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Wong, Dutton spar over cut in aid to Gaza

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3 February 2024, The Age, by Matthew Knott

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has hit back at Opposition Leader Peter Dutton for insisting she be sacked if the federal government resumes funding for the United Nations’ key humanitarian agency in the Palestinian territories.

The stoush between Dutton and Wong came as Israel’s ambassador to Australia accused the government of appearing to forget Hamas’ responsibility for the October 7 attack in the latest sign of tense relations between Israel and Australia.

Wong on Thursday suggested the government could soon restart funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is investigating claims that 12 of its employees were involved in last year’s attack, and that many more were affiliated with the terror group.

Yesterday, Dutton told reporters: ‘‘Now, if the foreign minister is directing Australian taxpayers’ money to an organisation known to be a front or affiliated or associated with a terrorist organisation, her job is completely untenable.

‘‘And again, if the prime minister had the strength of leadership he would stand up and say that Australian taxpayer money is not going to a terrorist organisation.

‘‘If Penny Wong is now advocating, knowing that this money is going to an organisation not fit for purpose, if that is her argument, then the prime minister should sack her.’’

A spokeswoman for Wong said she had acted entirely within the law, and that the government had received legal advice on the issue.

‘‘Our focus is the dire humanitarian situation and what Australia can do to help – Mr Dutton is focused on making false and exaggerated claims for a cheap political hit,’’ the spokeswoman said.

Wong spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the importance of humanitarian assistance reaching civilians in Gaza in a phone call yesterday. ‘‘The leaders also stressed the need to protect civilian lives in Gaza and called for Hamas to immediately release all hostages,’’ a statement by the US State Department said.

The government announced that it would pause $6million in UNRWA funding while the claims of involvement in the October 7 attacks were investigated, but said it was working with like-minded nations to find a way to resume payments to the agency to prevent Gaza’s humanitarian crisis worsening.

‘‘I think it is important that we remember why it is, that previous governments have funded this organisation, but also the scale of the humanitarian crisis and the absence of any alternatives. If we are serious about trying to ensure that fewer children are starving, that is what we are faced with,’’ Wong said on Thursday.

In a series of social media posts, Israeli ambassador Amir Maimon said: ‘‘The UN and many of its member states, including Australia, voted for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza that would only help Hamas to reorganise – a resolution that again failed to condemn Hamas, and again failed to call for the release of all hostages.’’

While not condemning Hamas, the December resolution supported by Australia backed the immediate release of all hostages.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week described UNRWA as the ‘‘backbone of all humanitarian response to Gaza’’ and urged governments to continue funding its work.

The top Palestinian representative in Australia, Izzat Salah Abdulhadi, this week blasted the government’s decision to suspend UNRWA funding as one of its worst decisions, and said it amounted to collective punishment against the Palestinian people.

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Article source: The Age/Matthew Knott/3.2.2024

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000