Israel accuses Australia of forgetting ‘Hamas’s culpability’ for Gaza war as ministers consider UNRWA funding | Australian politics

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Israel has accused the Australian government of forgetting “Hamas’s culpability” for the war in Gaza, in a sign of growing tensions as ministers consider reinstating funding to a key UN agency.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, also fired a political warning shot against resuming the funding but Australian aid groups said the dire situation in Gaza would “rapidly escalate without UNRWA’s critical support”.

The aid groups implored the government to “be judicious and discriminate between allegations against a small number of individuals and the foreseeable impact of defunding UNRWA on millions of Palestinians reliant on their services, including children”.

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

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, who has frozen $6m in funds she pledged in mid-January, said the allegations made against UNRWA staff were “deeply concerning” and they needed to be “thoroughly investigated and those responsible need to be held to account”.

But the minister gave a strong hint on Thursday that the government was considering reinstating funding, depending on the progress of those investigations.

She 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”.

The Israeli ambassador to Australia, Amir Maimon, 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”.

“The UN and many of its member states, including Australia, voted for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza that would only help Hamas to reorganize – a resolution that again failed to condemn Hamas, and again failed to call for the release of all hostages,” Maimon wrote on X on Friday.

“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 did not directly name Wong, but the minister on Thursday noted estimates from the UN “that 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza are actually starving and a million are at risk of starvation”.

Wong also noted that “an estimated 1.7 million people in Gaza are internally displaced and there are increasingly few safe places for Palestinians to go”. She said thousands of UNRWA employees were “working on the humanitarian response in the most trying of conditions”.

The Australian government has repeatedly condemned Hamas for the killing of about 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October and the taking of hostages.

When voting with more than 150 countries in favour of a humanitarian ceasefire motion at the UN general assembly in December, the Australian government renewed calls for the release of hostages and for Hamas to surrender.

The government has said it supports Israel’s right to defend itself but that this must be in line with international law.

More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its military operations with the stated intent to “destroy” Hamas, according to estimates from the Gaza health ministry.

Dutton took aim at Wong on Friday, accusing her of ignoring earlier warnings from Jewish community leaders about the risk of funding to UNRWA being misused.

“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,” Dutton told reporters in Melbourne.

“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.”

Wong has not, at any stage, advocated sending money to a terrorist organisation.

A spokesperson for Wong said the foreign affairs minister had “acted entirely within the law” in responding to a “dire humanitarian situation” while Dutton was “focused on making false and exaggerated claims for a cheap political hit”.

Anthony Albanese said on Thursday that his government took “the allegations of breaches of UNRWA’s neutrality very seriously” and would “ensure that every dollar that Australia contributes … goes to helping people on the ground who really need it”.

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. UNRWA schools have previously been accused of using textbooks that include antisemitic content.

But aid groups wrote to Albanese and Wong on Friday warning that the “dire situation in Gaza will rapidly escalate without UNRWA’s critical support, with 2 million Palestinians facing starvation, imminent famine, and disease outbreak”.

The letter, coordinated by the Australian Council for International Development (Acfid), was signed by organisations including Oxfam Australia, Plan International Australia, ActionAid Australia and Caritas Australia.

The Acfid chief executive, Marc Purcell, said the Australian government should consider “the allegations against a small number of the agency’s 13,000 employees in the context of the catastrophic consequences of withholding life-saving aid to Palestinian civilians, including children”.

The letter also called on the Australian government to express public support for the International Court of Justice’s decision last week to order urgent provisional measures to limit harm to Palestinian civilians, in response to South Africa’s case against Israel under the Genocide Convention.