What’s in a claim?

The Australian government has reinstated funding to UNRWA in Gaza, but the claims that caused the funding freeze in the first place remain questionable

In November, when Israel attacked the Al Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza, it did so based on “concrete evidence” that the hospital was used as a Hamas command centre. Later, the Washington Post would find the “concrete evidence” presented by the Israeli government “[fell] short” of showing this. The Post reported that “at least 40 patients – including four premature babies – died in the days leading up to the raid and its aftermath”.

In January, when Israel murdered Hamza Dahdouh and Mustafa Thuraya in a targeted airstrike, it claimed that “using a drone in a war zone, it’s a problem. It looks like the terrorists”, and added that Hamas uses drones to collect intel on Israeli forces. The two men were Al Jazeera journalists using a drone to capture footage. 

In February, when more than 100 people were killed after Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinians seeking aid, Mark Regev, adviser to the Israeli PM, was quick to tell the BBC that, “there was gunfire, that was Palestinian armed groups. We don’t know if it was Hamas or others.” A subsequent Israeli military review said Israeli troops fired “warning shots” and were approached by “several looters”, which they responded to. Addressing the press, IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari made no mention that Hamas or other “armed Palestinian groups” had opened fire, as Regev had previously suggested.

This brings me to Israeli claims that at least 12 employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – the peak UN agency responsible for administering emergency food, shelter and healthcare to the Palestinian people in Gaza – were involved in the October 7 Hamas terror attacks. Israel made this claim in late January. UNRWA’s response was to fire the implicated staff members and launch an investigation via the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).

But the claim had a far greater ripple effect.

Within days, the Australian government, along with several other countries and international partners, suspended funding to the agency. The New York Times reported that UNRWA, which employs around 13,000 people in Gaza, stood to lose US$65 million in February alone, leaving it on the brink of financial collapse.

In addition to claiming that UNRWA staff members took part in the October 7 attack, Israel also claimed that more than 11 per cent of UNRWA staff were “active members” of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that Hamas uses UNRWA facilities for terrorism. These allegations are unequivocally horrifying – but are they true? In short, the evidence Israel has presented thus far to support these claims is thin.

Less than a fortnight after she made the decision to suspend $6 million in funding to UNRWA, Foreign Minister Penny Wong admitted she didn’t have all the evidence but said that “the allegations are serious and they can’t simply be ignored”.

Two days later, UNRWA’s commissioner-general admitted that he sacked the staff members without evidence because he felt “the ability of the entire agency to continue to operate and deliver critical humanitarian assistance was at stake if I did not take such a decision”.

By early March, as the preliminary OIOS report was released, The Guardian reported that diplomats who had seen it said it contained “no new evidence from Israel since the initial presentation of the claims in January”, and the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, confirmed that the investigation had yet to receive corroborating material from Israel.

On Friday, after weeks of pressure from humanitarian organisations, Wong (following Sweden, Canada and the European Commission) reversed her decision. She announced that the $6 million in UNRWA funding would be restored, and pledged an additional $4 million to UNICEF.

But what damage has already been done? Time will tell how many Palestinian deaths might have been prevented had UNRWA operations not been hampered, particularly given this incredibly sorry episode comes as nearly 2 million displaced Gazans face what the World Health Organization on Monday called an imminent and catastrophic famine. And what of the damage to UNRWA’s reputation? Wong told reporters on Friday, “the best available current advice from agencies and Australian government lawyers is that UNRWA is not a terrorist organisation”. Hardly a resounding endorsement. What does this mean for the future provision of aid as the weeks and months of this horror show roll on? It is crucial that aid organisations are supported, not impeded, in this desperate time.

I don’t know if there will be justice for the innocent Palestinians killed in the Israeli attack on the Al Shifa hospital in November. I don’t know if there will be justice for the killing of journalists Hamza Dahdouh and Mustafa Thuraya in January. I don’t know if there will be justice for the scores killed while trying to feed their families in February. But I do know that in all three of these instances at least some of the claims that justified or supported Israeli aggression were found to be lacking.

In this case, our leaders made a decision based on as yet unsubstantiated claims by Israel and it was, as always, innocent Palestinians who paid the price.

“This bill provides the government the opportunity to show it has listened and is interested in reforms that build trust, not changes that embed the two-party system.”

Teal MP Kate Chaney says Labor doesn’t need the Coalition to implement electoral reforms, as independents put forward their own bill. The crossbench fears a major-party deal will create barriers for new entrants, while continuing practices like cash-for-access dinners.

“Our plan, to start with, would be to sack the minister, to make sure that you’ve got a minister in place who would take the legal briefings that his department is offering…”

Shadow immigration minister Dan Tehan is unable to say what he would do differently in tackling High Court challenges to indefinite detention, other than “attend briefings”. Immigration Minister Andrew Giles, who has obviously been briefed, says Tehan is refusing to be, preferring “fear to fact”.

Up to 7.1%

The amount by which power prices are expected to fall in the coming year, according to the energy regulator, in part due to increasing renewables. It comes as the biggest private electricity generators dismiss nuclear as a viable option, saying it would cause bills to triple.

Greens push for powers to break up supermarket duopoly

The Greens are introducing a bill that would give the competition regulator power to force Coles and Woolworths to sell parts of their business if found to be misusing their market dominance. The Nationals have voiced support for such powers, but Labor has continued to dismiss the idea, with Energy Minister Chris Bowen saying it is not something the government is contemplating.

Subscribe now to the newsletter, delivered to your inbox each day at 4pm