Questioned the Australian government’s refusal to describe East Jerusalem and the West Bank as ‘occupied’ and the Australian diplomatic response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, including damage to Australian aid projects in the area.
In previous estimates hearings, Senator Brandis, you confirmed that the Australian government was abandoning the internationally accepted description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ because the term is ‘judgemental’. Is Australia’s official position that the West Bank is not occupied?
Whole interaction with Senator George Brandis (Attorney-General), Mr Peter Varghese (Secretary, DFAT) and Mr Marc Innes-Brown (Acting First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).
Senator RHIANNON: In previous estimates hearings, Senator Brandis, you confirmed that the Australian government was abandoning the internationally accepted description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ because the term is ‘judgemental’. Since then, Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, has told Israeli media outlets that the entire West Bank should not be referred to as ‘occupied’. This includes Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and all parts of the Golan Heights. Is Australia’s official position that the West Bank is not occupied?
Senator Brandis: I have not seen Mr Sharma’s comments.
Senator RHIANNON: I will just repeat the question. Is Australia’s official position that the West Bank is not occupied?
Senator Brandis: This matter was raised by you at the last estimates and I have nothing to add to what I said on that occasion.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, is Australia’s official position that the West Bank is not occupied?
Senator Brandis: Senator Rhiannon, I am taking these questions and I have nothing to add to what I said at the last estimates.
Senator RHIANNON: I understand that I can also ask the department.
Senator Brandis: No, you cannot—only with my consent.
Senator RHIANNON: You can stop a senator asking questions—is that what you are saying?
Senator Brandis: You can ask any questions you like—of me. Where appropriate, and as a matter of my judgement, I will invite the officials to respond. Given the sensitivity of this matter, I will take the questions. The answer to your question is that I have nothing to add.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering your earlier response and the way you keep reiterating that, why has Australia gone against the positions held by the former Howard government, the United States, many Security Council and United Nations resolutions and even the Supreme Court of Israel, all of which have recognised that the West Bank is occupied by Israel?
Senator Brandis: I do not take at face value your premises to questions without inspecting the relevant statements carefully for myself. Allowing for that, I have nothing to add to what has already been said.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that you are not aware of the position of the former Howard government right across to the Supreme Court of Israel? You are well versed in this subject, so it sounds as if you are refusing to answer. It is not my statement. I am just repeating what is recorded from the decisions of those bodies.
Senator Brandis: You have, for example, made a reference to a decision of the Supreme Court of Israel. I would read for myself the reasons for judgement of the judges of that court rather than accept at face value your brief paraphrase of the decision, but, in any event, I have nothing to add to what has already been said.
Senator RHIANNON: The Ambassador of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Izzat Abdulhadi, has strongly condemned Australia’s refusal to acknowledge the occupation of the West Bank. He has stated in the media that he is seeking a meeting with the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, to discuss the matter. Has the meeting being granted?
Senator Brandis: I have nothing to add to what has already been said on this subject.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you inform the committee what has already been said on this subject?
Senator Brandis: No, because it is recorded in the Hansard and I am not going to waste the time of colleagues by reading to you what you can read for yourself in the Hansard.
Senator RHIANNON: This is simply about a request for a meeting. Surely, you can inform the committee of that.
Senator Brandis: I will take that question on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Has any apology been offered by Australia to the Palestinians for the offence that the decision not to acknowledge the occupation of the West Bank may have caused?
Senator Brandis: I am not going to pursue this matter with you. You may wish to pursue it with me, but I have no intention of pursuing it with you. I have nothing to add to what has already been said.
Senator RHIANNON: On 8 July this year, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge into the Gaza Strip. Israel’s occupation killed over 2,000 Palestinians and, according to the United Nations, at least 75 per cent of the dead are civilians, many of them children. Several countries and leaders condemned Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza. Those that did not oppose the incursion, including the United States, actually criticised Israel’s military targeting of schools and hospitals and places of worship. Did the Australian foreign minister or the Prime Minister make any statements condemning or criticising or even commenting on Israel throughout the seven weeks of this war on Gaza?
Mr Varghese : The foreign minister noted that she was deeply troubled by the killing of Palestinian civilians on a number of occasions, including in a statement of 5 September. She also noted that, while Israel obviously had a right to defend itself from the attacks of Hamas and other militants, it needed to take all necessary steps to avoid civilian casualties. Ms Bishop specifically called for a full investigation into the indefensible shelling of three UN schools, all of which were sheltering civilians. The Australian government has repeatedly called for both sides to respect international humanitarian law and to ensure the safety of innocent people. Of course, we have also contributed humanitarian assistance to Gaza amounting to $15 million in July and August. Sorry, that should have been 5 August rather than 5 September.
Senator RHIANNON: With regard to the assistance that is being provided, considering that much of the destruction that occurred as a result of the Israeli bombing and invasion involved aid projects, including some Australian projects, do you have a list of the Australian projects that were damaged during these military operations and details of how the Australian government is now responding? Is it assisting in rebuilding and reallocating funding?
Mr Varghese : I think Mr Innes-Brown can respond to that.
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, there was some damage to projects that Australia was funding. Australia was funding two Australian NGOs working in Gaza. They have a range of projects, but there was damage during the conflict to things such as greenhouses, irrigation pipes, crops, livestock and fishing boats. We also give money to UNRWA. We provide core funding for them and they run schools there, and there was obviously damage to schools as well. We also fund UNICEF and there was damage to some of their facilities. So there was damage.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you have a monetary value for the NGO projects funded by Australia that have been damaged?
Mr Innes-Brown : We have just received one. World Vision has estimated that the value of assets they lost in the communities in which they were working was worth around $1.8 million. The second NGO was Union Aid Abroad, APHEDA. They estimated damage was around $1.4 million.
Senator RHIANNON: What is the response from the Australian government when that happens? When we have decided to fund a project, it has been funded, the money has been allocated, the project has been built and then it is destroyed. What then happens?
Mr Innes-Brown : As you noted, we have given up funding—we announced $15 million in emergency funding for Gaza during the conflict. Of that, $1 million went to each of these NGOs to make good on the damage that had been done. Separately to that—this was in addition to program funding they had already received. They also received payments in May, I am advised, as part of their normal projects. They have been able to reallocate or reprioritise the money they received which they had not spent for making good some of the damage that was done and also to take for the recovery. That is the advice I have.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, was the Australian foreign minister or the Prime Minister in contact with the Israeli foreign minister or Prime Minister and the Palestinian leaders during the period of the war?
Mr Varghese : I would have to take that on notice as to what the nature of the contact at that level was. I think there was contact between foreign ministers, but I would have to take it on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Please provide advice about contact with both Israel and Palestine.
Mr Varghese : I can recall contact with the Israeli foreign minister. I would have to check on Palestine.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.