Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has demanded assurances from the Palestinian Authority that Australian aid has not funded payments to “martyrs”.
The Palestinian Authority has been accused of paying stipends or “martyr payments” of up to $US3500 ($4600) a month to the families of those killed or jailed by Israeli authorities. A DFAT official said such payments were in conflict with Australian values and the minister had sent a letter to the authority this week.
“Obviously that is completely at odds with Australian values,” the official told a Senate estimates hearing under questioning from Liberal Eric Abetz.
“So on the 29th of May our Foreign Minister has written to her counterpart raising concerns about these payments that show up in the Palestinian Authority’s budget and seeking assurances that the Australian funding (does not) in any way enable or encourage acts of violence.”
The official said: “The Foreign Minister herself sought further explanation and assurance from the Palestinian Authority.”
This is not the first time aid to the territories has come under scrutiny in Australia. In 2016, DFAT suspended its funding to World Vision programs in Palestine after Israel alleged the charity’s Gaza head funnelled humanitarian funds to Hamas.
After reviewing management of its funding, the department said in April last year that it had “uncovered nothing to suggest any diversion of government funds”. Australia allocated $43.8 million in humanitarian assistance to the region in 2017-18 and cut it to $43m in 2018-19.
A DFAT official said about $10m of this aid went indirectly to the Palestinian Authority via the World Bank. It runs a Palestine Reform and Development Plan Trust Fund that aims to improve public financial management.
Defending the payments, the DFAT official said: “Even an Israeli regional co-operation minister said as recently as September 2017 that in order for them to move forward and finally resolve the longstanding conflict, it was important for the economy to be growing and to have effective governance.”
Another $20m of the $43m goes to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency to provide basic services to Palestinian refugees in the territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The rest goes to non-government organisations.
Senator Abetz said payments to the authority should be stopped.
“I find it unacceptable we are willing to provide funding in these circumstances,” he told the hearing.
In a statement, Senator Abetz later said: “The Palestinian Martyr Fund not only encourages murder and terror attacks, it is a major barrier to peace in the Middle East.
“The ‘please explain’ issued by the Foreign Minister is a strong and very welcome action that will hopefully apply pressure to the Palestinian Authority to end this murderous program.”
Earlier this year, the US passed the Taylor Force Act to stop funding to the Palestinian Authority until it ceases these payments. The act exempts funding to water and childhood vaccination programs.
David Leyonhjelm, a long-time critic of aid to the Palestinian Territories, said he believed Australia should halt all funding to the Palestinian Authority.
“I’m very much opposed to it,” Senator Leyonhjelm said.
He said he did not believe all Australian aid to the territories should be cut as “there are NGOs that do constructive work” in the region.
Australia has been a strong supporter of Israel on the international stage.
Only Australia and the US opposed a vote in the UN Human Rights Council to establish an investigation into the deaths of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli forces after violent protests in Gaza in mid-May. Greens leader Richard Di Natale questioned Australia’s stand in the Senate estimates hearing yesterday.
Ms Bishop said the Coalition believed the UNHRC resolution “prejudged” the outcome of any inquiry and ignored Hamas’s role.