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‘Shockingly amateurish’: Australian government delivers veiled rebuke to Israel over UN agency comments

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3 February 2024, The Guardian, by Daniel Hurst

An Australian government insider has accused the Israeli ambassador of making “shockingly amateurish and counterproductive” comments in a rift over the potential to reinstate funding to a key UN agency.

The Israeli ambassador to Australia, Amir Maimon, said on Friday that Australia had previously backed “a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza that would only help Hamas to reorganise” and now seemed to have forgotten “Hamas’s culpability” for the crisis in the territory.

But a senior government source hit back, telling Guardian Australia: “When the Australian government is using its voice to advocate for a pathway out of the conflict that serves the interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike, these comments are shockingly amateurish and counterproductive.”

The tensions have been sparked by debate over whether Australia might unfreeze $6m in funds it pledged in mid-January to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides services to Palestinian refugees.

More than 10 donor countries – including Australia, the US and the UK – suspended funding to UNRWA last weekend after allegations from Israel that as many as 12 of its staff were involved in the 7 October Hamas attacks.

Israel, 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.

These allegations include that its schools have used textbooks containing antisemitic content and that other employees are connected to or sympathetic to Hamas.

UNRWA says in addition to dismissing staff accused of involvement in 7 October, it has ordered several investigations, but the funding shortfall means it may not be able to sustain its operations beyond the end of February.

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said the allegations against UNRWA staff were “deeply concerning” and they needed to be “thoroughly investigated and those responsible need to be held to account”.

Wong has directed Australia’s humanitarian coordinator, Beth Delaney, to “lead urgent work coordinating with like-minded partners as well as UNRWA” to work out the next steps.

Wong said it was important to remember “the scale of the humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and “the absence of any alternatives if we are serious about trying to ensure that fewer children are starving”.

She noted estimates from the UN “that 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza are actually starving and a million are at risk of starvation” and that 1.7 million people in Gaza were internally displaced.

“There are increasingly few safe places for Palestinians to go,” Wong said on Thursday.

That promoted Maimon to hit back at the government publicly. He said 136 Israeli hostages, including infants, were still “held in Hamas dungeons without any trace of assistance from the UN or any of its agencies”.

“Now, listening to the most recent remarks by Australian officials, it seems that Hamas’s culpability has been forgotten – along with the fate of tens of thousands of displaced Israelis and the starvation of Israeli hostages in Gaza,” Maimon wrote on X on Friday.

These comments attracted the ire of the Australian government, which has repeatedly condemned Hamas and supported Israel’s right to self-defence while saying it must act in line with international law.

The general delegation of Palestine to Australia had earlier appealed directly to Wong to reinstate the funding, saying the suspension would have “dire implications” in the Gaza Strip “where over 2 million desperate, besieged, and starving people are dependent on UNRWA’s humanitarian work for their very survival”.

The Australian government also reiterated on Friday it opposed any reoccupation of Gaza, amid signals the US and the UK are considering earlier recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, insists Israel must retain security control over all areas west of the Jordan River, pushing back at growing international pressure for a pathway to a sovereign Palestinian state to secure lasting peace.

Ministers and parliamentarians in Netanyahu’s coalition government attended a conference last Sunday calling for Israeli resettlement of the Gaza Strip and “voluntary migration” of the Palestinian population elsewhere.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded by saying the Australian government had been “clear and consistent in opposing the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, the reoccupation of Gaza or any reduction of its territory”.

The New Israel Fund Australia, an organisation of progressive Jewish Australians and other supporters, said recognition of a Palestinian state would “help advance the prospects for peace, done as part of the current negotiations for a permanent ceasefire in exchange for Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners”.

The executive director, Michael Chaitow, said the fund supported “two states for two peoples” and welcomed the signals from the US and the UK that they were “willing to take action to make this a reality”.

Chaitow said Israeli settlement expansion and settler violence were barriers to peace.

“The Australian government should follow its American and European allies and place travel bans and sanctions on violent settlers who have caused significant harm in the occupied Palestinian territories,” he said.

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Article source: The Guardian | Daniel Hurst | Saturday 3 Feb 2024

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000