In open letters to the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Australian Muslim community organisations and those supporting Palestinian human rights have called  for the de-freezing of funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). 

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appealed to the countries, including Australia, that suspended funding to the UN agency assisting Palestine refugees (UNRWA) to reconsider their decisions, referring to the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalised. 

UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese has noted that defunding UNRWA at this critical time blatantly disregards the ICJ’s recent decision and directives and could have serious legal implications. It neglects the urgent need for humanitarian aid in Gaza. 

The suspension of funding to UNRWA will have catastrophic effects on over 5.9 million Palestinian refugees, particularly the 2 million in the Gaza Strip who rely on UNRWA’s assistance for survival. 

A number of Western countries including Australia suspended the funding to UNRWA late in January as a reaction to allegations made by Israel against a few UNRWA employees, without a thorough and independent investigation, that they took part on attacks on Israel on 7 October 2023.

UNRWA showing its commitment to transparency and humanitarian causes took prompt action addressing these allegations. In its statement on 27 January, UNRWA said, “It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation. The United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the highest investigative authority in the UN system, has already been seized of this very serious matter.”

The open letter dated Thursday 1 February, signed by Imam Shadi Alsuleiman on behalf of Alliance of Australian Muslims (AAM) and supported by almost 100 grass root Muslim organisations Australia-wide, stated, “The Australian Government’s suspension of UNRWA funding is a grave concern. It exacerbates the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza and can be perceived as collective punishment, contradicting the principles of humanitarian aid and justice. This is particularly alarming in light of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) recent ruling mandating immediate assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.”

“We strongly urge and demand the Australian Government to reconsider its decision and immediately reinstate UNRWA funding, fulfilling its moral and legal obligations to support those in dire need in Gaza and avoid further escalation of the Humanitarian crises in Gaza,” Sheikh Shadi said.

In a media release on Monday 29 January, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), representing Muslim organisation across Australia,  issued an urgent appeal to Senator Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs urging the immediate reconsideration of Australia’s decision to suspend humanitarian funding to Gaza.

“In alignment with the condemnation expressed by UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese, AFIC deems this decision as “catastrophic” and “utterly irresponsible & immoral.” Reacting with severity to allegations against 13 individuals within a workforce exceeding 13,000 is perplexing and demands immediate review, the media release stated.”

Highlighting a concerning double standard in international affairs, President of AFIC, Dr Rateb Jneid said, “The ICJ called for aid to be delivered to innocent Palestinian and the Australian Government responds to this by cutting aid.”

“AFIC asserts that Australia must take decisive measures to prevent genocide, advocate for the prosecution of breaches of international law, and impose sanctions against Israel if immediate compliance is not achieved. In line with this, AFIC recently called on the government to prohibit Australians from fighting for non-Australian forces,” the media release stated.

Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) is running an intensive national campaign for Australians to call on the government for Australia to “Freeze military support of Israel-Not UNRWA funding” demanding for the re-instatement of life-saving funding for Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

The campaign statement stated:

Take ACTION to demand the Australian Government reverses its decision to pause funding to the UNRWA, and instead supports a ceasefire, facilitates access to unfettered humanitarian aid for Gaza and cuts its military exports and cooperation with Israel.

A legally binding ruling from the International Court of Justice for Israel to act immediately to prevent genocide in Gaza comes with obligations for Australia too – namely that it do everything in its power to prevent the killing and collective punishment of Palestinians.

Australia’s decision to freeze its funding to UNRWA is an act of collective punishment of the millions of Palestinians who rely on the agency for their very survival. And it’s a violation of Australia’s obligations under the Genocide Convention. Australia must reverse this decision and continue to provide funding and humanitarian aid to UNRWA and Palestinians in Gaza.