People participate in a pro-Palestine protest in Sydney.
Protesters took to the streets in support of Palestinian people at rallies in Sydney and Melbourne. Image by Steven Saphore/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Australia resumes UN Gaza funding after security checks

March 15, 2024

Australia has unfrozen aid to a United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees after security advice following accusations some staff helped attack Israel.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong also announced a further $6 million in aid for the Gaza Strip after expressing horror at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the besieged enclave.

The foreign minister in January froze funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) after allegations by Israel that some staff were involved in the October 7 attack by Hamas.

A small number of the agency’s staff were fired following the accusations.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong
 Minister Penny Wong says the ‘best available advice’ is that UNRWA isn’t a terrorist organisation. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

The allegations warranted an immediate and appropriate response, Senator Wong said as she defended the decision to freeze aid.

“The Australian government in the face of such allegations has to ensure we go through the process we have to assure Australians we’re able to ensure funding goes to the appropriate people and that’s what we’ve done,” she said on Friday.

“The best available current advice from agencies and the Australian government lawyers is that UNRWA is not a terrorist organisation.”

Israel wanted the UN agency disbanded and replaced after accusing it of being aligned with Hamas, which is a recognised terrorist organisation by Australia.

The decision was slammed by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the Australian Jewish Association, who argued there was a risk Australian money would be wasted or used by Hamas.

Israel only provided some of the evidence it relied upon to make the accusation UNRWA staff took part in the Hamas attack, in which 1200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 people taken hostage, according to Tel Aviv.

That was considered by Australia, the foreign minister said, and the government also took advice from security agencies and government lawyers.

“It’s a primary consideration in restoring funding to ensure that Australian funding is used appropriately … it’s also a primary consideration to recognise that we have children and families who are starving,” she said.

The disbursement of $6 million to UNRWA will come as Australia finalises a new funding agreement with the agency to include more stringent oversight and assurances, including guarantees staff remain neutral.

The safeguards allowed for funding to be resumed but there would be no tolerance for members of terrorist organisations working for UNRWA, Senator Wong said.

The move follows the reinstatement of funding by partners such as Canada, Sweden and the European Commission.

Israel supporters during a protest in Sydney
 Jewish groups slammed the Australian government’s decision to reinstate funding to the UNRWA agency. Image by Flavio Brancaleone/AAP PHOTOS 

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said Australia should have waited until the US had made a decision about funding restoration.

“If UNRWA funding was to be restored, it should have been done at the conclusion of independent analysis and verification works being undertaken by the United Nations,” he said.

“It should be done only in concert with a key partner like the United States, who have the weight and influence to ensure that conditions are applied and verification processes in place.”

Palestine’s envoy in Australia, Izzat Abdulhadi, welcomed the funding but also called for Australia to press ahead with recognising Palestine as a state after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out a two-state solution.

Australia will also provide an additional $4 million to UNICEF to provide urgent services, and $2 million for a UN co-ordinator to expand humanitarian access into Gaza.

Additionally, a C-17A Globemaster plane will deliver 140 aerial delivery parachutes to help Jordan and the United Arab Emirates airdrop aid into Gaza.

The extra funding brings Australia’s total commitment of humanitarian aid for Gaza to $52.5 million.

More than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the local health ministry, since Israel retaliated against Hamas’ attack on October 7.

The foreign minister also addressed concerns about Palestinians fleeing Gaza having Australian visas cancelled while they were en route.

The vast majority of Australian citizens, residents and immediate family members who wanted to leave the besieged strip had been helped, she said.

“All visa applicants undergo security checks and are subject to ongoing security assessment,” she said.