Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about Palestinian elections, Australian aid to Palestine and definition of Palestinian refugees

May 31, 2018

Questioned when elections were last held in Palestine, Australian aid to Palestine and the definition of Palestinian refugees.

When was the last time that people under the rule of the Palestinian authority were given the benefit of an election to determine their leadership?

Whole interaction Ms HK Yu (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa, DFAT), Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT), Mr James Larsen (Senior Legal Adviser, Legal Division, 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).

Senator ABETZ: Thank you very much, Chair. I have a bracket of questions relating to Israel and the Palestinian authority. Whilst giving note of that, I have a few questions. If officials can get out the answer to question No. 751, which was asked on 22 March 2018 and a few questions that were on notice from the last estimates, that would be helpful. First of all, can we confirm that Australia still regards the organisation Hamas as a terrorist organisation?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator ABETZ: When was the last time that people under the rule of the Palestinian authority were given the benefit of an election to determine their leadership?


Ms Yu : It’s been a while, but I would have to—


Senator ABETZ: Take that on notice. I have a suggested answer of 13 years. But I need confirmation. Can any other official confirm that my recollection is correct?


Ms Adamson : I think that is correct. That was indeed the figure in my own mind. Can we leave it on the basis that that sounds right? We’ll check it and confirm if there is anything at variance with that.


Senator ABETZ: Can you tell us whether the people of Israel have had the opportunity to determine their government? If so, when did they last have that opportunity?


Mr Larsen : As I’m sure you know, Senator, there have been multiple elections in Israel over that period. I can confirm that I was ambassador to Israel in 2005, when the last election was held.


Senator ABETZ: So my maths was right that it’s 13 years. Thank you for that.


Mr Larsen : I need to correct myself already. I apologise. I became ambassador immediately afterwards.


Senator ABETZ: Right. The important thing in this is not your posting, with respect, but the 13 years. So thank you for that; we have got that confirmation. But can I gratuitously but in a very heartfelt manner congratulate the Australian government for opposing the UN’s investigation that was recently indicated and possibly more rhetorically than in any other way ask whether the UN has deemed it appropriate to have an investigation into all the rockets that have been fired into Israel in the last few days from Gaza? Any action there from the United Nations?


Ms Adamson : I think you know the answer to that, Senator. You did say rhetorically.


Senator ABETZ: I would like officials to actually confirm that, to their knowledge, the answer to my question is no.


Ms Yu : That’s correct. It is no.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you very much. Earlier today, I think you told Senator Di Natale that the Australian ambassador to Israel was, in fact, invited to the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem. Is that correct?


Ms Adamson : No. He was invited to the reception hosted—


Senator ABETZ: To the reception?


Ms Adamson : the previous day, but not to the opening, because that was a bilateral US-Israel event to which no foreign representatives were invited.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you for correcting me. So it’s the reception of which we talk as opposed to the actual opening. Thank you for that. Was the Australian ambassador on leave at the time of the reception?


Ms Yu : No. He was not. That was Sunday. He had prior travel arranged for that day.


Senator ABETZ: Within Israel or without it?


Ms Yu : It was overseas, I understand.


Senator ABETZ: It was overseas. So the normal circumstance, is it not, is that if an ambassador is out of the country he or she is serving, there would be an acting ambassador?


Ms Adamson : There would be a charge de affair, yes.


Senator ABETZ: Or a charge de affair, who could then deputise for the ambassador. Was that considered for the purposes of the reception?


Ms Adamson : Could do, but not always.


Senator ABETZ: Sorry?


Ms Adamson : Could do, but would not always.


Senator ABETZ: Hence my follow-up question: was that considered for the purposes of the reception?


Ms Yu : As the secretary stated previously, the invitation was personal and non-transferable. In that case, it was actually directed to our ambassador, Chris Cannan.


Senator ABETZ: If he were not ambassador to Israel on behalf of Australia, one suspects that he would not have been invited. So to dress it up as a personal invitation is interesting. One suspects that his personal invitation was courtesy of the position that he held. Sometimes I get invites, very personal, to Senator Abetz, but I know that it is because I happen to be holding the position of senator for Tasmania, not necessarily because they have a particular liking for me personally.


Ms Adamson : No. Senator, you are correct. We didn’t mean to imply it was anything other than Chris Cannan, Australian ambassador to Israel, by name on a non-transferable invitation.


Senator ABETZ: Did we ask whether, given the circumstances of his unavailability, we could send somebody else?


Ms Yu : We did not.


Senator ABETZ: And why not?


Ms Yu : A number of factors. We made a decision that our ambassador should not attend because he was unavailable and because the invitation was personal and non-transferable. As you would know very well, it was really consistent with our longstanding position on the political status of Jerusalem being a matter for final status issue in the negotiations.


Senator ABETZ: Which is a good segue to my next question. Is it anticipated that if a two-state solution were to be arrived at, which is a big ‘if’, West Jerusalem would be seen as remaining with Israel?


Ms Yu : Well—


Senator ABETZ: That is not in dispute, is it?


Ms Yu : No.


Senator ABETZ: Right. To say that Jerusalem is in dispute, in fact, the only real question is in relation to East Jerusalem. Is that correct?


Ms Yu : It’s not quite. I think the two-state solution is based on the whole of Jerusalem being a final status issue. That’s how the international community certainly approaches it.


Senator ABETZ: I won’t delay further on that. I always thought that the issue of West Jerusalem was really not in play. The issue was in relation to East Jerusalem. Look, I will leave that aspect there. Have we got an answer to my question No. 751, where 10 questions were asked on notice? I thank you for the answer. I will run through it quickly. We provided $43.8 million for aid to the Palestinian authority or—


Ms Yu : Territories.


Senator ABETZ: Territories. Thank you. Then I asked whether the Palestinian authority includes in its budget payments to the families of convicted terrorists and, if so, how much. Yet again I was referred to a question on notice which kindly told me the amount in shekels. I thought we had a discussion about that last time. Would somebody at the table like to tell me how much we give the Palestinian territories in shekels? You know exactly what I was on about to make the comparison. It is singularly unhelpful to given me one figure in Australian dollars and the other one in Israeli shekels. I don’t care which one you choose. Could you please make a choice and then allow us to make the comparison?


Ms Yu : Will do. With regard to your question on notice—


Senator ABETZ: Don’t try to predict my questions. All I’m asking is: what is the comparison? I suspect that if one were to do the amount in the Palestinian territories in Australian dollars that is given to the so-called families of martyrs, can it be agreed it would be largely in excess of the $43.8 million that we make available in aid?


Ms Yu : Converted to Australian dollars, yes.


Senator ABETZ: Let’s put a figure on it. Five times, ten times as much?


Ms Yu : I’m afraid I’ll have to do those sums.


Senator ABETZ: I’m sure there’s somebody behind you who could do that sum pretty quickly. I think the conversion rate as of late is 30.37 shekels to the Australian dollar. In the future, to be given a comparison with a similar currency would be helpful. I then asked: if the Palestinian authority can find substantial sums of money to encourage terrorism through payments to families of martyrs, why should Australian taxpayers be giving them aid? I was given this extremely unhelpful answer, referring me to Australia’s aid investment plan, which I printed off. I’ve read it upside down and inside out. There is no answer in it in relation to the justification for why we are continuing to give aid to the Palestinian territories when we know that they are using substantially more than we give in aid to support, in effect, terrorism and terrorist type activities. There was no answer. I would once again now publicly ask: what is the justification, given that it stands to reason that us giving them aid allows them to side-step the issue of funding for education et cetera and frees up that money to assist them with terrorist activities?


Ms Yu : I will clarify. The $42.8 million that we talked about—


Senator ABETZ: Is it $43 million or—


Ms Yu : It is $43 million.


Senator ABETZ: The answer is $43.8 million. Is it $42.8 million or $43.8 million?


Ms Yu : It is $42.8 million for 2017-18.


Senator ABETZ: So the answer I got on 751 is $43.8 million.


Ms Yu : This is the planned funding. That would have been the outcomes. If I could just—


Senator ABETZ: Wait a minute. When I said how much money will be provided, you said $43.8 million in answer to that.


Ms Yu : Yes, apologies. It is $43.8 million.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you.


Ms Yu : I want to clarify. Not all of that—


Senator ABETZ: I would have been excited if it was in fact one million dollars less. What it meant is another one million dollars freed up for terrorist activities.


Ms Yu : The whole amount does not go to the Palestinian authority. The amount that is allocated to support the Palestinian authority is $10 million. That is the amount that actually goes into the World Bank’s trust fund along with other donors. Other amounts are actually provided to UNRWA—around $20 million—as well as initiatives such as AMENCA 3, where we actually work with NGOs and directly with Palestinian farmers. I will come back to the $10 million. Yes—


Senator ABETZ: But the simple fact is the money finds its way into the Palestinian territories to assist in providing what might be considered essential services, which under normal circumstances the Palestinian authority should be funding. They are diverting their funds and they are able to divert funds to the so-called families of martyrs because the international community is bankrolling them in other areas. That is the reality, whether it goes through NGOs or other organisations. I accept that. So how much money is to be given to the Palestinian territories this year?


Ms Yu : That is—


Senator ABETZ: That is the $43.8 million?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator ABETZ: What about next year?


Ms Yu : For 2018-19, it’s $43 million.


Senator ABETZ: So a little reduction. Good. Has the government given further consideration re the Palestinian authority’s martyrs fund, which I have been pursuing? I just find it unacceptable that we are willing to provide funding in these circumstances. Are we making any representations that this is unacceptable?


Ms Yu : Obviously that is completely at odds with Australian values. On 29 May, our foreign minister wrote to a counterpart raising concerns about these payments that show up in the Palestinian authority’s budget and seeking assurances that the Australian funding does not in any way enable or encourage acts of violence. The foreign minister herself sought further explanation and assurance from the Palestinian authority.


Senator ABETZ: Look, that is a very welcome step forward. Of course, they will always assert, will they not, that Australian money is not being so used? Could I respectfully suggest to the department and the minister that a letter saying, ‘Whilst this fund continues to exist, we as Australian taxpayers believe that the Palestinian territories have more than sufficient funds to cater for their immediate needs without assistance of foreign aid.’ It stands to reason that whilst we give foreign aid, it frees up money for the terrorist activities. Of course, our dollars, hopefully, would never find their way into the martyr fund, but if we didn’t provide the assistance, hopefully less money would find its way into the so-called martyr fund and find its way to basic things like education, food, water, sanitation and those areas where we do assist. So it is welcome news in relation to the minister’s correspondence. Are you free to table that? Take that on notice, unless it is able to be tabled immediately.


Ms Adamson : I think Ms Yu has provided the gist of the letter. Normally we don’t table letters between foreign ministers.


Senator ABETZ: That is why if it needs to be taken on notice, I accept that.


Ms Adamson : I want to take this opportunity. Although we were all in, we thought, firm agreement that the last Palestinian election was held in 2005, our fact checkers behind us have pointed out that, in fact, it was 2006.


Senator ABETZ: Former ambassador, you and I were both wrong.


Ms Adamson : I admit to being wrong myself.


Senator ABETZ: And you as well, Secretary. Thank you to the fact checker behind the scenes. But the case is still made. Rather than 13 years, it is a dozen years. In Australia, we would have had four elections, if not more, during that period of time. Does the minister’s letter specifically point to funding provided, creating space for the fund for the families of martyrs? I suppose I’m trying to get a handle on how strong the letter is.


Ms Yu : We make it clear—


Senator ABETZ: The flavour you gave me was that Australian dollars weren’t being used. I would have thought it would be very easy to show that they weren’t being used. But it’s freeing up the space in the budget for this outrageous fund to assist terrorism. Do we make that point in the letter?


Ms Adamson : Senator, that point is made in that letter.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you very much. In that case, I’m even more pleased that the letter has gone. I look forward to reports about it. That was written two days ago?


Ms Adamson : That’s correct.


Ms Yu : It was sent, yes.


Senator ABETZ: Good. That is good news. At question 9 in 751, I asked:

Is it correct that Palestinians born in the West Bank and Gaza are not fleeing war and are not seeing refuge?

I was very helpfully told:

It’s not possible to characterise the situation of all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in this way.

I accept that that might be the case. But do we at least accept that the vast majority, if not 99.9 per cent recurring, would fall into the category of not fleeing war or not seeking refuge?


Ms Yu : Yes. We can accept that.


Senator ABETZ: So why was I given that answer, which is, with respect, singularly unhelpful and sidesteps the issue as to the actual characterisation? Thank you for that. I won’t expect an answer and I won’t delay. With question 10, I asked:

Excluding Palestinians, are there any other people in the world who are registered as refugees while being the citizens of another country or territory?

DFAT said:

DFAT is not aware.

If that were the case, would you expect to be aware of such a classification?


Mr Larsen : I will take that on notice, if I can, and get an answer for you within the session.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you very much. When did Israel vacate Gaza?


Ms Yu : Sorry, Senator?


Senator ABETZ: When did Israel withdraw from Gaza? Former ambassador, that was about the time, wasn’t it?


Mr Larsen : It was, indeed. I hesitate to give another date, but I believe it was 2005.


Senator ABETZ: Yes. That is what I also believe. The fact checker will tell us if it is 2006.


Senator KITCHING: And the latest Economist also confirms that.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you, Senator Kitching. That’s very helpful. The would-be Prime Minister of this country—and I’m not talking about Mr Shorten but Mr Albanese on this occasion—said in an ABC interview, uncorrected by the highly paid ABC compare, Barrie Cassidy, when talking about the conflict in recent times at the border between Gaza and Israel:

Ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza undermine the two-state solution.

Can anybody at the table indicate whether there is any evidence of expansion of Israeli settlements in Gaza? There is no evidence, is there?


Ms Yu : No.


Senator ABETZ: In fact, since 2005 or thereabouts, for certainty, there has not been an Israeli soldier or settler within the Gaza area.


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


Senator FAWCETT: Except those kidnapped and taken there.


Senator ABETZ: Senator Fawcett makes a very good interjection, which should go on the record: except for those who have been kidnapped and taken there. Very good point, Senator Fawcett. Do we accept that Hamas’s leader in Gaza—I will try to pronounce his name—Yahya Sinwar said, ‘We will take down the border and tear out their hearts from their bodies?’ Is the department aware that that is on the official record and that that is what the Hamas leader in Gaza said about Israel or Israelis?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator ABETZ: So you are aware. You have no doubt that what is what was said?


Ms Yu : We have no reason. It was public.


Senator ABETZ: Yes. It was public. Would there be any other country anywhere in the world that would stand idly by, having its border threatened by people armed with knives and grenades et cetera, saying that that is their intention to cross the border and to tear out their hearts from their bodies? Would there be any other country that would say, ‘Oh, well, that’s interesting. We’ll just accept that and let them come over’, to your knowledge and experience?


Ms Yu : I would say no.


Senator ABETZ: And it would be reasonable to expect that any country confronted with such aggression would seek to protect its citizens?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you. Can we confirm, or is there any reason to doubt, that the protesters on the Gaza side were intent on tearing down the border fence and that they brought knives, grenades, fire kites, guns and other explosive devices to the area because Hamas had, in fact, instructed them to do so?


Ms Yu : Which particular protest are you referring to?


Senator ABETZ: Just a recent one along the border in the last few days.


Ms Yu : There are mixed media reports on that.


Senator ABETZ: Well, yes, there are, including the ABC, which breathlessly claims that 62 unarmed Palestinians were killed when Hamas itself confirms that over 50 of the people killed were in fact their operatives. So, yes, there are mixed reports. But let’s try to deal with the established facts, if we can. Is it accepted that in that border uprising that seemed to have coincided, might I add, not with the establishment of the US embassy in Jerusalem but with the 70th anniversary of the state of Israel, that people were there at the border with knives, with fire kites, with guns and with grenades and had been instructed to do so by Hamas?


Dr Lee : Certainly in relation to what you’ve said, we’ve emphasised this in our statements to the Human Rights Council and publicly. We’ve certainly recognised that we’re firmly of the view that Israel has had legitimate security concerns and that they’ve got the right to protect their population. We have certainly made that clear. We’ve also emphasised—


Senator ABETZ: With respect, what were they protecting themselves against? Was it a peaceful demonstration, where people were sitting in a circle holding hands singing Kumbaya or was it because there were people on the other side with grenades, with knives and with fire kites being told and instructed by the Hamas leadership to try to breach the border and tear people’s hearts out of their bodies?


Dr Lee : I think in the circumstances of the situation, we did not agree to a resolution on this. There is a commission of inquiry that is going ahead. We have emphasised that that commission of inquiry should be impartial.


Senator ABETZ: But I am asking, from our knowledge and information received et cetera, were there people on the other side with grenades, with fire kites and with knives?


Dr Lee : What I’m saying is we certainly support that the circumstances be investigated fully and impartially so that we can be aware of the facts. What has been proposed previously we were concerned would not be impartial.


Senator ABETZ: But does our intelligence or information from the area confirm that people were there with knives, with guns, with fire kites and with grenades, or were they just standing there very peacefully or sitting around in a circle? Do we have any information at all?


Ms Yu : We certainly have had information, but whether that is official evidence it’s difficult to say. But we have actually had reports that there were instruments being carried by the Palestinians at the border.


Senator ABETZ: All right. Instruments. Chances are the definition of ‘instruments’ might include guns, grenades, knives et cetera. All right. Can we also confirm that an Hamas official, Salah Bardawil, admitted that 50 of the 62 people killed were members of the terrorist organisation Hamas?


Ms Yu : I believe that was a public statement, yes.


Senator ABETZ: And so you have no reason to doubt that?


Ms Yu : No.


Senator ABETZ: All right. Thank you.



Senator ABETZ: I thank Senator Leyonhjelm for that indulgence. 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 this demonstration, or whatever we want to call it, on the border in recent times be entitled to draw on that fund?


Ms Yu : I’m not sure of the answer to that. I will have to check exactly what the PLO’s definition is and what the requirements are.


Senator ABETZ: If you could, I would be much obliged, especially when we are told by a Hamas official that the vast bulk of those who were killed were, in fact, from his terrorist organisation. Is it correct that Egypt has also severely restricted entry to and from Gaza?


Ms Yu : I will have to check that. I’m not sure. My apologies. I’m very new to the job and I’m not quite sure on that.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you for that. If you could, I would be much obliged. Can we turn to additional estimates answer No. 54, please? This is where I asked a few questions about UNRWA and the mandate in relation to UNRWA. The General Assembly provided a definition, as I understand it, of Palestinian refugees quite some time ago, but that now has been expanded by UNRWA. Is that correct?


Ms Yu : I’ll have to check whether it was the General Assembly or UNRWA itself when it was established.


Senator ABETZ: That is what I don’t know. That is what I was wanting to clarify in relation to the answer that I was provided. If you could do that, that would be very helpful.


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator ABETZ: Then we are told at the very end of the answer:

Under Jordanian law, individuals can obtain Jordanian citizenship and remain refugees.

That was in relation to this question I asked: when you are a citizen of another country, how can you still be then classified as a refugee? All the people who have come as refugees to Australia, I assume, who have taken out Australian citizenship are now determined to be Australians and are no longer on any UN books as refugees, whereas they in fact do have a country and they do have a home. Is Jordanian law, interestingly, in line with the UN definition of ‘refugee’? Whilst I can understand that it might suit the purposes of Jordan, I want to know whether that is the understood definition internationally or whether this is a very interesting, unique Jordanian legal nicety?


Ms Yu : With regard to the definition of refugees for UNRWA’s purposes, there is no reference there, to my understanding, of the citizenship component or being another country’s citizen.


Senator ABETZ: Yes.


Ms Yu : Therefore, as you say, Jordanian law is allowing this situation. But it does not actually have an impact on UNRWA’s definition of ‘refugee’ for the purpose of its operations.


Senator ABETZ: But it stands to reason, I would suspect, that it should. Otherwise, why don’t the people who have come here as refugees and have Australian citizenship? We still classify them as refugees. We wouldn’t mind a bit of international assistance for them.


Ms Adamson : We are a resettlement country as distinct from a transit country. I think one of my—


Senator ABETZ: Yes. But it’s not a transit country when they extend full citizenship.


Ms Adamson : I’m saying that the situation could not happen in our country. I appreciate the interest that you’re taking in Jordan and why. But in our situation, that could not be the case. As refugees are resettled and become our citizens, they no longer retain refugee status. I’m hoping that one of my legal colleagues might be able to come up and take you through the relevant convention, if that’s what you’re interested in. I’m just making the point that it couldn’t happen in a country like ours or, indeed, others like ours.


Senator ABETZ: Yes. But it happens nowhere else in the world, does it, other than Jordan?


Mr Larsen : I would have to confess that I’m not an expert on the Jordanian law. I think the point is that the circumstances in relation to Palestinians and Jordan are very particular to that location. Of course, they have a particular history.


Senator ABETZ: Thank you very much. I’ll leave it at that for the time being. Thank you very much.

Link to full Hansard transcript.