This fact sheet is current as at April 2020
Australia and Israel have worked together in the United Nations going back prior to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
In recent decades, the United Nations – including its many organisations and agencies – has acted in a way that singles out Israel for criticism ahead of all other nations. During this time, Australian governments have tended to oppose this bias against Israel at the United Nations.
Former Australian foreign minister H.V. (Doc) Evatt (ALP) served as UN General Assembly president at the time of Israel’s admission to the UN and was an important figure in the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Evatt guided the 1947 Palestine partition plan through the UN and Israel was admitted as a member of the UN in the last week of the Australian’s presidency.
Zionism is Racism – Australia
On November 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 that declared Zionism a “form of racism and racial discrimination”. This resolution was sponsored by Arab and Soviet states and was a highly politicised attack on the very existence of the State of Israel. Australia joined 35 other countries in opposing this resolution, but it passed, with 72 states in favour. Zionism is the historic yearning of the Jewish people to re–establish a homeland in the biblical land of Israel.
In 1986, then Australian prime minister Bob Hawke (ALP) introduced a motion to the Australian Parliament calling on the UN to revoke the Zionism is Racism resolution. Hawke said “to suggest that Zionism is racism is, first of all, a blatant distortion of the truth.” He added that this UN resolution had done nothing to progress peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Liberal opposition leader John Howard supported the motion. Howard said, “We believe that blatant anti-semitism was enshrined in that resolution. We believe that overturning that resolution is an important milestone along the path of rejecting the anti-Israel stance adopted by those countries which supported the United Nations resolution.”
The UN revoked the Zionism is Racism resolution in 1991. Australia supported the motion to revoke it.
UN General Assembly
At the United Nations General Assembly annual session, a series of resolutions are voted on pertaining to Israel; Israel’s actions, particularly in the Palestinian territories; and the Palestinian people.
These resolutions are not binding or enforceable and are generally sponsored by a group of countries, notably led by Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Cuba and Yemen. They are generally unfairly critical of Israel’s actions, and overlook the attitudes and actions of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian terrorist organisations.
Australian Coalition and Labor governments have indicated that Australia’s voting on these UN resolutions is undertaken according to the principle of Australia’s support for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, with direct negotiations between the two parties to conclude delicate issues.
The Coalition Governments of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have been vocal critics of anti-Israel bias at the UN. In 2018, Morrison said, “We regard the biased and unfair targeting of Israel in the UN General Assembly in particular as deeply unhelpful to efforts to build peace and stability. The UN General Assembly is now the place where Israel is bullied and where anti-Semitism is cloaked in language about human rights.”
UN Human Rights Council
Since 2018-2020, Australia has been a member of the UN Human Rights Council. The UN Human Rights Council has a permanent agenda item – Item Seven – that compels the Council to debate Israel’s human rights practices at every session. No other country in the world, no matter how egregious its human rights practices, has a permanent agenda item dedicated to it.
Addressing the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “As has been our longstanding position since the inception of the Human Rights Council in 2006, for over 12 years, Australia opposes in principle the existence of Item Seven of the Agenda of the Council. It is our firm view that a separate agenda item focussing on a single country situation – in this case Israel – is inappropriate. It does not occur in any other context, for any other country.”
The UN Human Rights Council has also undertaken several commissions of inquiry into various incidents taking place in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. These inquiries consistently level heavy criticism at Israel, while virtually ignoring the activity of Palestinian terrorist groups. In 2018, in response to the most recent of these inquiries, Australia joined the United States in voting against its establishment.
Then foreign minister Julie Bishop said: “Australia voted against the resolution because of our principled opposition to resolutions that fail the test of balance and impartiality.
UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)
The UN has two bodies that care for the world’s refugees – the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which looks solely after Palestinian refugees, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which caters for the entire remainder of the world’s refugee population. Australia is a committed donor to UNRWA. Between 2016-2020, Australia provided $80 million in funds to the agency, which is responsible for 5.5 million Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
AIJAC, among others, is highly critical of UNRWA’s approach and its activities. AIJAC advocates for the Australian Government to find a way of supporting vulnerable Palestinians and supporting a two-state peace, without funding UNRWA’s operations as they exist today.
The main criticisms of UNRWA’s ongoing operations are summarised below:
The definition of “refugee” used by UNRWA
Among those UNRWA considers refugees are 2.2 million Jordanian citizens, 2.1 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza and hundreds of thousands of individuals who are registered as refugees in Syria and Lebanon but have emigrated, many to the West. Many of these people are the third or fourth generation descendants of those who lived in pre-1948 Palestine. UNRWA does not seek to resettle its constituent refugees or their descendants, unlike the UNHCR, which also, in contrast to UNRWA, includes in its definition of refugees only those who left their homes, not their descendants.
As stated by the United States when it suspended its funding to UNRWA in 2018, “the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – is simply unsustainable”. Importantly, the statement then said, “Palestinians, wherever they live, deserve better than an endlessly crisis-driven service provision model”. The process of providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Palestinians – in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Syria and in Jordan – needs to be revisited by the global community.
UNRWA’s support for the Palestinian “right of return”
There is no precedent under international law for the Palestinian “right of return”. The claim is predicated on a UN General Assembly resolution that does not, in fact, specify that return to their homes or compensation be provided to those who left Israeli territory – even of their own free will, as researchers have shown many did – as well as their descendants. The resolution also specifies that refugees “wishing to … live at peace with their neighbours” should be permitted to return, or be provided with compensation, “at the earliest practicable date”. It is for this reason, that the resolution of the issue of return remains a final status issue, to be resolved by both parties (see for example Oslo Accords 1993).
Many commentators also acknowledge (see centre-left former Israeli foreign minister and former chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni here, for example), if the more than five million UNRWA-registered Palestinians all settled within Israel’s borders Israel would cease to be a Jewish state.
Issues with UNRWA’s neutrality
There are dozens of examples of a lack of neutrality in UNRWA facilities. This is just a brief selection:
- In 2014, a UN Board of Inquiry was convened to investigate the discovery of weapons stored at UNRWA schools in Gaza and possibly fired from these locations towards Israel;
- Ongoing concerns with the content in textbooks used at UNRWA schools, including examples of incitement to violence, antisemitism and glorifying of jihad.
- Reports that UNRWA employees have affiliations with Hamas, including in senior Hamas leadership positions. Hamas currently does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. Hamas perpetrates violence against Israeli civilians. Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation by many Western nations. Australia, for example, lists Hamas’ Izz al-Din al–Qassam Brigades as a terrorist organisation.