Senator David Fawcett – Estimates questions regarding the process to determine the Government’s use of the term “illegal settlements”; whether the Government views Gaza as occupied; and UNRWA funding

photo of Senator David Fawcett
October 26, 2023

There was a brief that was provided to the minister in March 2023 with a recommendation to publicly refer to Israeli settlements as ‘illegal’. Minister, did you consult with the Prime Minister before you signed off on that change?

Senator Wong: When we broke off last time, Senator Fawcett, what was the topic? Was it settlements?

Senator FAWCETT: When we broke off, we were talking about the sequence of events regarding a couple of announcements that were made settlements and about definitions of occupation.

Senator Wong: Thank you.

Senator FAWCETT: There was a brief that was provided to the minister in March 2023 with a recommendation to publicly refer to Israeli settlements as ‘illegal’. Minister, did you consult with the Prime Minister before you signed off on that change?

Mr Jadwat: I’ll just talk you through the time line of these submissions. In August of last year, there was discussion in the department about settlements, the legality, including consultations with legal division on this issue. On 27 February of this year, there was a ministerial submission that was provided to the foreign minister’s office on the issue of settlements. We received that submission back on 31 March. Then during March and in the months after that, there were deliberative discussions within DFAT about the use of terminology and nomenclature. We then provided a submission to the foreign minister’s office on 23 June on the issue of nomenclature.

Senator FAWCETT: When you say you received that back on 31 March, was that back and signed and saying, ‘Procced with this approach,’ or was that back and saying: ‘Here’s a resubmit. Do some more work’?

Mr Jadwat: We don’t normally go into the content of our submissions to the minister or what she has agreed to or not agreed to. I defer to the minister on what she’d like to say on that.

Senator FAWCETT: Is there anything you’d like to add, Minister?

Senator Wong: It was the beginning of the process of consideration of these issues—well, maybe not the beginning, but the beginning of the formal process of consideration. We didn’t move precipitously, obviously, given the time frame that Mr Jadwat’s outlined.

Senator FAWCETT: So the process question that I actually asked was: did you consult with the Prime Minister before you signed off on the proposal?

Senator Wong: This matter was considered at the senior levels of the government. I think I’m using almost precisely the same words that Senator Payne used on—

Senator FAWCETT: You may well be, but I will ask—

Senator Wong: Maybe it was the unilateral declaration on Jerusalem—I can’t remember—but she said ‘the most senior levels of the government’.

Senator FAWCETT: Okay, but my question is: did you consult with the Prime Minister? That’s your answer. Did you consult with the Attorney-General?

Senator Wong: As I said, the most senior levels of the government.

Senator FAWCETT: Did the decision go to cabinet?

Senator Wong: We don’t generally discuss what does or doesn’t go to cabinet. I will try to recall what I said publicly at the time.

Senator FAWCETT: Okay. Documents released under FOI showed you had an introductory call with Israel’s foreign minister, Mr Cohen, or at least a call scheduled for 21 June 2023. Did that call go ahead?

Senator Wong: Sorry, but can I return to the previous question? I previously indicated publicly I did consult with the Prime Minister and relevant ministerial colleagues.

Senator FAWCETT: Who, I will grant you, are at the senior levels of government, but thank you for that detailed clarification.

Senator Wong: Sorry; what was your next question?

Senator FAWCETT: FOI documents said there was a call with the Israeli foreign minister, Eli Coen, scheduled for 21 June this year. Did that call go ahead?

Mr Jadwat: There was definitely a call. We’ll just have to confirm the actual date for you. I can get that to you very quickly.

Senator FAWCETT: Let’s assume it’s in June some time. The FOI said the 21st, so let’s take that as a rough planning figure. Was that the first call between the foreign minister and Foreign Minister Cohen?

Mr Jadwat: Yes, Senator.

Senator FAWCETT: And was the decision to change how settlements are described flagged to Foreign Minister Cohen at that time?

Mr Jadwat: We don’t get into the content of confidential discussions between our ministers.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. So when was the government of Israel first advised of that change?

Mr Jadwat: In relation to the issue of nomenclature and how we publicly affirmed that settlements were illegal, that was done on 7 August, when Deputy Secretary Maclachlan informed Israel’s ambassador to Australia, and then our charge in Tel Aviv informed the Israeli foreign ministry prior to Minister Wong’s statement on 8 August.

Senator FAWCETT: So it’s fair to say, going to the time frame you gave us, the decision was essentially made at the end of March, but then the government of Israel was informed in August?

Mr Jadwat: No.

Senator Wong: No, that’s not right. The first—

Mr Jadwat: In terms of going through that time line, the submission that went to the foreign minister in relation to nomenclature was on 23 June, but there were discussions about settlements and about all the issues relating to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the months from February right up until June.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. Part of the rationale that has been publicly made was like-minded nations have a similar approach. The joint statement with the UK and Canada on 1 July 2023 didn’t use the word ‘illegal’. If we had decided by then that we were going to, and our like-minded friends supported that position, why did that statement not use the word ‘illegal’?

Mr Jadwat: Senator, I’ll read out to you some of what that statement said:

… the Government of Israel’s approval … of over 5,700 new settlement units in the West Bank.

The statement also outlined concern at changes to the settlement approval process which facilitates swifter approval of construction and settlements. The statement affirmed:

… continued expansion of settlements is an obstacle to peace and negatively impacts efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. We call on the Government of Israel to reverse these decisions.

In terms of describing it as illegal or not illegal, in terms of discussing that negotiation with those countries, that was done in capitals. I can take it on notice in relation to how the statement was finalised, but—yes, it did not refer to them as illegal, but the government’s policy was only reaffirmed in August, which was just after that statement was put out in July.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. So, the second brief was put up, as you said, in June, which also went to the question of Occupied Palestinian Territories. Am I correct that the June submission covered that topic?

Mr Jadwat: Yes.

Senator FAWCETT: Did the minister’s office request that second brief?

Mr Jadwat: We have ongoing discussions with the foreign minister’s office on a variety of issues. As to whether the minister’s office requested it or not, all I can say is there were regular discussions throughout the course of this year on this issue.

Senator FAWCETT: Could you take that on notice for us? I’d be interested to know if there was any correspondence or if there was any request—verbal, written—for a brief on that topic at that time?

Mr Jadwat: We can do that, Senator.

Senator FAWCETT: Thank you. Media reports indicate that it was supposed to be signed by 29 June but ‘there was a delay reportedly allowing for consultation within government and externally’.

Senator Wong: Isn’t that a good thing?

Senator FAWCETT: Yes, it is. I’m interested to know who within government was consulted over that and who externally? And was that by DFAT, by the minister, by the minister’s office?

Mr Jadwat: I don’t have anything further to add other than the minister’s office received that submission on 23 June. I understand there were consultations within government, but I can’t add in anything further than we received the returned submission at the end of July, I think. That was how the process worked from the DFAT perspective.

Senator Wong: I’ll see what further information I can provide on notice.

Senator FAWCETT: Thank you. Given that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza some years ago—I’m aware that there are some bodies internationally who maintain that Gaza is still occupied by Israel—what is the department’s position? Do you still support the contention in the FOI’d brief which said that Gaza is occupied by Israel?

Mr Jadwat: Yes. The international community widely accepts Gaza as among the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and our position is consistent with this. Even though Israel may no longer maintain a permanent military presence in Gaza, it remains the occupying power and retains control, including the land borders, maritime borders, air space, energy, movement of goods. My colleague from the legal division may wish to add to that.

Ms McKenna : The use of the term ‘occupied’ is consistent with UN Security Council resolutions and the approach taken by the majority of the international community. I would note that the International Committee of the Red Cross and several UN commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions have concluded, as recently as May 2022, that Israel remains in occupation of Gaza by virtue of the control that it still exercises over key elements of authority, including over Gaza’s borders, as Mr Jadwat has outlined.

Senator FAWCETT: In your view, does that include the border at the south of Gaza with Egypt?

Ms McKenna : In using the term, we have clarified that we are referencing the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. I’m asking specifically: is it your position that Israel controls the border between Gaza and Egypt?

Mr Jadwat : In the current context, of course, going back to what Deputy Secretary Maclachlan said earlier this morning, there are obviously complications at this point in time in relation to that particular border crossing. I don’t want to get into that any further other than to say we refer to Gaza as being part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and we see Israel as the occupying power.

CHAIR: Senator Fawcett, do you have further questions? I’m mindful of the time, and I do need to hand to some of your other colleagues.

Senator FAWCETT: I do have some others. I’m happy to place some—

CHAIR: We’re already halfway through the half-hour slot.

Senator FAWCETT: on notice. The one last question I would like to ask, particularly given that we are all deeply concerned by the actions of Hamas, goes to the motivations of people. There’ve been concerns raised, which I’ve raised in estimates consistently, about funding to UNWRA and the syllabus that’s used in schools. That was raised at the last estimates, and I’d like to know what’s occurred since then in terms of DFAT’s own investigations into the revelations we’ve seen from foreign partners about the extent of the ideological indoctrination of racial hatred and violence by the syllabus which has been facilitated by UNWRA.

Mr Jadwat : Yes, in relation UNWRA and the textbooks, we did follow up with UNWRA. I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in July and August this year. I met with the deputy special coordinator for the United Nations. I met with UNWRA officials and visited an UNWRA school. We spoke about that issue. UNWRA is required to use host country curricula in its schools so students can take state examinations and transition to host country schooling and tertiary education, but they also have significant controls in place. We discussed all of the various due diligence measures that UNWRA takes to ensure them. They employ over 30,000 people, so there may well be, unfortunately, a few people who may use the opportunity to unfortunately engage in antisemitism or incitement, but I was assured. We have also undertaken a strategic review into our aid funding, and there’s a preliminary report that we’re in the middle of receiving at the moment.

I also note that the European parliament directed criticism towards the Palestinian Authority in April this year in relation to incitement textbooks but not to UNWRA. The resolution by the EU parliament specifically commended UNWRA in terms of its adherence to UNESCO standards and the critical role that it plays in providing education to Palestinian children. So we do have significant control measures in place in what we do in terms of our funding to UNWRA, but the leadership of UNWRA has assured us that they’re doing everything they can, and there’s constant monitoring and checking to ensure that incitement that has happened in the past will never happen again.

Senator FAWCETT: How can we make that statement in light of a number of international reviews that highlight that this is not a few bad eggs. There’s fairly widespread endorsement that’s been picked up through comments and things that have been said on social media by staff et cetera. More to the point, if the system in place says that UNWRA is constrained to use the textbooks of the host country, and those textbooks incite violence and racial hatred, why would Australia be funding a process, albeit through an intermediary, UNWRA, that facilitates that inculcation of children?

Mr Jadwat : Yes, UNWRA are required to use host country curricula, but they also have reviews of the educational material on a regular basis, and they provide training to teachers to ensure that material is presented to students in a manner that’s consistent with UN values. That includes omitting any offending content where appropriate. That is what they have assured us that they do on a regular basis. In terms of UNWRA itself, it is the only UN body with a mandate to provide relief and social services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and neighbouring countries, and it will remain indispensable until there’s a durable solution to the refugee problem. If they were not operating there, they would create a vacuum. That vacuum, unfortunately, would be filled by extremists, including Hamas.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Senator Fawcett. Senator Birmingham, you’ve only got a few minutes, and then I have to hand over the call for a minute to the deputy chair. Then I’m going to move the call on to the Greens.

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