The Hypocrisy of New Zealand’s donations to UNRWA


New Zealand should not continue to unquestioningly support a United Nations agency that has become politicised and a barrier to peace. At the very least, New Zealand should acknowledge the egregious and systemic issues within UNRWA rather than supporting the “right of return”, antisemitic curriculum, and online incitement to violence. New Zealand could act as it did with Fiji and Nauru – suspend funding until there are reforms. While New Zealand’s contribution is small, it would be a significant, tangible political message that our nation actually stands against incitement to terror and does not abide corruption.

  • This article was written by Professor Dov Bing and Dr David Cumin; published in The New Zealand International Review, the journal of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, vol 45(2); and reproduced here with permission.

The Hypocrisy of New Zealand’s donations to UNRWA

Marliyn Garson’s “Are we really aiding Gaza?” (vol 45;1) article was emotive, myopic and deeply flawed. Ms Garson may have lived in Gaza but she has failed to understand some basic realities and omits fundamental truths that suggest a very wilful blindness underpinning her recommendations.

In this article, we will address the most egregious errors in Ms Garson’s article and provide a more rational and balanced set of recommendations that would bring New Zealand’s approach to Gaza in line with our values and with our approach to other humanitarian efforts.


One of the repeated assertions Ms Garson makes is that Gaza is occupied; she uses the term 27 times in her article. Her assertion seems based on the use of the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories” by the United Nations. However, terminology does not make law. No reasonable person, for example, would claim that North Korea is democratic because it is referred to as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The only legal definition of occupation is given by the Hague Conventions (article 42), as “when [territory] is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.”

Incredulously, Ms Garson failed to mention that Israel withdrew all soldiers and Jewish families from Gaza in 2005 and transferred all jurisdiction for the area over to the Palestinian Authority. Ms Garson reminds readers, however, in the same article that Israel doesn’t even have authority to collect the rubbish or provide education in the Gaza Strip.

It was Prime Minister Sharon’s expectation that the unilateral withdrawal would lead to a peaceful relationship between Israel and Gaza. If this policy had succeeded, it would have been an excellent example of would could be done on the West Bank. Unfortunately, Hamas staged a violent ‘coup d’etat’ and took over power in Gaza. This started repeated missile attacks on southern Israeli towns and kibbutzim. Given this example, it is very unlikely that the Israeli Government will attempt to try this failed policy in the West Bank without a significant change in Palestinian Authority rhetoric and action.


Only four times in her article does Ms Garson refer to the group in charge of the Gaza Strip, Hamas, and once euphemistically as a “military employer”. Hamas is recognised as a terror group by the UK, USA, and Canada; and the “military wing” of Hamas is recognised as a terror group by Australia, New Zealand, and others1.

Hamas, an Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”, took control of the Gaza Strip in 2006 and defines itself as the “Palestinian offshoot” of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Their charter states that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it…”, “the Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise…. ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews)…’”, and explicitly rejects “so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences”.

Hamas has enacted this charter with multiple terror attacks against Israel including suicide bombings, thousands of rocket attacks, terror tunnels, and they orchestrate the violent “March of Return” riots2. It was the terror attacks and thousands of rockets fired indiscriminately into Israel that led to increased border security by Israel and Egypt and the imposition of a defensive maritime blockade in 2009.


New Zealand’s former PM and Minister of Justice, Sir Geoffrey Palmer chaired a United Nations panel into the 2010 Flotilla Incident which found that “The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law…”

Despite the blockade, Israel still facilitates thousands of truckloads of goods into Gaza, dozens of export trucks from Gaza, and helps tens of thousands of Gazans – many of whom need medical treatment beyond the capability of local doctors – travel into Israel every week3. There are a similar number of people allowed to travel from Gaza into Egypt but Egypt does not facilitate trade or humanitarian trucks.

Ms Garson does not refer to Egypt in her article at all, just as she omitted to mention the terror acts of Hamas.


Ms Garson acknowledges that “several of UNRWA’s top officials are being investigated for abusing their authority”, but maintains that “the importance of UNRWA lies in its mandate and its work, not in a few individuals.” Garson is apparently unaware of significant, systemic issues within the agency4.

The mandate of UNRWA was to carry out programmes including the establishment of “a programme of useful public works for the employment of able-bodied refugees as a first measure towards their rehabilitation…”

When UNRWA began operations in 1950, it served approximately 750,000 refugees. There was no such agency set up for the 820,000 Jewish refugees forced from Arab lands at the same time – other countries, primarily Israel, resettled those refugees5.

From 750,000 refugees and an annual budget “not exceeding $5m”, UNRWA now serves approximately 5m registered refugees with an annual budget of $1.3b. However, UNRWA may be artificially inflating their estimates of refugee numbers6. Another UN agency – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – provides for all other refugees in the world.

For no less than $260 per person per year (if we believe the inflated UNRWA estimates), UNRWA provides healthcare, shelter, education, social services, and gives microloans – the services Ms Garson praises and participated in. The UNHCR provides similar services for approximately $85 per person per year.

And not all the aid provided by UNRWA actually serves the people it is intended for. For example, UNRWA whole milk powder – meant for the “abject poor” – has been advertised for sale in supermarkets7 where some of the 600 millionaires that live in the Gaza Strip8 might shop.

More serious than the corruption and inefficiency within UNRWA is the organisation’s refusal to foster resilience and independence so refugees are not reliant on aid forever. UNHCR, on the other hand, works hard to make sure it is not needed; in 2018/9 UNHCR helped approximately 114,554 people resettle.

UNRWA, in contrast, actively opposes resettlement of the people on their books and, as Ms Garson correctly describes, considers anyone born in Gaza as a “refugee”. UNRWA also considers “refugees” to be citizens of other countries who happen to be born to ancestors who lived in the British Mandate of Palestine in 19489.
This is not in keeping with the UNHCR definition of a “refugee” or any common usage of the term.

The unique definition of a “Palestinian refugee” used by UNRWA, ensures that the organisation can increase its budget year on year without “rehabilitating” Arab Palestinians. More importantly, UNRWA’s bizarre definition of a “refugee” is designed to strengthen the call for a “return” of this synthetic constituency – who now number more than 5.5 million – into Israel. This would, of course, mean the end of Jewish self-determination, given that the population of Israel is just over 9 million and approximately 75% are Jewish.

The so-called “right of return” is a core component of UNRWA’s school curriculum and UNRWA’s ethos and is why Hamas called the orchestrated riots on the border with Israel the “Great March of Return”. Such a claimed “right” has no legal precedence and has not been applied in other cases of wartime refugees throughout the twentieth century10. Yet UNRWA school textbooks perpetuate the imagining of a “return” as a political tool for the disassembly of Israel. This sort of ‘education’ is part of the reason Dr Einat Wilf has called UNRWA “an obstacle to peace”11.

As well as perpetuating the conflict by insisting on a “right of return”, UNRWA also teaches hate in its schools. UNRWA textbooks have recently been found to display extreme anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments and historical fictions12. Examples include referring to Jews as “greedy” and “oppressive”; representing Jewish Holy sites, such as the Temple Mount and Rachel’s Tomb, as “Muslim holy places usurped by the Jews”; and not recognising Israel as a sovereign state or showing it on maps.

The antisemitism is not just in textbooks. In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, IDF troops discovered terror tunnels that started in UNRWA facilities. UNRWA’s claim that their schools were not being used to store missiles, contradicts facts on the ground13. Ms Garson overlooks these potential war crimes.

In 2015, UN Watch released a report14 documenting a dozen UNRWA staff posting antisemitic material and supporting terrorism on social media. Social media posts by other UNRWA staff, inciting violence and glorifying terror, were also found in 2016, and 201715. In 2019 UN Watch exposed 90 UNRWA staff and school Facebook pages containing antisemitism and terrorist incitement16.

Hardly just the “few individuals”, which Ms Garson suggests undermine the agency’s mandate.


When the Fiji military staged a coup in 2006, New Zealand suspended aid to the country. Prime Minister Helen Clark and Foreign Minister Winston Peters said “These measures reflect New Zealand’s abhorrence of the actions taken by the Fijian military. Those actions are a tragedy for Fiji.”17 New Zealand also suspended aid to Nauru in 2015 over reported violations of civil and political rights18.

However, the New Zealand government has not even raised issues of corruption, inefficiency, the perpetuation of the conflict, or incitement to terror within UNRWA. Worse still, documents obtained under the Official Information Act by the Israel Institute of New Zealand show Ministry of Foreign Affairs Officials failed to record meetings where issues were raised and did not brief ministers19.

New Zealand has only praised UNRWA and committed to at least $1 million each year in funding for the organisation.

When confronted with questions about the recent incitement on UNRWA staff social media and the corruption allegations of senior UNRWA officials, MFAT staff responded by saying “the Ministry will review the findings of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) report once the investigation is complete and provide advice to the New Zealand Government.”

This is a bizarre response from a government that is leading the Christchurch Call to eliminate online incitement. One might think they would take online incitement from staff in an organisation New Zealand taxpayers fund, more seriously.

The comment is also undermined by New Zealand recently voting, in opposition to the USA, to extend the mandate of UNRWA until 2023, despite the ongoing OIOS investigation.


There is no doubt that many of the people in Gaza need help, just as most of the people in the Democratic Republic of Korea, Syria, Western Sahara, and too many other places on earth are in need. However, New Zealand should not continue to unquestioningly support a United Nations agency that has become politicised and a barrier to peace.

At the very least, New Zealand should acknowledge the egregious and systemic issues within UNRWA rather than supporting the “right of return”, antisemitic curriculum, and online incitement to violence.

New Zealand could act as it did with Fiji and Nauru – suspend funding until there are reforms. While New Zealand’s contribution is small, it would be a significant, tangible political message that our nation actually stands against incitement to terror and does not abide corruption.

That there is one organisation set up for the Arab Palestinian “refugees” and another for all other refugees on Earth is absurd. New Zealand should advocate for UNRWA to be abolished and UNHCR take over so that Arab Palestinians are treated the same as any other group of displaced people. This would mean an immediate drop in the number of legitimate refugees in the world. The double standard must end.

Hamas – the group with authority over Gaza – should take over the schools, clinics, and other UNRWA services. While it is less than ideal for a terror organisation to govern, it is little different to the rulers in Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Lebanon, or North Korea for example. If the Palestinian leaders want a state, perhaps they could start by assuming the role of state governors.

Ultimately, the ideal scenario would be that the Gaza Strip is no longer ruled by a terror group – just like it would be ideal if Iran was freed from theocratic rule, North Korea was no longer presided over by an oppressive dynasty, and Western Sahara had a stable government.

Ideally, the ruling party of Gaza will no longer take concrete intended for schools and hospitals to build terror tunnels. Then Israel and Egypt could relax the impositions at the border; just as sanctions on Iran and North Korea would be dropped if there were bona fide measures taken to abandon nuclear weapon aspirations.

To this end, it would be helpful if New Zealand would recognise Hamas as a terror group, rather than tacitly supporting the pretence of a separate “political wing” of the Islamist movement, and condemn the terror against Israel. The New Zealand government could also amplify the voices of Gazan people who are starting to speak out against their rulers20.

It will not be an easy transition but a continuation of the status quo will only ensure that peace is kept away. Actively supporting a United Nations organisation to teach hate, funding staff to incite violence, and turning a blind eye to corruption is also hypocritical for a New Zealand government that preaches values of tolerance, peace, and robust aid administration.


  1. A case for New Zealand to proscribe Hezbollah, Hamas, and PFLP as designated terrorist entities, CSG 2019
  2. Hamas, Counter Extremism Project
  3. Data from Gisha as at Jan 2020 (for example,
  4. What’s Wrong With UNRWA and Why it Must be Reformed, UN Watch (2018)
  5. The Silent Refugees: Jews from Arab Countries, Maurice M. Roumani, Mediterranean Quarterly
  6. Census finds UN figure of Palestinians in Lebanon massively inflated, i24 News (December 26, 2017)
  7. Facebook page of Saqa Market in Gaza
  8. How Many Millionaires Live in the “Impoverished” Gaza Strip?, Khaled Abu Toameh (2012)
  9. UNRWA Has Changed the Definition of Refugee, Jay Seulow (2018)  Foreign Policy Journal
  10. Unsettled: A Global Study Of Settlements In Occupied Territories, Eugene Kontronovich (2017) Journal of Legal Analysis
  11. UNRWA: an obstacle to peace?, Einat Wilf (2013) Fathom Journal
  12. Schoolbooks of the Palestinian Authority (PA): The Attitude to the Jews, to Israel and to Peace, Arnon Groiss and Ronni Shaked (2017) Middle East Forum; Unclassified Gov’t Report Reveals UNRWA Failure to Offset Incitement in Textbooks, State Department Errors, Algemeiner (2019)
  13. Rockets found in UNRWA school, for third time, Times of Israel (2014)
  14. Report: 12 UNRWA-linked Facebook Accounts Incite Antisemitism & Violence, UN Watch (2015)
  15. See Poisoning Palestinian Children: A Report on UNRWA Teachers’ Incitement to Jihadist Terrorism and Antisemitism, UN Watch (2017); Enhanced Due Diligence? An Examination of Canada’s Pledge to Stop UNRWA Teachers from Inciting Jihadist Terrorism and Antisemitism, UN Watch (2017); UNRWA Staff Incitement and Antisemitism, UN Watch (2019)
  16. UNRWA Staff Incitement and Antisemitism, UN Watch (2019)
  17. NZ imposes wide range of sanctions on Fiji, Government Press Release,
  18. New Zealand suspends aid to Nauru’s justice sector citing diminishing rule of law (2015)
  19. IINZ Report on New Zealand Support for UNRWA (2019)
  20. Hamas accused of violent crackdown on Gaza protests (2019)


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