A spokesperson for Foreign Minister Penny Wong has defended Australia doubling its contribution to the United Nation Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) from $10 million to $20 million.
Israel has long argued for UNRWA’s closure, claiming it perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by maintaining that Palestinians and their descendants are “refugees” and promoting a “right of return” to Israel, rather than seeking resettlement, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees does for all other refugees. Critics have also pointed to antisemitism that persists in its educational materials.
Former Labor MP Michael Danby called Wong’s September 23 announcement “PC crap”, and criticised her failure to mention a requirement for institutional reform as a condition of funding.
Jewish communal organisations also expressed disappointment with the funding increase.
But the spokesperson from the Foreign Minister’s office said the government does not accept antisemitism “in any form” and that “Australia rightly holds UNRWA accountable by speaking directly with the Commissioner-General, engaging in the organisation’s Advisory Commission and through DFAT’s monitoring and evaluation requirements”.
“UNRWA contributes to stability in a volatile region. No other organisation has its mandate or capacity to provide its essential services, including access to food, healthcare and emergency assistance,” the spokesperson said.
Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein expressed support for Australian aid to provide both humanitarian support and to assist with state-building but said, “Unfortunately, UNRWA is a terrible vehicle for achieving any of these legitimate foreign policy goals.
“It has serious corruption problems; it uses a unique, inheritable definition of Palestinian refugee status; it inculcates hatred and rejectionism through the textbooks it uses in its schools; and it has repeatedly had its facilities used by terrorist groups.”
Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Peter Wertheim said UNRWA has a “well-documented history of gross mismanagement and misappropriation of funds, and producing and teaching ‘educational’ content in Palestinian schools which contains overt antisemitic canards and conspiracies, rejection of peacemaking, and the glorification of violence and terrorists, for which UNRWA has been condemned by the European Parliament”.
“We urge the government in the future to look … at more constructive alternatives through which to channel Australia’s aid to Palestinians,” he urged.
Also supporting the provision of aid generally, Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler commented, “UNRWA helps perpetuate the conflict, is riddled with corruption, and its staff have repeatedly been involved in glorification of violence against Jews or acts that support terrorism.
“We welcome the Foreign Minister’s determination to hold UNRWA accountable, and we look forward to hearing more details as to how this will be achieved.”