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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Daniel Hurst and Paul Karp

Labor MPs play down impact of Australia’s pause in funding for UNRWA in Gaza

Palestinians gather to receive flour bags distributed by UNRWA in Rafah in southern Gaza
Palestinians gather to receive flour bags distributed by UNRWA in Rafah in southern Gaza. Australia has frozen an additional $6m in aid to UNRWA after allegations that a number of staff were involved in the 7 October attacks on Israel. Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Labor backbenchers have privately played down the impact of Australia’s pause in funding to a key UN agency delivering aid to Gaza, with one MP denouncing “misinformation underpinning some online media and email campaigns”.

An email from Lisa Chesters, the federal MP for Bendigo, gives an insight into how Labor members are responding to concerns from constituents about the effect of the freeze on $6m in recently announced funding to UNRWA.

Australia, the US and the UK were among more than 10 donors to suspend funding to the agency after the Israeli government alleged that as many as 12 staff members were involved in the 7 October attacks on Israel.

“You may be concerned about Australia’s recent decision regarding funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA),” Chesters wrote to a constituent.

“UNRWA does vital, lifesaving work, and is the only United Nations body with a mandate to provide relief and social services to Palestinian refugees in the region.”

The email said it was the Labor government “that doubled regular funding for UNRWA after coming into government, after it was slashed by the Liberal-National Party”.

“Please be assured that despite the misinformation underpinning some online media and email campaigns, Australia’s funding for the current financial year has already been disbursed to UNRWA,” Chesters wrote.

That is a reference to the $20m in core funding that Australia had committed to UNRWA for the 2023-24 financial year. Government sources confirmed early last week that this core funding had already been distributed some time ago – and this was publicly reported.

The government had only ever said it would “temporarily pause disbursement of recently announced funding”, meaning the $6m it had announced as an emergency top-up in mid-January.

Chesters’ email is not specific in describing which campaigns she was describing as containing misinformation, but one petition circulating online hits out at “Australia’s announcement that it will be suspending all aid to UNRWA”.

Chesters added: “Our recent announcement committing to providing over $25m additional funds to refugee programs such as those run by Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are not affected by this pause.”

Guardian Australia is aware of a second Labor MP who has highlighted the pre-existing disbursement of the $20m in core annual funding in discussions about the UNRWA pause.

UNRWA has appealed for the urgent reinstatement of funding, arguing its operations may be forced to shut down by the end of February if funding remained suspended.

The Australian government has refused to spell out when it might reinstate funding, although one investigation led by a former French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, is due to publish an interim report in late March.

That review will focus on how to protect the organisation’s neutrality, its recruitment of staff and its response to allegations of misconduct.

The foreign minister, Penny Wong, on Tuesday responded to questions in the Senate about UNRWA by accusing both the Coalition and the Greens of “dividing the Australian community and weaponising this horrific conflict”.

The Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, who led the questioning, described the decision to suspend funding as “catastrophic”.

“How appalling – suspending funding to the largest humanitarian agency for Palestinians while they are being killed, starved and displaced by the occupation,” Faruqi told the Senate.

“But there has been not so much as a slap on the wrist for Israel.”

Wong said UNRWA did “life-saving work” but she also said “the recent allegations against its staff are grave and need to be investigated”.

“Those facts are both true,” Wong said.

Wong said Australia had suspended funding “along with many of our like-minded partners”.

She portrayed the Australian government’s position as aiming to “advocate for the release of hostages, for the protection of civilian lives, for humanitarian access and for a pathway out of this conflict” but that the Greens and Coalition “would rather try to use this to pick off votes”.

“I’d remind the Greens we still have 130 hostages being held by Hamas. I remind those opposite [the Coalition] that there are 1.7 million people in Gaza who are internally displaced,” Wong told the Senate.

Faruqi, standing to ask a supplementary question, replied: “Minister, I did not need a lesson in gaslighting.”

The Israeli government, which has long been critical of UNRWA, has argued the agency’s problems go deeper than the allegations surrounding 7 October involvement, and it should have no future role in Gaza.

Aid agencies and Palestinian diplomats have appealed for the funding to be reinstated, citing the extreme humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza as Israel continues its military operation in the besieged territory.

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