Australia/Israel Review

AIR New Zealand: UNRWA and the fury of NZ’s anti-Israel activists

Mar 1, 2024 | Miriam Bell

Pro-Palestinian protestors recently forced New Zealand’s PM Chris Luxon to leave one of the summer go-to events for politicians
Pro-Palestinian protestors recently forced New Zealand’s PM Chris Luxon to leave one of the summer go-to events for politicians

Pro-Palestinian protestors recently forced New Zealand’s Prime Minister to leave one of the summer go-to events for politicians just days after the Government stepped up its critical stance towards Israel’s war against Hamas.

In mid-February, New Zealand joined Australia and Canada in urging Israel not to embark on a military operation in Rafah, while calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

While the statement also called for Hamas to lay down its arms and release the hostages immediately, it was the most forceful stance New Zealand’s Government has yet taken against Israel’s military operation. 

The move followed Prime Minister Christopher Luxon telling media that “Palestinian civilians cannot pay the price of Israel trying to defeat Hamas,” after Israeli strikes hit Rafah. Foreign Minister Winston Peters also met with Israel’s Ambassador to New Zealand, Ran Yaakoby, to discuss the conflict.

But these developments did not satisfy the virulent anti-Israel movement in New Zealand.

On February 18, at the Big Gay Out, a centrepiece of Auckland’s Pride Festival and an event intended to celebrate diversity and inclusion, Luxon’s security detail initiated an abrupt exit from the event for the PM. This came after he was surrounded by a group of protestors chanting “free Palestine” and “blood on your hands” and waving signs accusing Israel of “pinkwashing”.

It was a sign of the times. Politics, and foreign affairs, traditionally take a back seat over the New Zealand summer, but this summer has been long and hot, and tensions over the Israel-Gaza war have continued to simmer.

Anti-Israel protestors complain of bias against them and being “silenced”, but it is impossible to escape their message. Regular demonstrations around the country are covered largely uncritically by media, while the views of tiny anti-Zionist Jewish groups are often given a platform. Pro-Palestinian graffiti and signage is common.

The movement was, however, dealt a blow in late January, as evidence emerged that at least 12 employees of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, actively participated in the October 7 attacks. Moreover, the Wall Street Journal reported on intelligence suggesting about 10% of UNRWA staff in Gaza are linked to militants.

New Zealand was a little slow to act, but a few days after the revelations, it became one of more than 15 donor countries to suspend its funding to UNRWA. A planned contribution of NZ$1 million in aid funding would not go ahead until Peters was satisfied with the investigations into the allegations, Luxon said.

This did not go down well with political opponents, such as the Green Party and former Labour prime minister Helen Clark, who spent eight years at the head of the UN Development Program which oversees UNRWA. 

Clark told Radio NZ that it was “most regrettable that countries have acted in this precipitous way to defund the organisation on the basis of allegations.” Defunding the platform would “only increase the misery and suffering of the people under bombardment,” she said.

But NZ Jewish Council spokesperson Ben Kepes said it was clear that antisemitism and incitement to terrorism were systemic in UNRWA. 

“As a country, we cannot reconcile continuing to fund UNRWA with combatting antisemitism and terrorism. UNRWA is part of the problem, and most certainly not part of the solution that… promotes peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Israel Institute co-director David Cumin said it was great the Government had not followed the advice of Clark, but the links to terror and participation in barbaric atrocities were just the tip of the iceberg with UNRWA, he said.

“For decades, UNRWA has run schools that teach children to glorify the murder of Jews and indoctrinates them to believe Israel should not exist. We cannot claim to be an ‘honest broker’ or fully support a peaceful two-state solution when our tax dollars undermine prospects for peace like this.”

Cumin, who has been calling for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade to reassess funding for UNRWA for many years, said Peters should find alternate means to help the Palestinians.

“All other people in need around the world are served by agencies that do not entrench conflict or work against peace, and the Palestinians deserve more than an agency that perpetuates their suffering and works with terror organisations,” he said. 

Peters subsequently announced a NZ$5 million package of humanitarian support for Palestinians, which will be delivered by the UN World Food Program and UNICEF, rather than UNRWA. 

But Cumin said he would like to see New Zealand stop funding the organisation permanently, as the United States has now apparently announced it is doing. 

Meanwhile, political commentator Matthew Hooton has suggested that Luxon’s Big Gay Out experience with the protestors might work in the PM’s favour. 

“The combination of Luxon’s commitment to pluralism, and their yelling and screaming can only be to his advantage politically,” he wrote in his blog.


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