NZ must reconsider unconditional support of UNRWA

January 14, 2018 by IINZ
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Over the past nine years, New Zealand has contributed $10.4m to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) but has never once publicly condemned their egregious inefficiency, history of staff inciting and supporting terror, use of schools and other buildings as militant bases, or allegations of corruption.


UNRWA was established in 1949 to deal exclusively with those Arabs displaced as a result of Israel’s defensive 1948 War of Independence. The agency was given mandate through a United Nations General Assembly Resolution to carry out ”the direct relief and works programmes as recommended by the Economic Survey Mission”. Those recommendations included the establishment of “a programme of useful public works for the employment of able-bodied refugees as a first measure towards their rehabilitation; and that, meanwhile, relief, restricted to those in need, be continued throughout the coming year.”

Almost 70 years on, the UN agency is still devoted only to “persons whose normal place of residence was [British Mandate] Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict” and all of their descendants. Many of these people now reside in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and in the West Bank.

When UNRWA began operations in 1950, it served approximately 750,000 refugees. There was no such agency set up for the 820,000 Jewish refugees forced from Arab lands at the same time – other countries, primarily Israel, resettled those refugees. In the meantime, another UN agency provides for all other refugees in the world – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

UNRWA is inefficient

Compared with the UNHCR, UNRWA is highly inefficient. From 750,000 refugees and an annual budget “not exceeding $5m”, UNRWA now serves approximately 5m registered refugees with an annual budget of $1.3b. However, UNRWA may be artificially inflating their estimates of refugee numbers.

For approximately $260 per person per year (as a minimum, if we believe the UNRWA estimates), UNRWA provides healthcare, shelter, education, social services, and gives microloans. The UNHCR provides similar services for approximately $85 per person per year. Thus, UNRWA serves approximately 5.5% of the refugee population with approximately 15% of the UN budget for refugees.

Corruption in UNRWA

Both UNRWA and UNHCR have been accused of corruption. In 2002, UNHCR accepted the findings of a highly critical report on the agency’s resettlement process in its Nairobi office, and put in place remedial measures to prevent any further abuses. And in 2017, UNHCR implemented a number of measures to strengthen management and oversight of its Kakuma operation in Kenya in light of an internal investigation that found fraud and other serious misconduct.

UNRWA has also received harsh criticism. A 2006 letter written to Condoleezza Rice from Congressmen Mark Kirk and Steven Rothman stated,  “… it is clear UNRWA is wrought by mismanagement, ineffective policies, and failure to secure its finances.” Despite UNRWA’s commitment in 2015 to fight fraud and corruption, it has not addressed any of the corruption allegations.

UNRWA still has a “cash assistance” program that involves handing out cash to people in Gaza and Syria without any accountability or oversight for these disbursements, which in 2016 amounted to $192.3 million. These cash handouts undoubtedly involve an enormous amount of waste, fraud, and diversion of funds to terrorists and other bad actors.

Further allegations in a 2011 film exposing corruption and antisemitism within UNRWA were rejected outright by the agency; as were those in a 2016 film showing the same. The only action UNRWA has taken was to stop aid to Gaza in 2009 because Hamas “police” were stealing the materials.

While UNRWA refuses to admit to wrongdoing, just as UNHCR does, some Palestinians have spoken out about UNRWA corruption and have protested against the agency.

UNRWA (and Arab nations) perpetuate, rather than resettles, refugees

A more important difference between UNRWA and the UNHRC is their philosophy concerning refugees. UNHCR promotes the idea of fostering resilience and independence so refugees are not reliant on aid forever. In keeping with that philosophy, in 2016 UNHCR helped approx 125,600 people resettle. UNRWA, in contrast, actively opposes resettlement of their registered refugees.

The Arab refugee problem created as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict is the only refugee problem in the world that has been perpetuated.

This perpetuation is largely a function of the Arab nations refusing to resettle Arab Palestinians. Lebanon’s rejection of permanent settlement is justified on demographic, socio-economic, and political grounds.They contend that the settlement of between 150,000 and 500,000 predominantly Sunni Muslims would have serious demographic repercussions – upsetting the sectarian balance in the country. Lebanese officials have also claimed they do not have the necessary resources to welcome a large number of people, while many Lebanese citizens are in poverty already. Finally, Lebanese officials refuse to resettle Arab Palestinians because the latter seek to preserve the “right of return to Palestine”.

Other Arab nations also reject the idea of welcoming Arab Palestinians as citizens for similar reasons. And the “refugees”, themselves, have rejected plans of resettlement outside of Israel. UNRWA also perpetuates the notion of a “right of return” that is interpreted as the personal right of every Arab Palestinian who left his or her home in British Mandate Palestine in 1948 or afterwards and that of their descendants, to return to it and to reclaim his or her property in full.

Such a claim has no legal precedence and has not been applied in other cases of wartime refugees throughout the twentieth century. Yet UNRWA school textbooks perpetuate the “right of return” as a political tool against Israel. This sort of education is part of the reason Dr Einat Wilf has called UNRWA “an obstacle to peace”.

Antisemitism in UNRWA

Worse than teaching a wrong, highly politicised, and unhelpful version of International Law, UNRWA school textbooks have recently been found to display extreme anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments. Examples of this antisemitism include referring to Jews as “greedy” and “oppressive”; representing Jewish Holy sites, such as the Temple Mount and Rachel’s Tomb, as “Muslim holy places usurped by the Jews”; and not recognising Israel as a sovereign state or showing it on maps.

The antisemitism is not just in textbooks. In 2014 during Operation Protective Edge IDF troops discovered terror tunnels that started in UNRWA facilities and UNRWA did make a statement against their schools being used to store missiles but did not seem to be able to prevent the practice. And in 2015, UN Watch released a report documenting UNRWA staff posting antisemitic material and supporting terrorism on social media. UNRWA’s spokesman, Chris Gunness, originally responded by saying “Where we find credible allegations of neutrality violations among our staff, we investigate and where it’s appropriate we take disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal” but he then attacked UN Watch and refused to comment further about any possible dismissals.

There have been no other statements, investigations or actions by Mr Gunness or the UN into UNRWA promotion of terror. In 2017, another UNWatch report exposed 60 Facebook pages operated by UNRWA schools, school teachers, principals, and other employees of UNRWA, which incite to terrorism or antisemitism. The report states

The promotion of racial hatred and violence by UNRWA staff constitutes a gross breach of their neutrality obligations as enshrined in the UN Charter and in UN and UNRWA Staff Rules and Regulations. Even more alarming than the Facebook posts themselves, however, is the fact that UNRWA hires and employs racist staff, and places the education of impressionable Palestinian youth in their hands.UNWatch report


Over the past 9 years, New Zealand has contributed $10.4m to UNRWA and not once spoken out against any of their appalling practices. In 2015, on the anniversary of the founding of UNRWA, New Zealand made a statement which praised the agency. There has not been one condemnation of the gross inefficiency, of UNRWA staff inciting and supporting terror, the use of UNRWA facilities as militant bases, or allegations of corruption. NZ must reconsider unconditional support of UNRWA.

The Israel Institute of New Zealand is an independent think tank dedicated to providing New Zealanders with a better understanding of the State of Israel through accurate analysis, insightful commentary, and effective advocacy.

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