It is time to look to arrangements for the day after the UNRWA is dismantled.
UNRWA is the largest aid body operating in Gaza, where it has 13,000 employees, almost all Gazans. Established in 1949, UNRWA has after three-quarters of a century become a government welfare provider and indulgent patron for Palestinians.
It is the only UN specialised agency in the world exclusively for a distinct group of refugees, and the only one ever not to resettle them but to endow them with intergenerational status as refugees. Its implicit objective is to maintain Palestinian refugee status in perpetuity. It has grown its refugee numbers eightfold, from 700,000 to 5.6 million people.
This is a political mandate designed to delegitimise and pressure the Jewish state. The majority of UNRWA’s $US1.6 billion annual budget promotes policies that variously support the “right of return” for Palestinians into Israel, in effect ending Israel as a Jewish state.
To operate in Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas for almost a generation, UNRWA has been thoroughly infiltrated and utilised by Hamas. According to Israeli intelligence estimates, approximately 1.5 per cent of UNRWA employees are terrorist operatives, 10 per cent are associated with terror organisations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and 50 per cent have at least one close relative associated with them.
Moreover, UNRWA’s international Gaza leadership has had to accommodate Hamas. As Professor Gerald Steinberg at Bar-Ilan University has pointed out, the evidence is that “UNRWA international officials maintained a code of silence and cooperation with Hamas and associated terror groups, including promoting their propaganda and incitement and training of children for terror.”
UNRWA teachers are particularly problematic. Western governments have requested UNRWA to remove sections from its textbooks that contain incitement to violence against Israel and promote antisemitism. UNRWA has refused.
The UNRWA teachers’ Telegram channel of 3000 subscribers celebrated the October 7 massacre of Israelis. An Israeli hostage girl related upon her release that her captor was an UNRWA teacher who held her in his house. Last week, Israel provided evidence that a dozen UNRWA staff were terrorists actively involved in the October 7 massacre, identified through their mobile phones, locations, calls, texts, video footage, or on confession in interrogation. Most of them were teachers.
It is impossible that UNRWA leaders were unaware of Hamas activities in their facilities. They have long been accused of complicity in Palestinian terrorism but dismissed these accusations as smears. Last Friday, UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini terminated the contracts of nine staff members and launched an investigation, to protect his organisation from further reputational damage. Is he doing vital humanitarian work, committing crimes against humanity, or both?
Australian aid to Palestinians since October 7 amounts to $AU46.5 million, plus an additional $21.5 million announced by Foreign Minister Penny Wong on January 16 this year. The latter included an extra $6m to UNRWA.
By providing Gaza with education, health, welfare and civil infrastructure, UNRWA frees Hamas’s tax funds to develop its tunnels, weapons and terrorist infrastructure. Wong’s rationale is that UNRWA is currently “the only entity able to do that [deliver aid] for the Palestinians”.
Her warning that our aid must not fund terrorism has no effect anywhere in reality. Australia has no oversight or control mechanisms for UNRWA expenditures of our tax-paid dollars. Channelling aid money into ISIS-controlled areas and agencies in Syria was never suggested when ISIS, at its height, was the only government there.
Wong said over the weekend that the new allegations against UNRWA staff are “deeply concerning” and that Australia would temporarily pause disbursement of funding to UNRWA. Another 11 countries suspending funding so far include Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, UK and USA. The evidence is so credible that this pause is to continue until the allegations are addressed.
The Australian government has known for a long time that UNRWA is complicit in terrorism but could plausibly deny this, until now. Israel has called for an end to UNRWA and its replacement by an alternative aid mechanism in Gaza. Australia should support a replacement of UNRWA. Instead of a UN agency exclusively privileging Palestinians, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should be engaged to serve Palestinians, the same as for all other refugees in the world.
To oversee grants of our dollars and ensure that the festering corruption that we see in UNRWA does not happen again, Australian officials could act constructively to become part of a new joint donor oversight mechanism in place in Gaza, separate to and independent of UN agencies. If it cannot be done, then the aid should not be provided. It is simply counterproductive to fuel the fire of violence and hatred.
Perhaps, after the war, Australia might fund young Gazans to come to Australia for education and training, together with an equal number of young Israelis impacted by the violence of October 7. While in Australia, both groups might try to reach a shared understanding about a more positive peaceful future.
Dr Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia.
Gregory Rose is professor of international law at the University of Wollongong.
A version of this article appeared at strategicanalysis.org