Senator David Leyonhjelm – Estimates question about Australian aid to Palestine

May 31, 2018

Questioned Australian aid to the Palestinian Authority, UNRWA and NGOs.

The purpose of the aid, as DFAT states, is, and I quote:

… a tangible demonstration of our longstanding support for the Middle East process.

Does this mean that each recipient of our aid might be expected to promote the peace process one way or another?

Whole interaction with Ms HK Yu (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa, DFAT) and Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator LEYONHJELM: My questions are more or less along the same lines as Senator Abetz’s. I have listened to his questions and the answers received. I will endeavour not to duplicate anything. There are a couple of points that he did ask about that I’m not clear about, which I will begin with. As I understand it, according to the DFAT budget statement on foreign aid, Australia has pledged $20 million to the United Nations relief and works agency for 2018-19 as part of its $80 million four-year strategic partnership agreement. The site also has a graphic stating that $10 million is pledged to the Palestinian authorities via the World Bank. You did mention that in your earlier response. Elsewhere it says:

Total Palestinian foreign aid is $43 million in 2018-19 to a variety of causes.

You said earlier it was $43.8 million. Am I right so far in all those numbers?


Ms Yu : It was actually $43.8 million for 2017-18. For 2018-19, it was $43 million.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes. So $10 million to the Palestinian authority, $20 million to UNRWA—


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator LEYONHJELM: and the remainder goes to the NGOs?


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Is that right?


Ms Yu : Yes. A different range of things.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes. I will come back to that. The purpose of the aid, as DFAT states, is, and I quote:

… a tangible demonstration of our longstanding support for the Middle East process.

Does this mean that each recipient of our aid might be expected to promote the peace process one way or another?


Ms Yu : We hope so. Really, that is the broader objective of our contribution. That comes from the fact that even an Israeli regional corporation minister said as recently as September 2017 that, in order for them to move forward and finally resolve the longstanding conflict, it was important for the Palestinian economy to be growing and to have effective governance. So it’s really with that in mind that those contributions are being made by the Australian government.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Well, let me put it another way. If a recipient of our aid were undermining the peace process, would that be a concern to the department?


Ms Yu : I would have thought so, yes.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I understand that some of our aid is earmarked for NGOs under the Australia-Middle East NGO Cooperation Agreement, which is called AMENCA 3. Is that correct?


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I also understand that one of the recipients under that has the name Union Aid Abroad, and there is an acronym APHEDA.


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator LEYONHJELM: The main recipient of that group’s assistance is the MA’AN Development Center based in Ramallah. Is that accurate still?


Ms Yu : That sounds like it’s correct.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I have been given material published by the MA’AN Development Center which is highly critical of Israel. It calls Israel an occupying force and accuses it of war crimes. It labels a security fence an apartheid wall and it promotes the BDS campaign. It’s also closely affiliated with elements of our Labor Party here in Australia and the Greens, including Senator Rhiannon, who is here. AMENCA was also donating to World Vision until it was found to be funnelling aid to Hamas. Could you—


Senator MOORE: Chair, could I comment? In terms of the last comment, could we just make sure that it is alleged.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes, all right. I’m happy to say that. I did say at the beginning that this is information I received. I’m merely quoting from what I was informed. Unless you can tell me that my information is incorrect, my question, on the assumption that it is correct, is: how is AMENCA 3 funding promoting the Middle East peace process?


Ms Yu : Like with all our programs, aid or humanitarian, we do actually have very stringent reporting and review of these programs to ensure that it is actually being used for the appropriate purpose. With regard to AMENCA 3, this is actually an area where we have achieved some very good, tangible results that are actually helping the Palestinian people to be much more self-reliant. With regard to those members, they are doing a great job and really focusing on delivering inclusive economic growth in the agricultural sector and promoting people-to-people and institutional linkages. I can certainly provide you with real, good examples of the outcomes of AMENCA 3 which we believe are actually contributing to a peaceful, hopefully, two-state solution.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes. My question was specifically in relation to the MA’AN Development Center in Ramallah. Are you able to provide that same level of information to confirm its positive contribution as well?


Ms Yu : Not right now. I’ll have to find out a bit more about it. I don’t have that level of detail about the organisation you refer to.


Senator LEYONHJELM: All right. The information I have is that you would struggle to find that information. If you do have it, I would certainly be most interested. I would like to turn to Australia’s foreign aid provided to UNRWA, the United Nations refugee organisation for Palestinians. Is it the department’s view that this aid promotes the Middle East peace process?


Ms Yu : Once again, UNRWA plays a very important role in providing Palestinians with basic services, including education for children. These things, as I stated previously, can only help in moving forward even, as the Israeli minister has said, to resolve what is a longstanding conflict.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes. I’m not sure that you answered my question. Are you confident that the aid to UNRWA promotes the Middle East peace process? I know that’s what you would like to achieve. Are you confident that it’s doing it?


Ms Yu : Well, Australia’s contribution is core funding and it’s combined with other donors’ funds. Once again, over the role of UNRWA there are very stringent and really focused compliance reviews. Yes, we believe the work done by UNRWA is contributing to a better future and towards a peaceful two-state solution.


Ms Adamson : I have been listening to the conversation. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves also that we’re not going to have progress on a Middle East peace process. It’s been impossible for decades. It’s most unlikely while we continue to have stagnant economic growth in the Palestinian territories and while unemployment remains, I think on the figure we have, at 44 per cent. So some of the funds that we are giving to UNRWA, as HK Yu said, is to provide essential health, education and protection services. But we also include funding, because this is a focus for us globally, to address gender based violence. It goes to the underlying conditions. I can certainly understand where you and Senator Abetz are coming from, but we believe that it is worthwhile continuing to make a contribution in the way that we have been.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I’m not in dispute in relation to the aspirations. What I am seeking some assurances on is whether Australia’s contribution is actually contributing to that aspiration. That’s where I’m going with this. I’m not denying that if we can improve the economic situation in the West Bank, or in Gaza for that matter, that that may well be an appropriate use of Australian aid. What I am seeking is assurances—I have some more information on that—as to whether or not that is occurring, or at least each element of our aid is doing that. I’m not denying that at least some of our aid is contributing to that either.


Ms Adamson : It’s worth thinking about the counterfactual, too. If we were not providing this aid, how much worse would the situation be?


Senator LEYONHJELM: Well, are you aware of reports—some of these have been confirmed by UNRWA, I’m told—of connections between UNRWA and Hamas? Are you aware of Hamas leaders being employed by UNRWA? I can give you some examples if you’re not aware of them. There’s a memo of Suhail al-Hindi, a senior Hamas activist, who supports jihad against Israel and suicide bombings. He was fired just a year ago as a teacher in UNRWA schools, where he had been for 27 years. Are you also aware that, in each UNRWA school, Hamas appoints a representative who runs the Islamic Bloc branch? That representative—he, inevitably—is responsible for enlisting student members and organising activities. These activities include honouring Palestinian terrorist prisoners in Israeli jails. The Islamic Bloc at al-Bahrain middle school, which is an UNRWA school, supports al-Quds, intifada and knife attacks. Do you have any views on that?


Ms Yu : I was not aware of that particular former employee that you mentioned. UNRWA certainly as an organisation has a robust legal framework and mechanisms in place to safeguard neutrality for staff and third party suppliers. Obviously, this is a very important factor for Australia to be part of this. They have a stringent framework to ensure that there’s complete neutrality in the people that they employ.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Well, I’m sorry, Ms Yu, but I have information which would present an alternative view to that. There were new textbooks introduced by the Palestinian authority in 2017, I understand, which were adopted in UNRWA schools. Those textbooks show the beginning of Zionism at 1856. The entire presence of Jews in the Holy Land is characterised as a criminal act. A poem about liberation calls for the annihilation of the remnants of the foreigners after eliminating the usurper. A ninth grade Arabic language textbook describes a Molotov cocktail attack on an Israeli bus as a barbecue party. I won’t read it out, actually. It more or less repeats that. It seems that there is a barbecue party there with Molotov cocktails on one of the buses in the P’sagot settlement. Are you aware of that?


Ms Yu : We are aware of those reports. With regard to the UNRWA textbooks, UNRWA uses the textbooks of the host jurisdictions because obviously children in its schools sit for national exams in those jurisdictions. But all textbooks used by UNRWA schools are assessed through the US funded curriculum review process within UNRWA to ensure that they address issues of neutrality. We are aware of those reports that you’ve just mentioned. The UK has announced that they will be conducting a thorough assessment of the PA curriculum. Certainly Australia have expressed interest in engaging with them in this exercise.


Senator ABETZ: You have expressed interest, but does that mean we will have officials specifically checking out that which Senator Leyonhjelm has said? Just because there’s a vetting process, which is US funded, does not mean that it is US oversighted. Who are the actual individuals who do this assessment? Are we satisfied as to their absolute commitment to the peace process?


Ms Yu : I will answer that question. It is the UK Department for International Development that would be conducting this thorough assessment. We will be participating in it to the extent that we can.


Senator ABETZ: Yes. But previously didn’t you say that UNRWA had a US-funded assessment process?


Ms Yu : Yes. That’s correct.


Senator ABETZ: Right. So just because it’s US funded doesn’t mean it’s US oversighted. So who are the UNRWA people on whom reliance is had to ensure that that which Senator Leyonhjelm has just read into the transcript does not in fact find its way into the teaching materials? If you could take that on notice for me, I would be much obliged.


Ms Yu : Sure.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I’m equally interested in this area. This issue of what they are teaching kids in UNRWA funded schools has come up before. There have been assurances that things are going to improve, yet the evidence suggests that they haven’t improved anywhere near enough. UN Watch published a report in 2017 to the effect that there were 40 new cases of UNRWA school teachers teaching Palestinians, obviously, in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria whose Facebook pages incite jihadist terrorism and anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denying videos and pictures celebrating Hitler. Have you heard that report?


Ms Yu : No.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I will go on for a minute or two. I haven’t got a lot more. One of the issues of great concern is the allegations that Hamas stores weapons in UNRWA schools and builds tunnels under the schools, particularly in Gaza. I have some information in relation to that if you haven’t seen it. I imagine that you have heard of those reports?


Ms Yu : Yes. I have heard of those reports.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Are we investigating whether those reports are accurate and whether our money is facilitating the peace process in the Middle East if it is going towards that use?


Ms Yu : I understand that particular case was reviewed. It was established that it was based on some fake news. In fact, in a lot of those schools, the teachers and the occupants of the schools were not aware.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Were not aware?


CHAIR: Senator Kitching, do you have a point of order or a follow-on question?


Senator KITCHING: No, not a point of order. Do you mind if I ask a clarifying question?


Senator LEYONHJELM: On the same subject?


Senator KITCHING: Yes.


Senator LEYONHJELM: All right. Go ahead.


Senator KITCHING: Thank you. While you are looking at the questions that Senator Leyonhjelm is asking, maybe you can also refer to the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which did a recent report on UNRWA. I think it’s dated this year. An article discussing the report says:

The United Nations itself found that UNRWA was particularly vulnerable to “misappropriation, graft and corruption” in its “procurement partner selection, food and cash distribution, hiring and promotions and other areas”‘ and that UNRWA’s oversight arrangements were deficient.

You could maybe also reference that in the questions on notice, thank you.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Thank you, Senator Kitching. Ms Yu, you seem to be referring to a single report of the use of an UNRWA school by Hamas for terrorist activities. I have four instances. Although admittedly these notes here would suggest separate instances, they do relate to 2014. Were you thinking of more recent times, or are you going back that far?


Ms Yu : I’ll have to take on notice the other cases that you refer to.


Senator LEYONHJELM: These relate to the storage and use of rockets in UNRWA schools primarily rather than instances of tunnels, although, as you said, I have no additional information on that tunnel story. There is one other aspect that I find of concern, though, and that is that Hamas has controlled the UNRWA workers union since 2012. There was an election for the officials of the union apparently in 2012. It was boycotted by Fatah because of Hamas control. That’s obviously significant, as you advised Senator Abetz earlier when he was talking to you. Hamas is still regarded as a terrorist organisation.

The matter of the Palestinian authority rewarding terrorists financially for killing Israeli Jews using money given through foreign aid was raised also by Senator Abetz. You advised that a letter was sent two days ago by the foreign minister to the Palestinian authority seeking assurances on that front, so I won’t go there again. However, I have been advised that, I think, Denmark raised this matter directly with the Palestinian authority. The Palestinian authority said, ‘No. That can’t be happening. We use different money for that.’ Fairly obviously, that is a ridiculous answer. Money is entirely fungible. Once it transfers what it’s used for and which money is used for what purpose, you can’t distinguish one from the other. Are you aware of that Danish report?


Ms Yu : I wasn’t aware of that report. But, as stated previously, certainly our foreign minister has raised that issue about the fungibility of the funds and asked for an explanation around that to the Palestinian authority.


Senator LEYONHJELM: If you are aware of some of these points, fine. If you’re not, perhaps you could take on notice undertaking to explore them. There was a recent Sky News story showing footage obtained by the Australian Jewish Association that exhibited a school play where children at a school funded by UNRWA dress up as Palestinian freedom fighters killing other children dressed up as Jews. Are you aware of that report?


Ms Yu : I’m not. I’m sorry, Senator.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Perhaps I could leave that one with you. There are multiple reports of students—I actually have some documentation here with me, if you’re interested—showing that students in UNRWA schools are being taught that Israel does not exist. Are you aware of that?


Ms Yu : No. I’m not.


Senator LEYONHJELM: If you like, I can give you some information on that. If you have your own sources, fine; you won’t need it.


CHAIR: Senator Leyonhjelm, you’ve referred to a number of pieces of material. Are you seeking to table them with the committee or will you provide them directly and separately to the department? I seek a clarification.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I think in the interests of time I’ll do it outside, Chair. Palestinian authority textbooks adopted by UNRWA, I am told, talk about the extermination of Israel’s surviving Jews. I did mention this earlier. I guess the question is broadly back where I started: is our aid facilitating the Middle East peace process, is it funding anti-Semitic teaching, or is it funding terrorism?


Ms Yu : As stated previously, we believe UNRWA’s role is actually assisting with providing a basic services to the Palestinian people in terms of education and health and livelihood opportunities and, therefore, it is playing an important role in maintaining a degree of social and economic stability in the region.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I have no objections, if we are going to provide foreign aid to this part of the world, to the aim of improving the economy of the Palestinian area. I have no objections at all. I’m not questioning that. I’m not questioning even that some of our money might be used for that purpose or it might be actually achieving that purpose. What I am questioning is whether all of it is contributing for that purpose. That’s essentially what I am asking you to look at.


Ms Yu : In the areas where we believe it doesn’t align with our values, we are further investigating, as the foreign minister has done with her letter. Even amongst the donors we are further investigating and representing our concerns and seeking further explanation from the Palestinian authority in that regard.


Senator LEYONHJELM: I have left you a number of questions on notice. This is a matter of continuing interest to me, so I look forward to hearing what progress you make in terms of finding out further information.


Ms Yu : Of course.


Senator LEYONHJELM: Thank you, Chair.

Link to full Hansard transcript.