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Blind funding of UNRWA is a mistake, so engagement is key

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Palestinians get their monthly food aid at an UNRWA distribution centre in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza last April ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH 90 PHOTO
Palestinians get their monthly food aid at an UNRWA distribution centre in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza last April ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH 90 PHOTO

Ottawa’s recent announcement of $25 million in funding for the UN Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) has reignited longstanding concern within our community. Providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations is a core Canadian value, but UNRWA has consistently demonstrated that it’s not up to the task.

Our chief concern pertains to Israeli security. Whether it is UNRWA teachers posting hate messages to social media encouraging the murder of Israelis, or Hamas missiles being stockpiled at UNRWA schools, the agency’s staff and facilities have been implicated repeatedly in anti-Semitic incitement and terrorist activity.

READ: OTTAWA PRAISED FOR UN VOTES AS IT GIVES UNRWA $25 MILLION

UNRWA also bears responsibility for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem by artificially sustaining dependency and victimhood. Rather than achieve a durable solution, under UNRWA, Palestinian refugees have entered a fourth generation, totalling more than five million people. As well, the agency’s activities in areas of Palestinian jurisdiction are a duplication of services that continues to undermine the development of a viable Palestinian civil society, which is essential to coexistence and peace-building.

That UNRWA’s services are status-based, not needs-based, contributes further to the inefficient and counterproductive nature of the agency. While Canadians genuinely wish to support the most vulnerable, this is not UNRWA’s mandate. Instead, UNRWA provides services to anyone registered as a Palestinian refugee regardless of their needs. As former UNRWA official James Lindsay put it, “no justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services.”

CIJA directly, and publicly, raised these concerns with the government and advised against the restoration of general funding to UNRWA. Our position remains unchanged: aid and development assistance for the Palestinians can have far greater impact if it is directed through Canada’s representative office in Ramallah, rather than through UNRWA’s general budget. This has proven highly effective in ensuring accountability and delivering results for the Palestinian people.

When consulted by Ottawa, the Netanyahu government took a different position and did not oppose renewed Canadian funding for UNRWA. Israel’s government has a challenging and complex relationship with the agency. While recognizing UNRWA’s significant failures, Israel does not wish to create conditions that could either allow Hamas to provide even more services to Palestinians or require direct Israeli responsibility for Palestinian refugees.

READ: SEEING NETANYAHU THROUGH A CANADIAN LENS

Although CIJA would have preferred a different course of action, it would be irresponsible to disengage simply because the government decided to resume funding. It has acknowledged our concerns and responded by instituting significant oversight provisions. The safeguards imposed by Canada are the most muscular of all UNRWA donors, including all other G7 countries. They include regular site visits, screening of UNRWA senior staff, anti-terror provisions and training for employees on neutrality and appropriate use of social media. International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has committed to working directly with CIJA in this effort. We will continue to advocate for the vigorous enforcement of these accountability measures and zero tolerance for anti-Semitic incitement or support for terror.

In addition to taking the lead in urging fellow donor countries to replicate Canadian accountability measures, Canada’s re-engagement with UNRWA should also have a central focus on comprehensive reform of the agency. Canada can leverage its position on UNRWA’s oversight board and advisory commission to take the lead in this regard and encourage other countries to push for meaningful change. Without broad-based pressure, our concerns about UNRWA will never be fully addressed.

As I have written previously, it’s important that agencies like UNRWA aren’t funded blindly. Though we remain deeply concerned, we’re confident the government has taken its decision to resume funding for UNRWA in full awareness and in good faith. We are assured that the government will continue to listen to the Jewish community on this important issue and will hold the agency to account for any violations. 


Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.