Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong admitted that she did not have all the facts before choosing to pause emergency funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and has asked Israel for more evidence behind its now weakened allegations against several UNRWA members.
This has further underscored the indefensibility of the Australian government’s decision, alongside the US and several other countries, to late last month suspend emergency funding to UNRWA following Israel’s unverified allegations that 12 of its staff members participated in the attacks led by Hamas on October 7.
While the $20 million in core funding that Australia contributed to UNRWA for 2023-24 has already been disbursed, the freeze applies to the $6 million top-up emergency funding — announced last month in recognition of the fact that the scale of destruction and suffering in Gaza necessitates an urgent increase in humanitarian assistance.
On Monday, February 5, British broadcaster Channel 4 reported that it had reviewed a six-page intelligence dossier on which the allegations were based, and concluded that it contained “no evidence” to support them. Outlets such as CBS News have made similar findings, and Sky News stated that the document made “several claims that Sky News has not seen proof of and many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA”.
But even before the Channel 4 report, Australia’s decision to pause funding was unwarranted, taken as it was even though UNRWA had immediately moved to terminate the contracts of the accused employees and launch an investigation.
It was also clear from the start that the allegations only concerned the actions of a few individuals (i.e. 0.04% of UNRWA’s more than 30,000 total employees), and that even if proven was not a systemic issue. This point was emphasised by Norway, which has not suspended funding, in its assertion: “We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done, and what UNRWA stands for.”
Over the weekend, Israel also claimed that a Hamas tunnel ran below the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza. As reported by Reuters, the Israeli army invited journalists to visit the tunnel but did not provide definitive proof that Hamas fighters operated at the location. UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini denied the agency had any knowledge of any tunnel system, saying it “did not know what is under its headquarters in Gaza”.
Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, has said that famine in Gaza has now been made “inevitable” and “imminent”. Should Australia wait for the outcome of UNRWA’s investigation before restoring its funds, it may be too late.
In her statement announcing the pause, Wong morally indicted herself by admitting that UNRWA does “vital, life-saving work” and, on Thursday, that no other organisation is capable of stepping in to provide the same level of humanitarian assistance. There is no more critical a time for such assistance, with Israel’s war now having killed more than 28,000, wounded at least 67,000, buried 7,000 under rubble, destroyed 70% of housing, and displaced 90% of the population to unsafe areas.
Moreover, given that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has determined that it’s plausible that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, UN special rapporteur Francesca Albanese warned that Australia is likely violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention.
The timing of Israel’s allegations was significant, coming on the same day as the ICJ’s ruling on provisional measures in South Africa’s case against Israel — prompting speculation that they were intended to distract from the court’s historic decision. It’s also notable that when reading out the court’s decision, then ICJ president Judge Joan E Donoghue quoted three statements made by UNRWA chief Lazzarini.
Israel’s use of these allegations to fuel its campaign to discredit and defund UNRWA fits into a longstanding pattern of Israeli attacks on the organisation. As Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz wrote on X, “We have been warning for years: UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza.”
The claim that UNRWA “perpetuates the refugee issue” is revealing. UNRWA was established in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees — i.e. those displaced by Israel, and their descendants — who today number close to 6 million. Destroying UNRWA would do nothing to change the status of these refugees, who would still retain their inalienable right of return and compensation. Nonetheless, UNRWA’s continued existence serves to highlight the protracted status of Palestinian refugees and their right of return by upholding its mandate to assist them until “a just and durable solution to their plight” is achieved.
It’s also obvious from the statements of officials that Israel hopes to use the allegations not only to destroy the credibility of UNRWA but the UN as a whole, which has been highly critical of Israel’s conduct in its war on Gaza. Israel has lashed out at such criticism, repeatedly calling for UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ resignation and calling him a “danger to world peace”.
In addition to its political and rhetorical offensives, Israel’s attacks on the UN have also been lethal. In this latest war, Israel has killed 152 UNWRA staff members to date — the highest number in any conflict. Their killings can’t but be viewed in relation to these statements.
Far from helping to present a balanced stance on the war, which the government has reportedly been trying to achieve, Australia’s suspension of funds constitutes a reckless act with devastating consequences.
In a single stroke, the Albanese government has not only helped to deliver what will be a death sentence for many in Gaza; it has also demonstrated a disregard for the UN and the rules-based international order, potentially criminally implicating the nation in the process.