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Leaders clash over Andrew Scheer’s pledge to end funding for UNRWA at debate

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The Maclean’s/Citytv national leaders debate turned testy on Thursday evening, when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer promised that a Tory government would cut funding to UNRWA, the United Nations’ refugee agency in Gaza.

“I will pull the funding from UNRWA and ensure Canadian taxpayers’ dollars are not going to advocate terrorist activities,” Scheer said as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May tried speaking over him, saying “no.”

The current Liberal government “has funded UNRWA, that is funding elements within the Middle East that foment and encourage anti-Semitism and terrorism,” Scheer said.

That prompted an interruption from May, who said “they run schools in permanent settlement refugee camps.”

Canada must recognize that in the Middle East, there is one side that tries to minimize human casualties and that is Israel.
– Andrew Scheer

The exchange over Israel and UNRWA came as part of the debate on foreign affairs, after moderator Paul Wells asked the leaders a question about Canada’s commitments to NATO.

After Scheer addressed that subject, saying he would adopt a pro-Ukraine policy to counter “Russian aggression,” May responded by saying, “I looked into your policies on foreign policy. If anyone wants to know where your government stands, just figure out what (U.S. President Donald) Trump wants.

“You want to move our embassy to Jerusalem, take our role away as being an honest broker in that part of the world. You want to join with the United States in building an anti-ballistic missile system. You’ll do what Trump wants,” May said, concluding that Scheer would be like a ventriloquist’s dummy for Trump.

“That’s just nonsense,” Scheer responded, before attacking Trudeau for ceding Canadian sovereignty in the recent free trade deal with the United States.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer

Scheer then volunteered a statement in support of Israel: “I believe that Canada must recognize that in the Middle East, there is one side that tries to minimize human casualties and that is Israel. We have an obligation to support the democratic state of Israel, the place in the region where people have the most freedom. Absolutely, I will be an unapologetic defender of the right of Israel –”

At that point, May interjected, drowning out Scheer: “So it’s not OK for Russia to occupy Crimea, but it’s OK for Israel to occupy Palestine?”

Referring to UNRWA, May said, “They run schools. I have been to the schools.… It is terrifying to see a small school where an illegal appropriation of Palestinian land for giant infrastructure of a big community.… The children throw rocks. The Israeli soldiers are there, armed to the teeth. It is a terrifying situation. It’s a humanitarian crisis.

“I stand absolutely four-square for Israel, but Mr. Netanyahu’s policies are a danger to the region.”

So it’s not OK for Russia to occupy Crimea, but it’s OK for Israel to occupy Palestine?
– Elizabeth May

UNRWA, meanwhile, has been the subject of controversy for years. In July, a leaked internal report alleged that senior UNRWA management engaged in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives,” AFP reported.

Even before that, Jewish groups and UN watchdogs alleged that UNRWA funds had been funnelled to Hamas and spent on educational materials that vilify Jews and Israel.

In 2010, the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper eliminated aid to UNRWA over the agency’s ties to Hamas. The Trudeau government restored funding in 2016 and Canada has since committed $110 million to support the agency.

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