Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about Palestinian aid, Australian representations to the ICC and IHRA definition of anti-semitism

photo of Senator Eric Abetz
March 25, 2021

Questioned how unallocated aid funding to Palestine will be used; asked about representations to UNRWA over anti-Semitic materials in textbooks; questioned whether Australia will make representations to the ICC about its investigation of Israel and Palestine; and asked about the progression of adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

I will then move on and ask for an update on the destination of unallocated funding that was earmarked for the Palestinian territories in the 2020-21 budget. Do we have an assessment of that?

Whole interaction with Dr Angela Macdonald (First Assistant Secretary, Global Counter Terrorism, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT), Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT), Mr Simon Newnham (Chief Legal Officer, DFAT) and Dr Justin Lee (First Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Policy Division, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

CHAIR: I will then move on and ask for an update on the destination of unallocated funding that was earmarked for the Palestinian territories in the 2020-21 budget. Do we have an assessment of that?


Dr Macdonald : There is still some funding from this financial year from that—


CHAIR: Yes, which is unallocated.


Dr Macdonald : Yes, at this point; that’s right.


CHAIR: It’s still unallocated, so could you advise on notice that which has been allocated?


Dr Macdonald : Yes, certainly; I can advise immediately.


CHAIR: Time is of the essence, sadly—then, where one suspects you are or you are thinking of sending the other unallocated funds. The textbooks used in UNRWA schools, which are in part funded by Australia, continue to promote hatred of Jews. They are hugely anti-Semitic. They don’t even want to refer to the state of Israel. There’s no such thing as Jewish territory et cetera. How long does this scandal keep on whilst we keep shovelling money toward them?


Dr Macdonald : If you’re referring to some particular allegations of particular content from March to October last year, that was raised directly, of course, as you would expect, by our post on 14 January this year. We’ve been advised directly by UNRWA that that material was taken down as soon as it was identified. I wrote to the Commissioner-General on 29 January reiterating Australia’s expectations about tolerance, nondiscrimination, equality and neutrality and expressing our deep concern about the production of those materials. He replied—


CHAIR: Thank you for that. Are we comfortable that they have complied with that?


Dr Macdonald : Yes. That material was taken down, and—


CHAIR: Have we had cause to make any representations since January 2021?


Dr Macdonald : We’ve continued our reiteration of those principles. Can I just say, also, that we’ve been very clear that we have asked for our contribution to UNRWA for this financial year to be specifically dedicated to health security outcomes.


CHAIR: In the absence of the minister, I’ll still try this. Our official policy is not to recognise the state of Palestine at this stage; that’s correct, Secretary?


Ms Adamson : That’s correct.


CHAIR: Yes. What would be the implications of recognising the state of Palestine before we have a two-state solution on board?


Dr Macdonald : I think, Senator, I’ll have to go back to the Prime Minister’s comments from December 2018 that the Australian government’s position is that Palestinian aspirations for statehood can only be realised through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, the Prime Minister then acknowledged the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state.


CHAIR: Thank you. I might put some more questions on notice. In relation to the ICC matter involving Israel and, allegedly, the state of Palestine, has the Australian government made any further representations to the court in relation to its preliminary determination.


Mr Newnham : As you’d know, the foreign minister put out a statement on 6 February—


CHAIR: It’s either yes or no: have we made further representations to the court?


Mr Newnham : To the court? Not to my knowledge.


CHAIR: Have we had any correspondence with the new ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, about the case?


Mr Newnham : The answer is no, because he doesn’t start his role until June, but we can certainly say we’ve had a number of engagements with all candidates leading through that process to nominate the final, successful candidate.


CHAIR: I’m sorry to rush through this. Does Australia have the capacity to make additional representations to the ICC on this case? I assume so.


Mr Newnham : We do.


CHAIR: The question then is: will we do so?


Mr Newnham : That very much depends on how things pan out. Of course, there are a number of stages ahead. The investigation has been opened, but it really depends, then, on whether actual, specific investigations are carried forward, and on questions of jurisdiction as well, so we watch this very closely. Our views are very clear, and they have been since the purported accession back in 2015. They were clear when we made submissions to the court and they were clear from the Foreign Minister’s statement.


CHAIR: There was a letter from the United States signed, I think, by 67 senators, including now-Vice President Harris, slamming the politicisation of the ICC. I assume we stand with that position?


Mr Newnham : That’s my understanding, yes.


CHAIR: Let’s move on. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, I was told last time, is being adopted by 28 states, including 22 of the IHRA’s 34 members. On notice, could I be advised whether there has been any increase in those numbers?


Dr Lee : I have those numbers.


CHAIR: Take it on notice, sorry, because of time. In question 031 from budget estimates in relation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, I asked whether any expert panel provided any advice or guidance or been asked by the ABC to provide such to them. As I understand it, we have advice that can be offered in that regard. Is that correct?


Dr Lee : The department is coordinating our assessment of the working definition. We’ve met with our international experts to get their view on the international expectations of adopting that definition. We’ve also met with relevant domestic agencies—home affairs, communications and the Attorney-General’s Department—and we’re taking that work forward.


Going back to the UNRWA matter, I understand that 58 per cent of the UNRWA $1.4 billion budget is allocated to education. How does DFAT respond to denial of the state of Israel and Jewish connection? Whilst matters have been taken out of the textbooks, do we have any assurance that it’s not actually verbally taught to the children?


Dr Macdonald : We do raise those issues regularly and we are assured, including at the level of the Commissioner-General and others, that the teaching of teachers of neutrality and non-discrimination is core to the work of UNRWA in how they’re doing that. They’ve also committed to really improving their processes, this is in writing to me, to ensure errors are quickly and effectively remedied, as well as removed.

Link to full Hansard transcript.