U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to cut funding to a United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees has generated mixed responses in Canada.
For its part, Ottawa has not ruled out changing its funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in the wake of Trump’s cuts.
Washington announced on Jan. 16 that it would provide US$60 million ($75 million) to UNRWA and withhold a further US$65 million indefinitely.
“We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted earlier this month. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government cut aid to UNRWA in 2010, due to the agency’s alleged ties to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Canada.
The Conservatives did provide $14 million in emergency food support to UNRWA in 2012.
In November 2016, the federal Liberals restored ongoing funding to the agency, in the amount of $25 million.
The Conservatives blasted the reinstatement of aid. “UNWRA is an obstacle to achieving peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Andrew Scheer, who’s now the party leader, said at the time.
Canada renewed its funding commitment in 2017.
Asked whether Ottawa will alter its funding of UNRWA in the wake of Trump’s announcement, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Amy Mills told The CJN via email that, “Canada will assess how best to provide future support to Palestinians based on needs, ability to deliver assistance effectively and accountably, as well as available resources.”
Canada “remains committed to helping meet the needs of vulnerable Palestinian refugees.… We believe that as the only UN agency mandated to provide assistance to over five million Palestinian refugees, UNRWA is the right partner to deliver basic education, health and social services, and humanitarian assistance,” Mills added.
Created in 1949, UNRWA provides humanitarian aid, education, social services and medical care to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It has long been accused of diverting funds to Hamas and supporting terrorism through its educational programs.
The U.S. decision to slash funding to the agency is “entirely understandable, given the deep, systemic issues affecting the organization,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada.
B’nai Brith Canada has been concerned “for some time with the anti-Semitism and support for terrorism promoted by UNRWA in its education system,” Mostyn continued. “It is absolutely critical that Canada and other donor countries perform due diligence to ensure the removal of these anti-Semitic and inciting materials.”
His organization will continue to raise concerns at the ministerial level, he added.
Karen Mock, chair of the progressive Jewish group JSpace Canada, acknowledged that there are issues with UNWRA that require monitoring, intervention and resolution, but said that cutting humanitarian aid to “the most vulnerable” is “mean-spirited and will only make the cause of peace that much more elusive.”
If the U.S. wanted to improve UNRWA’s operations, Mock added, it could have done what Canada did and monitor the agency’s operations more closely.
“Instead, cutting aid makes individual Palestinians suffer, leaves the current UNRWA management intact and brings the Middle East no closer to peace,” she said.
Conservative MP Peter Kent, who represents the heavily Jewish riding of Thornhill and served as his party’s deputy foreign affairs critic, said that under Harper, Canada “went around” UNRWA to help meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees, including providing them with access to food, water and shelter.
He said that more than $70 million was delivered directly to those in need, bypassing UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority.
UNRWA has been tied “directly and indirectly” to Hamas and its schools have been used for terrorist weapons storage, firing positions and tunnels, he claimed.
It operated schools that “promote hate and intolerance toward Jews and the very existence of the State of Israel,” Kent told The CJN.
Despite Liberal claims that UNRWA is being closely monitored, there is no evidence that its “hateful policies” have changed, according to Kent. For these and other reasons, Conservatives “continue to question” the Liberal decision to give $25 million to UNRWA, and would oppose any increase as “equally misguided.”
It is much wiser and more effective to attach tough conditions.
– David Bedein
In a statement to The CJN, Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said that UNRWA has “consistently demonstrated its inability to provide aid without also promoting anti-Semitism, inciting to violence and abetting terrorist activity.”
That’s why, Fogel said, the previous government cut aid, and why the current government has imposed “serious safeguards,” such as anti-terror and employee screening provisions.
Even so, a separate UN refugee agency that exclusively serves Palestinians “perpetuates the refugee problem by artificially sustaining dependency and victimhood,” Fogel said.
David Bedein, the director of the Israel Resource News Agency and the Center for Near East Policy Research who was in Ottawa last fall to brief Liberal MP Michael Levitt on UNRWA’s ties to Hamas, told The CJN that “it is much wiser and more effective to attach tough conditions” to funding the agency, rather than slash money.
“Our prediction proved to be correct, which is that if the U.S. pulls out of UNRWA, the only effect will be that other nations would move in,” he said, citing Saudi Arabia as an example. “Better to co-ordinate efforts with other donor nations to reform UNRWA, which can be done, rather than to dismantle UNRWA, which cannot be done.”
In the wake of Trump’s decision, UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl said he would launch “a global fundraising campaign,” aimed at keeping the agency’s schools and clinics functioning through 2018 and beyond. The Netherlands and Belgium have already pledged additional funds.