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Opinion piece for the Guardian on Gaza and aid funding

Australia’s response to the devastating violence in Gaza has been deeply distressing for many in our community from all walks of life. As a country, we need to be able to call out the appalling attacks by Hamas on October 7th, push for the release of hostages and also condemn the horrific loss of life in Gaza. And we must play our part in providing aid & assistance.

The conflict in Gaza is a test for Australia diplomatically, a test for our leaders’ ability to prioritise social cohesion and ultimately a test of our moral fibre - are we willing to be our own country, condemn the appalling loss of life in Gaza and step up our efforts to provide support?

We must do better as a country. Of all the tens of thousands of emails I have received in the less than two years since entering parliament, this is the single issue I have received the most correspondence about from people in the ACT.

Australians know we cannot end the conflict, but they expect our government to show leadership and stand up for what is right. Historically, Australia has been a respected middle power, providing support and speaking up in the international community to take action on issues we care deeply about. 

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Australian Government stepped in, helping to organise evacuations, working with airlines to get people out and offering temporary humanitarian stay visas.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, our government provided 11,500 temporary humanitarian visas and some $960 million in support, including $780 million in assistance for Ukraine's Armed Forces.

We need to see the same level of commitment towards the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Reports overnight of Palestinians fleeing the conflict zone having their tourist visas cancelled are deeply concerning. We know it has been a huge challenge getting people out. I urge the Australian Government to do more by offering temporary humanitarian stay visas and providing consular support to extended family members of Australian visa holders.

Crucially though, we should play a bigger role in the international effort to see more aid get into Gaza. Half a million people are on the brink of famine. The World Health Organisation says they have never seen a population made to go so hungry so quickly. The situation is deteriorating with 1 in 5 pregnant women in Gaza malnourished and 1 in 6 infants severely malnourished or wasting.

The Australian Government has committed $46.5m in aid, with $6m of that withheld over the past month and a bit, while some serious allegations against 12 of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees’ (UNRWA) 13,000 staff were investigated.

The allegations against UNRWA workers made by Israel were extremely serious and merited robust investigation. The key tenet for humanitarian organisations around the world is to maintain neutrality and to provide life-saving support to those in most need without taking sides. 

The idea that humanitarian workers may have been involved in the 7 October Hamas attacks against Israeli citizens is abhorrent, and it horrified all of us as well as the whole international aid community. 

The response was swift. The UN sent in its most senior investigative team to look at the allegations, UNRWA immediately sacked every one of the workers against whom allegations were made before even investigating, and the UN Secretary General commissioned an Independent Review Group. 

When the investigative team arrived in Gaza, they got no response to their requests to the Israeli government when they asked for more information to conduct their investigation. 

When my office attended a briefing with Thomas White, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Gaza, he said he was concerned that because of a lack of information, there would be no further outcome from the investigations taking place there. They’ve already sacked the workers, and the organisation is unsure what more it can do to address the allegations. 

Aid agencies are unanimous in saying that they cannot deliver aid on the scale that Gaza needs without UNRWA, which is the backbone of the humanitarian response in the region. While continuing to press for the release of hostages, a ceasefire, and a path to peace, Australian aid must be urgently reinstated to UNRWA. We have seen Canada and Sweden do so and also significantly ramp up their humanitarian support. Australia needs to follow their lead. 

The conflict in Gaza highlights some of the glaring inconsistencies when it comes to our diplomacy and international engagement. The difference in our response to Ukraine and the support we provided. The almost total lack of focus on other conflicts and humanitarian disasters - from the war in Sudan to famine affecting millions of people in the greater Horn of Africa. We should be thinking about how we grapple with and respond to these crises. What is our place in the world? What role do we want to play? What’s clear to me is that as a middle power and a respected international voice, we have an opportunity for Australia to lead and we must do more. That needs to start with reinstating support to UNRWA and Gazans. 


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