Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about aid budget for Palestine

photo of Senator Eric Abetz
June 4, 2021

Questioned the breakdown of funding in the aid budget for Palestine and how the Australian government is guaranteeing aid towards reconstruction in Gaza will not be diverted to Hamas.

What guarantee do we have that Australian funds going to UNOPS won’t inadvertently be used to purchase goods that end up being used in military installations or building these tunnels?

Whole interaction with  Mr Benjamin Hayes (Acting First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) and Senator Marise Payne (Minister for Foreign Affairs) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

CHAIR: So from CANZUK, can we go to the Middle East, please? I have a bracket of questions that will take some time. In doing so, I refer to question on notice No. 064 and make reference to the allocation for 2020-21, which includes $8.9 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Is that new funding? Is that a new funding allocation for 2021? Can I be provided details of that allocation, please, Mr Hayes?


Mr Hayes : I’m just squaring your question on notice No. 064, now that I know we’re talking about the Palestinian territories.




Mr Hayes : But I think your question was about our budget allocation for this financial year to the International Committee of the Red Cross—is that correct?


CHAIR: Yes. First of all, am I correct that $8.9 million has been made available to the International Committee of the Red Cross?


Mr Hayes : Yes, that’s correct; however, as a result of the minister’s announcement yesterday morning to increase humanitarian funding to the Palestinian territories, that $8.9 million will have a further $3 million added to it this financial year.


CHAIR: So the 8.9, for what purpose was that allocated, and will it be the same for the extra $3 million? Can you take us through that please?


Mr Hayes : Yes. In broad terms, that funds frontline health, medical services and medical supplies.


CHAIR: That’s the 8.9 or the total 11.9?


Mr Hayes : The total.


CHAIR: Thank you very much for that clarification. In the answer to 064, I was told there was also an allocation of $2 million to the United Nations Office for Project Services. Was that new funding?


Mr Hayes : The allocation, prior to the minister’s announcement yesterday morning, was $2 million. A further $2 million was added to it in the minister’s announcement yesterday morning, taking the total to $4 million. The purpose of that funding is the vital delivery and coordination of humanitarian supplies and personnel into Gaza.


CHAIR: And just to clarify, that was new funding?


Mr Hayes : So when you say new funding—


CHAIR: The first $2 million. We know about yesterday’s announcement.


Mr Hayes : It wasn’t new funding in that it was part of the government’s existing bilateral allocation.


CHAIR: So it was a reallocation?


Mr Hayes : At the start of the financial year, or at this time last year, the budget papers would have advised that we were to allocate $17.1 million for our development program in the Palestinian territories, plus a further $10 million for UNRWA. That $17.1 million is spread across five different partners, and I can take you through those if you like. One of those partners is the United Nations Office for Project Services; however, that hadn’t previously been announced. So yesterday we had an announcement of an additional two added to two that had been agreed but not announced, taking the total to four. I apologise. I know that’s a lot, but I’m happy to go back and clarify anything if needed.


CHAIR: Let’s try and keep going.


Mr Hayes : Okay.


CHAIR: I understand part of the work of the United Nations Office for Project Services is to facilitate the passage of construction materials into Gaza, and to help rebuild homes destroyed during conflicts. Is that correct?


Mr Hayes : I’ll have to take on notice some of the detail. I think what UNOPS does is quite a wide range of things.


CHAIR: It does, as I understand it.


Mr Hayes : The focus of our funding, as I said, is the delivery and coordination of humanitarian supplies and personnel into Gaza.


CHAIR: Well, what humanitarian supplies does that cover? Does that cover building materials, for example?


Mr Hayes : I’ll take that on notice and provide some further detail on precisely what our funding supports.


CHAIR: If you could, because I understand that, during the most recent conflict, the Israel Defence Forces reported destroying around 100 kilometres of sophisticated tunnels that had been built by Hamas. Do we have confirmation of that?


Mr Hayes : No. The information we—


CHAIR: But we have no reason to doubt that Hamas had the 100 kilometres worth of tunnels?


Mr Hayes : We have no reason to doubt, but we also have no ability to verify independently. But we take the reports at face value.


CHAIR: Alright, so we take that at face value. I assume these tunnels are built for arms stores, tactical locations and hideouts. It’s commonly understood that, in order to build these tunnels, Hamas commandeers construction material brought into Gaza for civilian use. What guarantee do we, namely the Australian taxpayers, have that the money we’ve given to—what’s it called?


Mr Hayes : UNOPS.


CHAIR: What guarantee do we have that Australian funds going to UNOPS won’t inadvertently be used to purchase goods that end up being used in military installations or building these tunnels?


Mr Hayes : All of our agreements with NGO partners and multilateral partners have strict counterterrorism, antifraud and anticorruption requirements, and DFAT actively monitors these. As I mentioned, our agreements with multilateral partners like UNOPS have similar clauses. We undertake performance and due diligence assessments of partners to ensure they are maintaining the required standards and are following robust financial management practices. Where allegations have been raised, these have been investigated.


Senator Payne: Senator, I raised this issue with both Foreign Minister Ashkenazi and Foreign Minister al-Maliki in conversations following the ceasefire. Obviously it had been raised with us, and it was clear that this was a significant issue. 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 that you are raising. Foreign Minister al-Maliki is also very aware that UNOPS is also focused 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’ve pointed to, and the international community, the Palestinian National Authority and Israel are acutely aware of that. It’s a matter that I think will receive a great deal of international attention and focus.


CHAIR: Thank you very much for that, Minister. I think that, to a certain extent, answers the next question I had, which was about whether we’ve had discussions with international partners about how a mechanism might be able to be put in place to ensure that these important humanitarian provisions aren’t subverted into building tunnels and military installations rather than building homes for people who are homeless. Thanks for that.


CHAIR: I understand that yesterday a Hamas tunnel was found under an UNRWA school, which sort of confirms some of our concerns about UNRWA’s education policies, but I dare say that that is all interlinked. Do we have any information as to what has happened in relation to that discovery?


Mr Hayes : Yes. DFAT became aware of this yesterday as well. Can I begin by saying that Australia unequivocally condemns the use of schools or any other protected or humanitarian sites as cover for militant or terrorist activity. The use of schools as human shields—


CHAIR: If I could interrupt you there—apologies—we do condemn that, quite rightly so, but the reason we need to condemn it is that it has been brought to our attention that it happens on a regular basis, especially in the Palestinian authorities, so, when a retaliatory strike is made against a facility from which a rocket has been launched, it may well destroy a civilian facility like a school or a house or a hospital or a building from which journalists may operate.


Mr Hayes : It does happen, and we have condemned it very, very clearly in a number of statements over the past several weeks. The use of schools as human shields, by Hamas or anyone else, is a flagrant disregard for the norms of international law and other conventions. DFAT will provide the Minister for Foreign Affairs a full brief on the matter which you raise and advice on any further actions Australia might take. What I can tell you in terms of what we’ve been—


CHAIR: In that case, take it on notice. If you’re preparing a brief for the minister which you can share with the committee, I’d appreciate that.


Senator Payne: Thanks, Senator.


CHAIR: At additional estimates, Dr Macdonald told us that the AMENCA 3 program had concluded. Is there any further information about why that program was ended? First of all, has it ended?


Mr Hayes : It is going to end.


CHAIR: As of when?


Mr Hayes : It will conclude on 30 September this year.


CHAIR: Why is it going to be ended?


Mr Hayes : I will perhaps provide a little background and then explain the reasons for the decision that was taken. AMENCA is a long-running program. By the conclusion of its five-year term in September this year, it will have been running for some 15 years, through three different phases. AMENCA provides economic and livelihood opportunities for Palestinian farmers and has a focus on the engagement of women. It’s implemented by three Australian and Palestinian NGOs. They are Oxfam, CARE and Union Aid Abroad APHEDA. It’s also supported by Cardno technical advisers. AMENCA 3, the most recent phase of the program, uses a market systems development approach to help farmers adopt new farming practices, strengthen value chains for agricultural products and improve productivity and product.


CHAIR: Mr Hayes, if I may, I will interrupt you there. If you can, provide that detail to me on notice, and, on notice as well, advise, then, why it was ended. Then, as I understand it, we have made—what?—$3.8 million available this financial year. So will that $3.8 million for the next financial year be redirected anywhere else?


Mr Hayes : The current estimate for this financial year is $3.6 million.


CHAIR: It is $3.6 million. I stand corrected.


Mr Hayes : The final will be not known till it’s reconciled, but that’s the order of magnitude. In terms of the allocations for next financial year and the partners, they are yet to be determined.

Link to full Hansard transcript.