Albanese government tells UNRWA it must be sure Gaza aid funding will go ‘to those who need it’

<span>Penny Wong, who was not present at the meeting, has conceded during Senate estimates hearings that she is yet to see detailed evidence underpinning allegations of UNRWA involvement in the 7 October Hamas attacks.</span><span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Penny Wong, who was not present at the meeting, has conceded during Senate estimates hearings that she is yet to see detailed evidence underpinning allegations of UNRWA involvement in the 7 October Hamas attacks.Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Albanese government has told the UN Relief and Works Agency that Australia needs confidence that aid will go to those who need it in Gaza, as calls grow to reinstate at least $6m in funding to the organisation.

Guardian Australia has learned that staffers from the office of the foreign minister, Penny Wong, met on Tuesday with Tom White, the director of UNRWA affairs in Gaza, to discuss the “acute humanitarian situation” in the besieged territory.

Related: From a ‘pause’ to a humanitarian ceasefire: emails reveal why Australia shifted its position on Gaza

The meeting included an update on the progress of the investigation into allegations raised by Israel that as many as 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October Hamas-led attacks.

Australia joined more than a dozen countries, including the US and the UK, in suspending funding to UNRWA last month after the allegations were made public.

Australia had already delivered $20m in core funding for UNRWA for the 2023-24 financial year, but $6m in additional funding to UNRWA announced in mid-January was “paused temporarily”.

But Wong conceded during recent Senate estimates hearings that she was yet to see detailed evidence underpinning the allegations.

Sources said Wong’s staff used the meeting with White on Tuesday to reiterate the minister’s message that UNRWA “does vital work”.

They also indicated that Australia “needs to have confidence that assistance is getting to those who need it”. Wong was unavailable for the meeting as she is on leave to care for a sick family member.

Anthony Albanese refused to give a timeframe for reinstating the funds when challenged in question time on Wednesday, saying only that Australia had acted in concert with like-minded partners such as Canada.

The independent MP for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, said crossbench members had also met with UNRWA representatives on Tuesday and were told that the agency’s entire humanitarian operation in Gaza was at risk of collapsing by the end of March.

In response, the prime minister said his government had doubled Australia’s core annual funding to UNRWA and was “greatly concerned” about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which was why he had called for a ceasefire.

Nearly 30,000 people – including thousands of women and children – have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched a military response to the 7 October Hamas attacks, according to figures compiled by Palestinian health officials.

About 1,200 people were killed in southern Israel and about 250 others were taken hostage during the Hamas-led attacks, according to figures compiled by Israeli officials.

Israel says its goal is to “destroy” Hamas and rescue the hostages, but it is facing mounting international condemnation of plans for a ground offensive in the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million civilians are sheltering.

Last month, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” and to “take all measures within its power to prevent” genocidal acts.

In its latest situation report, UNRWA said: “February saw very little aid coming in, with on average nearly 98 trucks entering per day, a 50% reduction in supplies entering Gaza compared to January 2024.”

It said UNRWA trucks had struggled to enter the Gaza Strip due to security constraints and temporary closures at crossings, while the organisation had also “at times had to temporarily stop discharging supplies due to security concerns”.

Up to 1.7 million people, or about 75% of the population, have been internally displaced across the Gaza Strip, some of them having fled multiple times.

Related: Australian working in Rafah hospital says all staff are struggling: ‘We have victims caring for victims’

Israel, 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. Palestinian officials and aid groups argue the suspension of aid to UNRWA amounts to collective punishment.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’s coordination division director, Ramesh Rajasingham, told the UN security council on Tuesday that widespread famine was “almost inevitable” if there was no ceasefire deal.

At least 576,000 people in Gaza were “one step away from famine”, while one in six children aged under two in northern Gaza were “suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting”.

In the Senate on Tuesday, the Greens failed in an attempt to suspend normal business in order to demand the Australian government reinstate funding to UNRWA.

The Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi said the UNRWA funding issue was urgent “because there are people in Palestine who are suffering [and] fighting for their survival”.

But the shadow assistant foreign minister, Claire Chandler, said the Coalition opposed the “entirely one-sided, misleading and inflammatory motion” while Anthony Chisholm, a government assistant minister, described it as a “stunt”.

The Labor backbencher Julian Hill told the parliament’s federation chamber: “If the rightwing Israeli government wants to salvage the shreds that are left of its international reputation with much of the world, it should let enough food in [to Gaza] now.”