Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about Australian aid to Palestine, Palestinian refugees and the peace process

photo of Senator Eric Abetz
October 25, 2018

Questioned oversight of Australian aid to Palestine, the status of Palestinian refugees and progress of the peace process, including mutual recognition by Israel and Palestine of the other to exist.

What are the details of DFAT’s recent efforts to solve problems in terrorism-financing risk-management in its Palestinian aid program? Where are we at with everything? We’ve got UNRWA and we’ve got the APHEDA. What else?

Whole interaction with Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT), Ms HK Yu (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT), Ms Megan Anderson (Acting First Assistant Secretary, Humanitarian NGOs and
Partnerships Division, DFAT), Mr James Larsen (Chief Legal Officer, 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: I should indicate to officials that now we’ll have quite a bracket in relation to matters on Israel, the Middle East and Palestine. As officials come forward, I want to talk about question on notice No. 7 from myself. I asked for a copy of the letter that the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Bishop, had written in relation to her concerns about moneys being diverted. I was rightly told that it’s not the practice to publish the letters. I accept that; I raise the white flag on that. But can I ask: have we had a response to Minister Bishop’s letter?


Ms Adamson : While my colleagues are preparing to answer, could I just indicate to the committee that we will now table—in fact, we’ve just given it to the secretariat—the list of the 47 member states on the United Nations Human Rights Council.


CHAIR: Thank you very much.


Ms Yu : Yes, there was a response to the former foreign minister’s letter.


CHAIR: Are you at liberty to disclose its content?


Ms Yu : I would probably suggest the same applies to the extent that this is a diplomatic exchange.


CHAIR: Right. We were told as much that Ms Bishop’s letter was an expression of concern. Without telling me the exact response, was it just a complete denial or a middle-finger salute? What was the response in general terms?


Ms Yu : I think it’s fair to say that, given the former foreign minister’s decision, there wasn’t enough assurance provided in the letter that—


CHAIR: Sorry to interrupt, but, to truncate this, in other words: the minister sent a letter, and we got a response, after which the minister made the decision? So that response came before the minister made her decision in relation to funding?


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


CHAIR: All right. That’s all I need to know—thank you for that. Budget estimates question on notice No. 8—I’d asked, in relation to the fund for the families of martyrs: to the best of our understanding of that fund, would the families that lost family members during the demonstrations of which I was talking about be able to draw on the fund? Then I was told that the Palestinian National Authority has advised that the Palestine Liberation Organization provides financial support to convicted prisoners, detainees and their families without reference to the motivation behind the alleged or proven crimes. Do we just accept what the Palestinian National Authority tells us? I ask that because one assumes that, if there are Palestinians in prison in the area controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, convicted prisoners would not be benefitting from such a fund. Further, if a Palestinian was in jail, let’s say in Israel, for fraud, they wouldn’t be the beneficiary of such a fund, would they?


Ms Yu : We will have to clarify that with the Palestinian National Authority.


CHAIR: Yes, if you could, because the assertion that they provide financial support to convicted prisoners, without reference to the motivation, I find a bit hard to believe, especially when in their budget they have a specific, as I understand it, martyr fund which suggests that there has to be a motivation behind their death or imprisonment. So if you could provide further details in relation to that, that would be helpful. I also asked, in that same question in relation to Egypt, that they also severely restrict entry to and from Gaza, and the answer that was provided was that Egypt manages its border-crossing point in accordance with its own assessment of its security concerns. That’s fine. But would it be fair to say that they share similar security concerns to Israel, and therefore they have quite severe restrictions as well as on movements—is that correct?


Ms Yu : Yes, I think that’s fair to say. But it also notes that recent reporting indicates that the border crossing was kept open between Egypt and Gaza.


CHAIR: What are the details of DFAT’s recent efforts to solve problems in terrorism-financing risk-management in its Palestinian aid program? Where are we at with everything? We’ve got UNRWA and we’ve got the APHEDA. What else? Who can take me through them one by one, starting with UNRWA? Ms Yu, are you able to help in another area?


Ms Yu : I can perhaps go through the steps that we take with regard to our program to the PT more generally. As you know, APHEDA cases are actually under order, so I’ll ask my colleague Ms Anderson to go through that. With regard to our programs to the PT, we recognise that this is an area where we are subject to greater risks. The program that we have in place and the framework that we have in place ensures that there is real rigorous risk management and due diligence. If I run you through the steps that we take in delivering these aid programs, would that be useful to you?


CHAIR: Is there actual local oversight in relation to it? For example, in the past we have been told about how wonderful things are with our provision of funding for education, only to find out that the books that the young children are given are telling them to hate Jews, basically from a very early primary-school age. When you tell me and the Australian taxpayer that we’re giving money for education, people would say, ‘Big tick, that is great,’ only to be severely disappointed that nobody checked on what was actually produced under the ‘education’ heading which allowed for books that I think Senator Leyonhjelm has canvassed in some detail in previous estimates.


Ms Yu : I can certainly confirm that there is an on-the-ground check. In fact, I myself was actually in the Palestinian territories recently, engaging in some of these conversations with the director of the UNRWA operations. There, for example, I specifically raised questions around textbooks. As you know, Senator, UNRWA is required to adopt the textbook of the country in which they operate, because the students are subject to the country’s educational system and testing. This particular director, Scott Anderson, himself spoke to me quite frankly about how, for some of the textbooks that they are using, they recognise that around two per cent of the content could be regarded as quite controversial. In order to address—


CHAIR: Could be?


Ms Yu : Well, it is controversial.


CHAIR: Thank you—it is controversial.


Ms Yu : In order to address that, UNRWA puts in place complementary material to try and neutralise that content and takes their teachers through rigorous training to talk about how these things should be delivered in the most neutral way.


CHAIR: How successful is that?


Ms Yu : I think students are being educated, and a lot of these Palestinians are in great need of quality basic services, including education. As we all know, UNRWA—


CHAIR: How do these books slip through if there are people on the ground vetting everything? I ask that because, irrespective of where the money comes from—be it Europe, England or wherever—one imagines that that sort of content in textbooks would not be acceptable.


Ms Yu : As I indicated, these textbooks are textbooks of the country that they are actually operating in, thereby being developed by the Palestinian Authority in this case.


CHAIR: Yes, but with whose money? Sure, the books are being developed in the Palestinian territories by the Palestinians for the Palestinians, but the fundamental question is: with whose money is this happening? If it’s with our money, I think the Australian taxpayer wants an assurance that that money is not being put to the sort of use that has been exposed previously by my colleague, Senator Leyonhjelm.


Ms Yu : As to whose money, I’ll have to take that on notice, because I’m not sure whether it’s the PA that prints them or whether it’s UNRWA. Coming back to UNRWA’s use of these textbooks, you might be pleased to hear that in April 2018 the UK announced it would be conducting a review of Palestinian textbooks. We have indicated to the UK our interest in taking part in that, so those discussions are underway. Previously I mentioned—


CHAIR: When do we anticipate that review to be completed? I would have thought it wouldn’t take too long to grab a textbook or half a dozen and go through them. We were told about this review, if I recall correctly, at last estimates. Here we are—what, about five months later? I reckon even I could read five textbooks within that time.


Ms Yu : We have been chasing up this particular issue with our UK colleagues, so hopefully I’ll be able to provide a more concrete response to you this time.


CHAIR: Do we have Australian officials actually on the ground ensuring that the funding we provide either directly or through NGOs is being used appropriately? We’ve had the World Vision situation and we had the APHEDA situation; do we actually have, on the ground, people who we employ so that we don’t have to rely on the Palestinian Authority or a UN official telling us something—or an NGO, which, sadly, now we know are not as reliable as we might want them to be?


Ms Yu : Yes, we do.


CHAIR: Good. Ms Anderson, do you want to take me through what we are doing with APHEDA, please?


Ms Anderson : I should clarify that we have a range of activities, as you said, in that part of the world, and we take the issues around countering terrorism financing extremely seriously. That is clearly outlined in all of our contracts and grants, including with NGOs but not limited to NGOs. I should also take this opportunity to note for the record that there have been allegations with regard to employees of one of APHEDA’s downstream partners, but those allegations have not related to the transfer of Australian aid funds.

Ms Yu has mentioned specific arrangements in place on the ground. Under the AMENCA 3 program, which is part of our bilateral aid activity, we do have very regular checks. Clearly, this is an environment that is more of a high-risk environment than perhaps some others. We have a six-monthly process where our partners are required to report against their assessments. They do checks against consolidated lists and against our sanctions list. In addition, our post on the ground does spot checks on a two-weekly basis in the case of AMENCA 3. In the case of our broader NGO activities as well, members of my team visit the field and do monitoring visits against a range of different checks. That’s not limited only to counterterrorism but includes those kinds of aspects.

From time to time as well we also have a process—and I believe that Ms Yu may be able to speak more about this—where we have engaged local auditors to go in and do additional checks on the flow of our finances. As you are aware, there is a current investigation underway—a very detailed investigation with regard to the allegations made.


CHAIR: How long do we think that will continue, before we have some finality?


Ms Anderson : As you know, it’s a very complicated process. We have engaged an independent auditor to undertake that process—an experienced organisation which does have a field presence as well—


CHAIR: From Australia? Are you able to name the independent auditor?


Ms Anderson : Deloittes is undertaking the audit.


CHAIR: Oh, Deloittes. Thank you.


Ms Anderson : Obviously, they have a presence in Australia. They also have a presence in the Middle East. They are continuing to undertake that process, which has included fieldwork in the Middle East. They are preparing their response at the moment.


CHAIR: Is somebody able to assist me as to why the Palestinian population seems to attract one of the highest amounts of aid per capita in the world, if not the highest, as I understand it, at the very top level? That is in comparison to other populations that, some might say, might be in need of greater assistance. Do you want to take that on notice?


Ms Adamson : Sure. Obviously, it goes to some of the issues that we’ve been talking about in the committee for some time, including history obviously playing a role. You are very well informed about the history of it and the particular circumstances of the Palestinian people at the moment. There is also a desire, I think, on the part of donors to ensure that when it comes to this elusive Middle East peace process contributions are able to be made towards that end. But these things are much debated; there are a wide variety of views and, from all accounts, the situation that many of those recipients are in continues to be quite dire.


CHAIR: Does the department seek to align its support with the Palestinian Authority’s objectives? With the support we give to them, do we say that we do that because we support the Palestinian Authority’s objectives?


Ms Yu : Of course not, Senator: our program is based on our own objectives that we want to achieve. We have a program investment plan in place that clearly states the objectives that we want to achieve with regard to our aid.


CHAIR: Can you confirm that the Palestinian Authority announced on 5 March that it would increase payments under these programs for terrorism—if I can use that term—from $350 million in 2017 to $403 million in 2018?


Ms Yu : I’ll have to take that on notice.


CHAIR: That is a substantial increase. Is the word—fungibility? It just seems that the Palestinian Authority, whilst always crying poor to the world, always seems able to up the amount of money that it makes available to its martyr funds. That is a matter that has exercised my mind for a while, and that’s why I’ve been raising it at these estimates for a while—and previously as well, while we were in opposition. Minister Carr at the time high-handedly sought to dismiss these concerns, which, sadly, are now all coming to light. But if you could take that on notice, that would be good.

Can you advise whether the amount being paid to terrorists and their families—the martyr fund et cetera—in 2017 equated to about 50 per cent of the foreign aid that the Palestinian Authority receives? Please take that on notice and let me know. I assume you don’t have that figure on you?


Ms Yu : No, I do not.


CHAIR: And I understand that a convicted terrorist in prison can receive 12,000 shekels per month, plus bonuses of 300 shekels per wife, 50 shekels per child and extra for being resident in Israel and Jerusalem. This can amount to about $3½ thousand per month. By contrast, coming back to education, a teacher employed by the Palestinian Authority receives roughly $615 per month. I think we can see how the Palestinian Authority has priorities; we give them money to pay their teachers a pittance and they just shovel their money elsewhere.

Are you aware of a recent poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip which found that 95.5 per cent of people believe that there is corruption within the government of the Palestinian Authority?


Ms Yu : I wasn’t aware.


CHAIR: Are you aware that a survey of 1,200 people conducted by the independent Palestinian firm AWRAD, also found that 82 per cent of Gazans believe the same about Hamas? If you could have a look at that for me I would be much obliged.


Ms Yu : Will do, Senator.


CHAIR: Can I get onto the issue of the Palestinian question and the support that is provided. Is it correct that:

… the UN High Commissioner for Refugees … which helps more than 65 million “forcibly displaced people” in myriad conflict zones from Congo to Myanmar, employs 10,966 workers–

which is— less than one third of UNRWA’s workforce. Which means that the UN’s personnel commitment for Palestinian refugees is about 30 times higher than its level for the rest of the world’s refugees.


Ms Yu : I’ll have to check that.


CHAIR: If you could, and not only check those figures—they may well be wrong, but they’re from a reputable publication—but if you could check that for me and then how the United Nations justifies this. If you could then take on notice: if this is the case, what representations will we make to the United Nations about its lopsidedness in support of the plight of refugees around the world?

I think I canvassed this last time: once a refugee comes to Australia and gains citizenship, they’re no longer deemed to be a refugee, is that correct?


Ms Yu : Once they’re a citizen, yes. That’s correct under Australian law.


CHAIR: We do have—do we not?—a number of Palestinians who are citizens, as I understand it, in Israel, in Syria and in Jordan, and, yet, they are deemed like no other refugee population as refugees. Even if they are citizens—let’s say in Jordan—they’re seen as refugees and, if they have children, their children and offspring are seen as refugees. Therefore, the Palestinian refugee population is continually growing. This is a rort, I would have thought, that needs to be brought into line with standards, or otherwise we’re saying there are people who are refugees and then there are Palestinians who are refugees, who are deserving of a lot better treatment.


Ms Yu : Chair, as you said, the government of Jordan does enable Palestinian refugees to secure Jordanian citizenship while retaining their Palestinian refugee status, according to their law. As you know, the definition of refugees under UNRWA’s operation was put in place by the UN General Assembly.


CHAIR: Is this definition by the United Nations something that Australia’s supports, minister? Do you know?


Senator Payne: Senator, it’s not previously been drawn to my attention.


CHAIR: Sorry? It hasn’t been?


Senator Payne: No.


CHAIR: I don’t want to embarrass you or anybody else.


Senator Payne: I’m not embarrassed. I’ll just seek some advice on it.


CHAIR: It just seems, one assumes, that this has been going on under Liberal-Labor governments for—what?—the last five, six, something decades.


Ms Adamson : Seven decades, yes.


CHAIR: Sorry?


Ms Adamson : Yes, that’s correct, Senator.


CHAIR: So some sort of justification and whether it is worthy potentially of review, given the situation of the disproportionate amount of support that seems to be going in the Palestinian way in relation to funds per capita and also the staff made available, would be very helpful. Ms Anderson, I think you’ve answered all my questions on the APHEDA that I had. The good thing is I know that the chair will abide with me as I quickly go through the notes and won’t hurry me up.



CHAIR: Ms Yu, thanks for coming back to the table. I have some quick questions to which I think I know the answers. Does Israel believe in the right of Palestine to exist?


Ms Yu : Palestine as the state?




Ms Yu : Yes.


Mr Larsen : As the chief legal officer, I may comment on that. Obviously, we wouldn’t express a view on Israel’s view on such matters, but clearly the question of a state of Palestine is one of a number of critical final status issues to be negotiated between the parties.


CHAIR: Does Israel acknowledge the right of a Palestinian state to exist?


Mr Larsen : The Oslo Accords contemplate a settlement which would see a two-state solution, yes.


CHAIR: But the Israeli Prime Minister has indicated his willingness for there to be a Palestinian state on certain terms.


Mr Larsen : Correct.


CHAIR: To the other side of the border: do the Palestinian authorities believe in Israel’s right to exist?


Mr Larsen : Representatives of the Palestinians are also parties to the Oslo Accords and so they are also—


CHAIR: Yes. What have they been saying about Israel’s right to exist? Does the Palestinian Authority and Hamas agree to Israel’s right to exist?


Mr Larsen : I think, as you know, there are differences between the position of Hamas and the Palestinian authority.


CHAIR: What is Hamas’s view?


Mr Larsen : I am drawing on my memory: Hamas’s view is—I won’t quote Hamas—extremely aggressive. They generally express unacceptable views.


CHAIR: Why can’t we say that Hamas does not agree to Israel’s right to exist?


Mr Larsen : I do believe they’ve said that, yes.


CHAIR: Thank you. What about the Palestinian authority?


Mr Larsen : From memory, but I stand to be corrected, the Palestinian authority engages with the Israeli authorities in a wide variety of instances.


CHAIR: But do they accept Israel’s absolute right to exist?


Mr Larsen : They have been party to negotiations with Israel, pursuant to the Oslo Accords, in anticipation—


CHAIR: It’s a simple question: does the Palestinian authority accept Israel’s absolute right to exist?


Mr Larsen : I’d be cautious about responding affirmatively to the precise terms of your question, partly because I don’t specifically recall. We can take it on notice.


CHAIR: Please take that on notice. Would it be counterproductive to the peace process to recognise a Palestinian state without requiring it to fully agree to Israel’s right to exist? We aren’t going to get a genuine two-state solution—are we?—until such time as both sides agree to the other’s absolute right to exist?


Ms Yu : With regard to the Palestinian authority’s recognition of the state of Israel: they have not withdrawn recognition, which has been part of the Oslo Accord, but they have threatened to in the past.


CHAIR: Do they refer to Israel as ‘occupied Palestinian territory’?


Ms Yu : They have used that terminology.


CHAIR: What does that tell us?


Ms Yu : It tells us they have threatened to—


CHAIR: It tells us that they don’t believe Israel has the right to occupy that territory. What does that mean for the state of Israel? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Is somebody willing to actually put that on the record? That’s the difficulty with the two-state process, isn’t it?


Ms Yu : We definitely agree with your statement that under the two-state solution both parties will have to recognise the right of the state to exist.


CHAIR: The unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state without getting that Palestinian state’s assurance that it will agree to Israel’s right to exist, would be very problematic, would it not?


Ms Yu : Yes. I think you’re right. Yes.


CHAIR: Thank you.

Link to full Hansard transcript.