Australia/Israel Review

Australia’s UNRWA Conundrum

Dec 19, 2019 | Naomi Levin

Is Australia’s “strategic partnership” with UNRWA the best use of our aid to the Palestinians? (Wissam Nassar/FLASH90)
Is Australia’s “strategic partnership” with UNRWA the best use of our aid to the Palestinians? (Wissam Nassar/FLASH90)


In 2020, Australia’s $80 million “strategic partnership” with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) will expire.

The future of Australia’s decades-long commitment to UNRWA, a highly problematic UN-run agency, is currently being considered by the Federal Government. Given this, now is the time to consider how best to use Australia’s foreign aid to progress peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and serve Palestinian humanitarian needs.

The situation at UNRWA is less than rosy. In November, Director-General Pierre Krähenbühl resigned after an internal UN investigation found serious management issues at UNRWA. 

In the wake of these allegations – and of Krähenbühl’s departure – the Australian Government publicly adopted a “wait and see” approach. This stands in contrast to some European donor nations, who suspended their funding until the investigation is completed.

The latest misconduct findings also come on top of UNRWA’s other well-known and long-standing, but still unresolved, issues. 

There is UNRWA’s problematic habit of insisting all Palestinians in its care are “refugees” – including, incongruously, those living in Gaza and the West Bank, which will be part of a future Palestinian state, and those who are fully-fledged citizens of Jordan. It also means that people of Palestinian descent, who were born in and have lived their whole lives in neighbouring countries, receive no UN support to permanently resettle. 

Moreover, unlike the UN agencies that deal with other refugees, UNRWA treats Palestinian refugee status as inheritable – so all descendants of a refugee are also refugees, with no limits. Thus, some of the “refugees” on UNRWA’s books today are third and fourth generation descendants of people displaced by the 1948 war. 

As a US State Department spokesperson said, UNRWA’s model creates an “exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”

Also problematic is UNRWA’s promotion of a Palestinian “right of return” for all of the 5.5 million Palestinians in its remit. The issue of refugees is a final status issue, to be resolved by the Israelis and Palestinians. It should not be pushed by UNRWA. The so-called Palestinian “right of return” is based on a misreading of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. This resolution does not specify a right to “return” for all descendants of those Palestinian Arabs who left after the 1948 war, regardless of what UNRWA promotes today; moreover, it is anyway a non-binding General Assembly UN recommendation which cannot create international law.

UNRWA has also been repeatedly accused of lacking neutrality. These issues have been widely canvassed in previous editions of The Australia/Israel Review, including UNRWA’s employment of Hamas leaders. In addition, UNRWA schools have been used to store weapons to be used against Israel and have repeatedly distributed textbooks that incite hatred of and violence towards Israel.

For these reasons, as Australia considers its future foreign aid contribution to the Palestinian territories, it would be wise to be both bold and creative.

So just what are the options? 

Some opponents would like UNRWA defunded completely. This, however, neglects to acknowledge the politics – that UNRWA retains overwhelming international support. It also ignores the reality – that there are Palestinians in need because their own leadership does not provide adequate services. 


There are emerging indications that Israel may like to see UNRWA dissolved and replaced by a humanitarian organisation. Under this proposal, the needy would receive support, but not as refugees. This proposal also sees the Palestinian leadership given support to better provide direct services – such as healthcare, education, welfare and business assistance – currently supplied by UNRWA. 

Positively, this scenario both acknowledges that there are many Palestinians who need basic support and rejects the assumption that no progress can be made until there is a full two-state peace.

However, at this point in time, this proposal remains an aspiration. In late 2019, the UN extended UNRWA’s mandate for four more years. Australia supported this action; only Israel and the United States did not.

In addition, while a number of countries have expressed concerns with the way UNRWA operates – especially around the issue of neutrality – none, apart from the US and Israel, have defunded UNRWA or called for its replacement. This shows a commitment by global donors to continue supporting the Palestinian people, albeit in a ham-fisted and often counter-productive way in terms of encouraging renewed peace talks.

Another option for reform is to encourage donor states to make funding of UNRWA conditional on changes to the agency’s operations. This would ensure support continues to be provided to those in need, while simultaneously sending a strong signal that reform is essential.

One immediate funding condition should be a commitment to reform UNRWA management. 

Virtually every year, the UNRWA leadership declares a budget crisis. Management travels the globe – including to Australia in 2015 – asking donors for additional funds to meet this crisis. However, the scant detail leaked from the current investigation indicates that funds and personnel are being mismanaged. 

Moreover, commentators have noted the duplication in agency services. In mid-2019, UNRWA touted the opening of a large, brand new health centre in Jordan for refugees living there. This was surprising given that almost all of the approximately two million Palestinians living in Jordan have access to the same health care as Jordanians. For the record, the Jordanian Government reports that the country has such high-quality healthcare that it is attracting an increasing number of medical tourists. 

Additionally, a recent audit of UNRWA’s funds revealed the organisation had a surplus of nearly 10% of its total contributions in 2018. An organisation beset by waste and mismanagement should be looking at its own operations before going cap-in-hand to generous donors yet again.

A second suggested funding condition is a gradual modification of UNRWA’s operations. This modification would see UNRWA continue to support genuine refugees – that is, those who were displaced after the creation of Israel in 1948 – but work to transfer its many other responsibilities to other parties in the shortest possible time period. Eventually, Palestinians living in the West Bank must be supported by the Palestinian Authority; those living in Jerusalem should receive services from Jerusalem municipal authorities; the Jordanian Government can provide for Palestinians settled in Jordan; the UNHCR may need to assist Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon; and other humanitarian agencies, such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, will step in for residents of Gaza. 

If moves are made to adopt this condition, donors, including Australia, could offer to redirect funding, as required, to support the service providers who take over these responsibilities.

In order to progress the reform of UNRWA, donors should also condition their support on UNRWA abandoning its quest for the “right of return” for 5.5 million Palestinians to Israel. This would enhance the prospects of a two-state outcome. It has long been clear that if a Palestinian “right of return” were somehow to eventuate, Israel could not exist as a homeland for the Jewish people.

The final condition for future UNRWA funding would be a shift toward genuine political neutrality by the agency, including a commitment to distribute non-political, non-inflammatory schoolbooks and to audit staff to prevent members of terrorist groups infiltrating the agency.

While UNRWA ostensibly has neutrality policies and runs staff neutrality training, recent research by UN Watch found UNRWA staff had been posting social media comments lauding Hitler, calling for the killing of Jews and glorifying Palestinian terrorists who had killed dozens of Israelis. UNRWA’s stated commitment to neutrality is clearly not working. 

When it comes to schoolbooks, UNRWA has said it uses books provided by the Palestinian Authority. This is a fig leaf that cannot be accepted – donors have a responsibility to ensure Palestinian children are not taught hatred and violence against their neighbours.

There are myriad suggestions for ways to better support the Palestinian people – while also better supporting a future two-state peace. As the Australian Government ponders its future foreign aid to the region, it would pay to keep these suggestions in mind.


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