Australia backs report on Palestine aid agency UNRWA

Catherine Colonna headed a review into an aid agency that has been welcomed by Penny Wong.

Catherine Colonna headed a review into an aid agency that has been welcomed by Penny Wong. Photo: AAP

Australia has welcomed an independent report Israel failed to provide evidence members of a United Nations agency that provides humanitarian relief to Palestinians were linked to Hamas.

Former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna headed the independent review after Tel Aviv accused workers from the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) of participating in Hamas’ attack against Israel.

The accusations led donor nations, including Australia, to freeze funding while investigations took place.

Australia has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Canberra has since reinstated funding after Foreign Minister Penny Wong said she was confident UNRWA “is not a terrorist organisation”.

The review found while UNRWA shared staff lists annually with the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, Tel Aviv had not raised any concerns about the organisation based on those lists since 2011.

Israel made public claims in March 2024 a “significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organisations”.

“However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this,” the review said.

The review recommended strengthening safeguards to ensure the impartiality of employees as “neutrality-related issues persist”.

It found immediate improvement was needed in areas including donor engagement and neutrality in staff and education.

The report does not draw conclusions about the allegations, which are being separately investigated by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services.

Senator Wong acknowledged UNRWA’s lifesaving work and said the government was working with the agency to ensure its integrity and neutrality.

“We will work with our partners and the UN to ensure that recommendations from these inquiries are implemented by UNRWA,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

“We also urge Israel to recognise UNRWA’s mandate and work transparently to support its integrity.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Oren Marmostein said the Colonna review “ignores the severity of the problem, and offers cosmetic solutions that do not deal with the enormous scope of Hamas’ infiltration of UNRWA”.

Israel wants UNRWA disbanded and for aid to be given to other organisations in Gaza.

Australia and other nations have expressed concern that UNRWA was the only agency capable of delivering aid at the scale needed in the besieged enclave.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has called on the Australian government to deliver an additional $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza and the West Bank as the death toll continued to climb.

Independent senator David Pocock echoed the call, saying while Australia wasn’t a huge player in the region, it could use its diplomatic clout as a middle power to help push for peace and the distribution of further humanitarian aid.

“As a country, you can absolutely condemn what happened on October 7, you can call for the release of all hostages and at the same time we can call out what we’re seeing,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“Tens of thousands of people killed, children being maimed, aid and food being hindered from getting in.”

Australia has called for Israel to act per international humanitarian law and for more aid to flow into Gaza.

On October 7, Hamas launched an attack on Israel that killed 1200 people and led another 200 to be taken hostage, according to Tel Aviv’s tally.

Israel later launched a ground offensive and bombing campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 33,000 people and displaced another 1.7 million, according to the local health ministry.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham has criticised the timing of the union’s statement on the eve of Jewish Passover, calling it “completely tone deaf”.

“It is a completely one-sided statement that shows no consideration for the role that terrorists have played in relation to the conflict happening in the Middle East,” he said.

The statement urged the release of hostages, expressed concern at civilian deaths on both sides of the Gaza Strip and called for a permanent ceasefire.

-with Reuters

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