to the West Bank and Gaza. According to the Fund itself, it is currently supported by a small number of countries, including France, the UK, Canada, Kuwait and Japan. The release of funds is dependent on the Palestinian Authority meeting certain financial management goals.
In recent months, the spotlight has been on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) because of the American Taylor Force Act. This Act, passed in March by US Congress, requires that the US stop funding the PA while the PA continues to provide financial compensation to “martyrs” and their families – individuals who have been jailed, injured or killed after perpetrating violent acts against Israel.
While Australia has not introduced similar legislation, on May 29, 2018 Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote to her Palestinian counterpart seeking assurances that Australian aid is not being used in any way that would enable or encourage acts of violence, including in the payment of “martyrs'” compensation.
In June 2017, DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson assured the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee that her Department was confident Australian aid was not funding salaries for Palestinian prisoners, including convicted terrorists.
Adamson said: “The recipients of Australian funding provided to the Palestinian Authority via the World Bank trust fund are all screened against sanctions lists. Only individuals cleared through that process are able to access the public service salaries and social security benefits that our funding supports.”
As well as supporting terrorists and their families, the PA also lionises perpetrators by naming public facilities after them. Adamson said that Australia had objected to this practice as well.
“We promptly terminated our involvment with the Palestinian NGO, UAWC, after evidence emerged that they held a tree-planting ceremony in honour of so-called martyrs,” the Secretary said.
AUSTRALIA’S ONGOING COMMITMENT TO UNRWA
Despite the United States this year reducing its funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the Australian Government has not followed suit.
Upholding its four-year $80 million commitment (2016-17 to 2019-20), the Australian Government has earmarked a $20 million pledge to UNRWA in the coming financial year.
In 2016-17, Australian funding for UNRWA was used to help provide primary education to more than half a million Palestinian children, provide vaccinations for children, fund medical visits and provide cash and food aid to individuals.
Supporting UNRWA’s General Fund is a key objective outlined by DFAT. The UNRWA General Fund is the main operating budget for the UN agency and funds 28,000 staff to undertake programs in education, health, protection, relief, microfinance and camp improvements. Australia is UNRWA’s 12th most generous donor.
Many commentators have expressed concerns with UNRWA’s operations – both its raison d’etre and some of its day-to-day practices.
The criticisms centre on two main points. First, unlike individuals who fall under the remit of the UN High Commission for Refugees and are ultimately resettled or relocated in order to start a new life, UNRWA has never championed official resettlement or relocation for Palestinians in its care. Moreover, only UNRWA views refugee status as hereditary. Today, five million Palestinians are eligible for UNRWA services, despite UNRWA itself noting that there were only 750,000 eligible Palestinians in 1950.
Second, there have been numerous reports – some confirmed by UNRWA itself – of connections between UNRWA and Hamas. Stories have emerged of Hamas storing weapons in UNRWA schools and building their terror tunnels under these schools, and of Hamas leaders being employed by UNRWA.
Together with the UK and Norway, Australia also provides support to the UN’s Access Coordination Unit and the Materials Monitoring Unit which helps the UN transfer humanitarian goods from Israel into the Palestinian ruled areas.
There are a number of other smaller programs that the Australian Government supports, including the Australian Award scholarship program that allows Palestinian students to study in Australia. In 2016-17, 10 scholarships were awarded in the areas of public sector management and agricultural development.
Australia continues to be a generous supporter of programs that assist Palestinian people. There is a growing recognition that development assistance needs to produce results and be delivered in a responsible way to trustworthy parties. With Australia’s Aid Investment Plan for the Palestinian Territories due to expire at the end of 2019, it is important that DFAT carefully consider Australia’s ongoing development objectives in the region.