28 November 2016

Time to scrutinise foreign aid

From The Australian, 29 Nov 2016:

If the Israelis are right, the Australian taxpayer has been one of the biggest (unwitting) funders of the terror group Hamas in Gaza. The claim is that money given to World Vision for farms and other economic projects has been diverted to build a military base, tunnels and weapons for Hamas. The head of World Vision Gaza, Mohammad El Halabi, stands accused of funnelling $US43 million ($57.4m) to Hamas since infiltrating the charity in 2010. These are serious allegations. Australia gives aid money to the Palestinian Authority to encourage the economic development without which a two-state solution cannot be viable. It is a destructive fraud if those funds are used to bankroll terror.

There is much at stake. Through AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian government has been the world’s single biggest donor to World Vision in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, as we reported yesterday.

Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision in August when charges were brought against Mr Halabi, stressed the agency’s work in Gaza was subject to “regular internal and independent audits”. This week, a spokeswoman for World Vision said it had “yet to see any substantive evidence to support the charges made by the Israeli authorities”. There is no suggestion that the World Vision hierarchy was aware of the alleged fraud. Even so, it was the correct step to suspend World Vision’s operations in Gaza and to put a freeze on funding from DFAT. The Israelis can answer for the integrity of their justice system but Australia must ensure that the DFAT review of Gaza funding is thorough and its results open to public scrutiny. The Australian allegations have a larger context. In June this year, a former British cabinet minister, Eric Pickles, complained that British financial assistance to the PA was being used to free up money to pay prisoners convicted of violent crime in the conflict with Israel. Last month, Britain suspended millions of pounds in financial aid to the PA pending an investigation into claims that money was ending up in the hands of terrorists.

The PA has received an estimated $US25 billion in financial aid from the US and other countries during the past two decades, according to Khaled Abu Toameh, a journalist writing for the Gatestone Institute. He argues that the failure of the US and Europe to hold Yasser Arafat accountable for this money encouraged the corruption that pushed Palestinians into the arms of Hamas. “Unless Western donors bang on the table and demand that the Palestinian Authority use their money to bring democracy to its people and prepare them for peace, the prospects of reviving any peace process in the Middle East will remain zero,” Abu Toameh says.

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely cites a 2015 report to the effect that per capita the PA receives the highest amount of foreign aid in the world. She says the PA budget for giving monthly stipends to terrorists and their families is roughly $US75m, representing 16 per cent of the annual foreign aid received. Rather than dedicate financial assistance to peaceful economic development, the PA prefers to spend it on terrorists, cross-border tunnels, and missiles to fire on Israel.

All this suggests that Australia should seize the opportunity provided by the World Vision affair to revisit the rationale of our payments to the PA, and be prepared to stop them altogether if the Palestinians cannot satisfy the most stringent conditions.