Penny Wong has suggested that Australia wants to resume funding to the United Nations agency delivering aid to Gaza as soon as possible, maintaining that while recent allegations about staff were gravely serious, there are no alternatives.
Australia, alongside the United States, the United Kingdom and a number of other like-minded countries, paused their funding to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) on the weekend, amid allegations that at least 12 agency staff were linked to Hamas’ deadly October 7 attacks in southern Israel.
Senator Wong had announced an additional $6m to UNRWA during her visit to the Middle East last month.
The UN has pleaded for the countries to resume their funding, but the Australian government has maintained that the allegations need to be properly investigated before funds can be resumed.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday described the agency as “the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza”, and said countries had a responsibility to ensure the longevity of UNRWA’s “lifesaving work” – which Senator Wong agreed with.
Asked about the state of the funding on Thursday, the Foreign Minister said Australia had a long history of supporting the agency over more than six decades because it recognised the important role it played in delivering humanitarian aid.
She confirmed Australia was working with its like minded partners to “urgently” move towards a resolution.
“It is … the only organisation which delivers the assistance and substantive support within the international system. That is the reality,” she said.
“We have made clear they need to be thoroughly investigated and those responsible need to be held accountable.
“I think it is important that we remember why it is that previous governments have funded this organisation, but also the scale of the humanitarian crisis and the absence of any alternatives, if we are serious about trying to ensure that fewer children are faced with – that is what we are faced with.”
She said the reality of the situation in Gaza at the moment was that, according to the UN, “400,000 Palestinians in Gaza are actually starving, and a million more are at risk of starvation”.
“An estimated 1.7 million people in Gaza are internally displaced and there are increasingly few safe places for Palestinians to go,” she said.
The Coalition has hit out at Labor for not heeding advice about UNRWA’s supposed links to Hamas earlier, with foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham accusing the Albanese government of “ignoring warnings from the Australian Jewish community”.
“Rather than looking for absolutely fail-safe mechanisms to provide the humanitarian assistance that, of course, people in Gaza need and deserve for innocent civilians, and that should be provided through institutions and organisations where there is complete confidence that none of that funding will support Hamas terrorist operations or the promotion of extremist ideology,” Senator Birmingham said earlier this week.
UN officials have warned that UNRWA will be made to halt operations by the end of February if funding is not restored.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed UNRWA was “totally infiltrated” by Hamas and has called for its termination.
Palestinian officials have claimed Israel has falsified information.
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