Skip to main content

Historical documents

69 Burton to G.P.N. Watt

Memorandum, CANBERRA, 18 February 1949

You will be aware of the requests which have been made to Australia by the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees for 5,000 tons of what or flour.[1]

By the General Assembly's resolution of 19 November, which Australia supported, a fund of 32 million dollars was to be established to provide relief for 500,000 Arab refugees - whose numbers are now about [3]/[4] of a million - until the end of August of this year. All members of the United Nations were urged to contribute in cash or kind to the fund, and Australia was asked for 5,000 tons of wheat or flour (worth roughly �A220,000) which sum would represent about same percentage of the 32 million dollars aimed at as Australia's share in the annual budget expenses of the United Nations.

For several reasons this Department feels that a substantial response should be made by Australia to this appeal. The satisfactory conclusion of the Palestine problem is a matter of great importance both from the point of view of the tranquillity of the Middle East, in which Australia is vitally concerned, and also from the point of view of the United Nations, whose authority in the settlement of disputes could be seriously affected by the outcome of its decision on this question. Australia's part in preparing this decision was of great significance, and our prompt response to the request made last year by Count Bernadotte for relief supplies[2] has been warmly commended by the Acting Mediator and others and another donation now would be in keeping with the Government's clearly stated policy of full support for the United Nations. Australia's reputation in the field of international relief is a notable one, and is, in part, the reason for the effectiveness of our voice on many other issues.

It should be pointed out that the previous donation of �61,000 worth of wheat, cheese, and butter was made from funds already allocated to relief and that the problems created by Palestine refugees were not contemplated when the original post-UNRRA grant was made. Furthermore it is understood that the 5,000 tons of flour requested would be readily available from Australian stocks if it were decided to make such a quantity available.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the plight of these Arab refugees. Although they have never had a high standard of living, these people before they were displaced did at least have shelter from the bitterly cold winter weather and enough food to avoid starvation. Despite very real efforts of self-help by the Arab countries concerned, this is no longer the case, and many of them, specially children, have died of hunger and exposure. This is the direct result of decisions of the United Nations leading to the setting up of the State of Israel, as the result of which many Arabs left their homes. The chances of large-scale re-settlement in Palestine are, for the time being, remote.

The United Kingdom has recognised the problem by allocating �1 million to the appeal, although it is well-known that the United Kingdom has, since UNRRA, made only token contributions to relief because of her own position. Thirteen other countries have announced contributions of varying size, from one of 16 million dollars for which the President of the United States is seeking legislative approval, down to smaller amounts. New Zealand has contributed $87,000.

However enquiries have been made from the Office of the Director of Palestine relief in Geneva (v. cables Nos. 34 and 38 dated 5th February from the Australian Embassy, Paris) as to the contributions made and promised by other countries in a position to assist. These contributions do not indicate any real willingness on the part of some members of the United Nations to assume an equitable share of the burden of relief and it is felt that at this stage, until a more substantial response is made from other countries able to help, Australia should not be committed to supply more than 50% of the flour which has been requested, keeping the matter under review as the appeal develops, with a view to further contributions later.

It would be appreciated, therefore, if you would consider favourably the immediate authorisation of the purchase of 2,500 tons of flour, estimated to cost between �100,000 and �120,000.[3]

[1] The request for 5,000 tons was made on 13 December 1948 and was subsequently raised to 6,000 tons.

[2] See Document 48.

[3] The file copy bears the following annotation by Watt: 'Discussed with the Treasurer. Treasurer was reluctant to approve but finally decided that he would be prepared to submit to Cabinet proposal that Australia contribute 1000 tons of flour.'

[AA : A571, 47/1529, II]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
Back to top