Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

E&OE

3 March 2009

Interview - Afternoons on ABC News Radio

Subjects: Donations to Gaza, Afghanistan

COMPERE: Well, Egypt says that international donors attending a conference in Sharm El Sheikh have pledged the equivalent of $7 billion for the Palestinians, mainly to rebuild Gaza after Israel's recent offensive.

The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayad, has thanked the donors, but said that reconstruction in Gaza would be impossible without the lifting of the Israeli-led blockade.

The US, well they've pledged $900 million US - that's almost $1.5 billion AUD. And for it's part, Australia has kicked in $20 million. It comes as the Federal Government's announced a further $5 million in funding for Afghanistan to aid mine clearance efforts there.

Well, to discuss these issues, we're joined now by the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. Hello Minister.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good afternoon.

COMPERE: Mr Smith, $7 billion for Gaza. Is that more than expected?

SMITH: Well the original donors conference estimate was somewhere in the range of $4 billion to $5 billion US.

So it's oversubscribed in that respect, and we welcome that very much. There's been a very significant contribution from the United States - one of the four so-called quartet members - but we've also seen very significant contributions from the other quartet members. The EU, for example. But also very significant contributions from the Middle East and the Gulf and Australia, as you mentioned, of course, playing its part.

We've made a contribution which is significant in Australian terms.

COMPERE: Yeah, it's all very well for the international community to pledge the money, but there are aid groups complaining that the Israeli blockades are preventing aid from a... you know, anything from food to cement from getting through into Gaza. Is Australia pressuring Israel to ease or maybe to lift those blockades?

SMITH: Well we continue to make the point that we want the Security Council, the unanimous Security Council Resolution 1860 implemented in full, which involves not just the opening up of access to Gaza for aid and humanitarian other purposes, but also prevents the supply and the smuggling of arms.

So we urge that. But it's effectively a two-way street, literally.

But the pledges that Australia has made - and to put Australia's pledge into its historical context - this now makes $75 million that Australia has pledged for Gaza and the Palestinian territories since the end of 2007. So it's a substantial increase in what we've done historically. But our pledge, as with the other international pledges at the conference in Egypt in Sharm El Sheikh, essentially made through The World Bank's trust, but also through United Nations agencies in particular - UNRWA, which is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency - and then through international or national NGOs. But the vast bulk of the contributions go through The World Bank trust and UNRWA, and a lot of that is aimed at the capacity building for the Palestinian territories as well as the reconstruction which of course is no very significant task and burden and challenge for the future.

COMPERE: And how confident are you that Hamas won't be getting a cent of that money?

SMITH: Well we're confident, as we have in the past, we have made, our contributions through either The World Bank trust fund or through UNRWA itself. So we monitor very diligently the contributions that we make. Australia has historically done that.

We don't make contributions to Hamas. We make them through The World Bank, UN agencies, or international or Australian NGOs who operate in the Middle East, and in Gaza.

COMPERE: And how soon before the Gaza residents - including the many thousands who have been left homeless after Israel's offensive - will start seeing the benefit of that money coming through?

SMITH: Well we hope as soon as possible. The intention for our contribution is to look immediately to the long-term reconstruction, and to provide on a long-term basis, reconstruction of housing, of water, and energy. There's been a substantial, as you would expect, deterioration of water and sanitation services, an appalling lack of shelter, and also just a provision of energy.

So our contribution, as is a substantial part of the international contribution, aimed at trying to restore that long-term vital infrastructure shelter, water, and power. But it's, as people would have seen from the images that were so distressing when the conflict was at its peak in January, you know, there is a very substantial reconstruction program to be done. But one of the reasons Australia pledged and one of the themes resonating from the conference itself has been Australia and the international community seeing this long-term contribution as assisting, and underscoring, the need for the peace process and the need for an enhanced application to the peace process, and the need for a two nation-state solution as the only viable way of trying to get an enduring, sustainable peace in the Middle East.

COMPERE: If I could shift your focus to Afghanistan for a moment. Another $5 million for mine clearing - how big a problem is it there?

SMITH: This is a substantial, long-term problem, and the $5 million that I've announced today is in response to the United Nations request. The United Nations has had a mine clearing effort in Afghanistan for 20 years. That of course makes the historical point that a lot of the mine clearance problems we find in Afghanistan are as a result of the Russian invasion and the Russian conflict.

Australia's got a proud record over a long period of time being a contributor to mine clearance, and over the last half dozen years, we've committed about $75 million not just to Afghanistan but to other countries very badly afflicted - for example, Cambodia. But over the last 12 months or so, in - from the end of 2007 this $5 million contribution makes effectively a $17 million contribution to mine clearance in Afghanistan.

But the solution, as is the case with so many issues in Afghanistan, the mine clearance solution in Afghanistan is going to

take decades, not years. So it's a substantial long-term program.

But it's one of the things that we do which reflects the fact that the current difficulties in Afghanistan won't be solved by military action alone, it will require a combination of military enforcement action, but also humanitarian and development assistance, and we see this very much as being part of that.

COMPERE: Stephen Smith, thanks for your time today.

SMITH: Thanks very much. Thank you.

COMPERE: And Stephen Smith, the Foreign Minister, here on ABC NewsRadio.

[Ends]

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