Senator Michael Ronaldson – Estimates question about Palestinian unity government

photo of Michael Ronaldson
June 1, 2011

Questioned the role of Hamas in the Palestinian unity government and Australian aid to the Palestinian authority.

Senator RONALDSON: I have a couple of questions. Can I talk initially about the Palestinian Authority, which is now to be ruled by a unity government controlled by Hamas and Fatah. That agreement was reached in the first week in May, was it?

Whole interaction with Mr David Stuart (First Assistant Secretary, South and West Asia and Middle East Division, DFAT), with additional questions from Senator Russell Trood during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator RONALDSON: I have a couple of questions. Can I talk initially about the Palestinian Authority, which is now to be ruled by a unity government controlled by Hamas and Fatah. That agreement was reached in the first week in May, was it? You do not know an exact date, Mr Stuart, by any chance, do you?


Mr Stuart: Yes, that is right, Senator. I think it was 3 May when it was announced by Fatah and Hamas leaders.


Senator RONALDSON: Just so I am clear: Hamas is still considered a terrorist organisation in Australia, isn’t it?


Mr Stuart: Yes.


Senator RONALDSON: Thank you. I just want to draw your attention to a comment made by the Prime Minister in July 2009, in the aftermath of the Gaza war, in relation to whether Australia would deal with the Palestinian government if Hamas were to be included. The Prime Minister’s quite unequivocal response was: Hamas obviously is a terrorist organisation that has been engaged in violent actions against the Israeli people, and in order to be part of any process it needs to completely renounce that violence … Are you aware of those comments?


Mr Stuart: I am sorry; I am having trouble hearing you.


Senator RONALDSON: My apologies. Were you aware of those comments?


Mr Stuart: Would you mind repeating your question?


Senator RONALDSON: I am prepared for you to say, ‘No, I am not.’ I will accept that what you are telling me is correct. I just wanted to know if you are aware of them.


Mr Stuart: My problem is that I simply could not hear the question.


Senator RONALDSON: Sorry. In July 2009, in the aftermath of the Gaza war, the Prime Minister was asked if Australia would deal with the Palestinian government if Hamas were to be included. Her response was: Hamas obviously is a terrorist organisation that has been engaged in violent actions against the Israeli people, and in order to be part of any process it needs to completely renounce that violence … Were you aware of those comments?


Mr Stuart: I do not recall the comments from 2009, but it is the government’s position that Hamas must renounce violence and a number of other things.


Senator RONALDSON: Indeed, Prime Minister Haniyeh, I think following the death of Osama bin Laden, described him as an ‘Arab holy warrior’. Were you aware of that comment?


Mr Stuart: Prime Minister who?


Senator RONALDSON: Haniyeh. Am I pronouncing it correctly—the Palestinian Prime Minister?


Mr Stuart: No. The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority is Mr Fayyad.


Senator RONALDSON: Ismail Haniyeh—who is that?


Mr Stuart: I am really not sure who you are referring to.


Senator RONALDSON: It is not a trick question. If I have the wrong information then I have the wrong information. Can I just take you back to the situation with Hamas. Have they yet agreed to recognise Israel’s right to exist?


Mr Stuart: Not to my knowledge.


Senator RONALDSON: Have they agreed to renounce terrorism?


Mr Stuart: No, I do not believe so.


Senator RONALDSON: I do not believe they have either.


Mr Stuart: At least, they have not made any public statements that I am aware of to that effect.


Senator RONALDSON: No, indeed. I presume you would agree with me that firing rockets aimed at civilians from Gaza into Israel would be a terrorist activity; I presume you would agree with me that dispatching suicide bombers into shopping centres and onto buses would be terrorist activities; and I presume you would agree with me that Hamas has fired rockets from Gaza into Israel and dispatched suicide bombers into that country? I presume you would agree with me that the lives of Australian citizens travelling or residing in Israel have been placed at risk in the past by this sort of terrorist activity?


Mr Stuart: I would not take issue with any of that, Senator.


Senator RONALDSON: I take it that there was no forewarning about this agreement between Fatah and Hamas in the unity government?


Mr Stuart: Even though there has been a negotiation going on for quite a while, it did take not only us but many others by surprise.


Senator RONALDSON: I ask these questions for this reason: we are providing aid to the Palestinians and, given the short period of time between the budget, which I think was 10 May, and this announcement on 3 May, I would presume that there had been no discussions taking place between the Australian government—DFAT or whoever it might have been— and the Palestinian authorities in relation to your concerns about Hamas being a part of the Palestinian Authority and what that would mean for Australia’s views in relation to aid.


Mr Stuart: Hamas is not a part of the Palestinian Authority; indeed, the specific terms of the agreement that was announced on 3 May are that it will not be a part of a Palestinian authority.


Senator RONALDSON: What will it be part of then?


Mr Stuart: The announcement was that a technocratic government—and we are waiting to see exactly what the composition of this government is—and which we understand would comprise people who do not come from political parties, with the possible exception of Mr Fayyad, who might continue as Prime Minister—Mr Fayyad had open heart surgery in the United States, I believe, last week, but it is possible that he would be able to continue to lead this technocratic government—would be formed and it would remain in place until elections were held in around April or May of next year in the Palestinian territories. Hamas does not form a part of the executive, so Hamas is not a part of the Palestinian Authority.


Senator RONALDSON: What will the role of the Palestinian Authority be, post this new unity government?


Mr Stuart: The unity government will be—I think the expression that was used was—like a service provider. It will make sure that the basic services that we would expect a municipal council to deliver will continue so that the territories can run up to this election next year.


Senator RONALDSON: After the election, what role will the Palestinian Authority play, or will it cease to exist?


Mr Stuart: That is a good question. We do not know exactly in what form, but, under their constitution, as I understand it, a president is elected who organises the government, and there is a legislative assembly. Hamas, I imagine, would be seeking seats in that legislative assembly. There is a legislative assembly at the moment—it has not met for some time—and Hamas has a number of seats in that assembly. But the government is formed by electing a president, who then names a cabinet. As I understand it, there are many donors—I think you understand, Senator, that there are many donors, including countries like the United States and Britain—that provide assistance to the Palestinian people through the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority actually purged all Hamas members from the ranks of the bureaucracy both for political reasons and in order to be able to receive donor assistance. As I understand it, there are strict rules that avoid any of this funding going to Hamas. Certainly, I am aware of some safeguards in our own agreements. The details of that are probably something that the Director-General of AusAID is better placed to explain than me.


Senator RONALDSON: I have been circumspect about my questions to DFAT on this. I take it from what you have said that you are not sure whether the Palestinian Authority will continue to exist or not. Is that a reasonable assessment?


Mr Stuart: We are waiting to see exactly what will happen. We have not seen the composition of this technocratic government; it has been talked about now for a couple of weeks. We, like others, are waiting to see what will happen. But our understanding is that this government will take over the executive role; that the PLO, of which Hamas is not a member—and it is unlikely to be a member on its current settings, because the PLO has agreed to accept the existence of the State of Israel and Hamas has not, as you have pointed out—will be the international face for the Palestinians. If we are able to resume negotiations, as we very much hope, it will be the PLO, with President Abbas, who will be at the table and not Hamas.


Senator RONALDSON: But, if the Palestinian Authority no longer exists, where would our aid be directed? I presume that it would be directed to the new unity government. There is nowhere else for it to go, is there?


Mr Stuart: Again, you are probably best placed to ask Mr Baxter for the details. But our aid goes to a number of areas. It goes to the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which has a longstanding role in helping Palestinians in a number of places, not only in the Palestinian territories but elsewhere. It goes to a trust fund administered by the World Bank. I can mention the safeguards, and a number of them are written into the work of this trust fund which delivers funds, for example, that the British and other like minds give it. We also have a small amount of aid that goes through some Australian non-governmental organisations, again, with safeguards written in to ensure that no money goes to Hamas or for any other terrorist purpose.


CHAIR: Mr Stuart, the answer that you gave Senator Ronaldson to the previous question, where you outlined the governance arrangements for the PLO at an international level: do you state that as a current matter of fact, or is it likely to be the outcome of current negotiations sometime in the future?


Mr Stuart: That is what we understand from the announcement about this new so-called reconciliation agreement.


CHAIR: That it will be the case?


Mr Stuart: Yes; that Hamas is accepting that the international face for the Palestinians will be the PLO. Fatah is a party; the PLO is an organisation which includes Fatah. President Abbas is, of course, a leading figure in Fatah. Again, we, like the rest of the international community, are waiting to see exactly what this will mean in practice.


CHAIR: At that stage it is a foreshadowed announcement which may or may not come to pass?


Mr Stuart: Yes; and there is at least some intelligent speculation that it may be all too much. It was a surprise to see this agreement.


CHAIR: It sounds like a lot to me.


Mr Stuart: Yes. Not that long ago, these people were at each other, so we have to wait and see. But we are very conscious of, I think, the issue that Senator Ronaldson is raising, which is: we are giving funding to the Palestinians; are we absolutely sure that it is not going to terrorists? I am trying to provide you with some assurance that we are not and that we have been looking at that and we have safeguards.


Senator RONALDSON: You would accept that that is your view of the situation—and I am not reflecting whether it is or is not—under the current arrangement with the Palestinian Authority. But I take it that there are no guarantees that, under this unity government, the involvement of Hamas will not be such that any aid potentially will be going to terrorists. Also, I would assume that you will be reviewing our aid situation from a DFAT point of view, once you have a better idea of what these arrangements are actually going to mean.


Mr Stuart: Yes. We have already been looking carefully at what the arrangements are. As I say, we are waiting to see what this technocratic government will look like. Will it genuinely be apolitical, as people have said? Then there will be an election campaign and we will have to review things against what the outcome of that election is, if indeed it is held, in the middle of next year.


Senator RONALDSON: I would assume that the Australian government will not recognise that new regime if it includes Hamas, if Hamas has refused to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist and has not—the words I used before—renounced terrorism?


Mr Stuart: If Hamas is holding to all these positions, the absolute logic of our position at the moment is that we would not.


Senator RONALDSON: I have just been given a message that Ismail Haniyeh was the Prime Minister of Hamas-controlled Gaza; is that right?


Mr Stuart: That could well be right, yes. There is a Haniyeh who is a Hamas leader, yes. I do not know whether we describe him as the Prime Minister usually, but he is a Hamas leader in Gaza.


Senator RONALDSON: Do we know what role he will be playing in this new body?


Mr Stuart: As I say, from what the announcement was on 3 May, Hamas will stand back from a political role. It will, I am certain, either directly or under some other name, participate in the elections, but it will not be a part of the executive authority. That is what has been announced. We have to see what happens now.


Senator RONALDSON: Yes, indeed. Thank you, Mr Stuart. I think that has been a very frank assessment of things and I thank you for it. I do have one more, but not on this.


Senator TROOD: Just while we are on this topic, Mr Stuart: the access point from Gaza to Egypt has reopened, as I understand it. Did the Australian government make any representations to the Egyptian government about its change of policy in relation to that matter?


Mr Stuart: Not to my knowledge, no; I do not think so.


Senator TROOD: What view do you take of that development, if any?


Mr Stuart: The government has not made any public comments on that development. The government has a view on humanitarian access to Gaza, which I think you are familiar with and which is that that should be facilitated. But I do not think the government has expressed any view on the opening of what I think is called the Rafah crossing.


Senator RONALDSON: I have one quick follow-up question, Mr Stuart. Do AusAID come to your section when they are looking at aid programs to get some advice in relation to the appropriateness or otherwise of aid to a particular country or a particular organisation, or whatever it might be?


Mr Stuart: Yes, there is a discussion. Whether we go to them or they come to us depends on the issue, but there is discussion between the department and AusAID and between my division and relevant AusAID officials, yes.


Senator RONALDSON: Given that the budget was presumably well and truly locked away by 3 May, were there any discussions between yourselves and AusAID between 3 May and 10 May, when the budget was announced, in relation to the potential ramifications of the increase in aid or aid to Palestine generally? Were any concerns expressed at that stage, or was it effectively too late, given the timing of the budget and the timing of the announcement?


Mr Stuart: I cannot give you an absolutely authoritative answer on who discussed what with whom on exactly what date, but I can say that over the last few weeks we have been discussing with AusAID the issue of assistance to the Palestinians in the context of these developments.


Senator RONALDSON: I suppose this is asking for an opinion and, if you say that you are not prepared to give one, I will understand that. If this announcement had been made on 3 March, for example—this, for want of a better phrase, unity government—do you think in that situation there would have been a recommendation for a significant expansion of aid pending a greater understanding of—


CHAIR: This is conjecture.


Senator RONALDSON: I have already flagged that. The opportunity was given; I was quite up front with it. Perhaps I can just continue and then, if Mr Stuart wants to say it is conjecture, that is—


CHAIR: No, it started off with, ‘What if something happened on 3 March?’ didn’t it?


Senator RONALDSON: But I premised the question by saying that I appreciate this calls potentially for an opinion, so I have been quite up front about it.


CHAIR: Yes, but that does not make the question—


Senator RONALDSON: That is me; you know that I am quite up front about these things.


Mr Stuart: Senator, if I have understood what you were driving at, it is a hypothetical question. All I can say is that, in giving advice to the government on this issue, we and AusAID are conscious that we must avoid the outcome where Australian assistance assists a terrorist entity.


Senator RONALDSON: Thanks, Mr Stuart. I think that is an entirely appropriate answer; I thank you for that.

Link to full Hansard transcript (Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio, 1 June 2011).