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Will Canada restore support for Palestinian refugees? Open in fullscreen

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Will Canada restore support for Palestinian refugees?

Pro-Israel groups in Canada have urged the government to maintain its funding freeze [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 April, 2016

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Canada cut funding to the United Nations' Palestine refugee agency in 2010, but local groups hope Ottawa may soon restore its support.

Canada's decision to cut funding to the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees across the Middle East sent shockwaves through the international community in 2010.

But with a new Liberal government in Ottawa led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, some feel the moment is right for Canada to re-establish its support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East [UNRWA].

"We would expect of course that the Liberals would reinstate funding," said Tyler Levitan, campaigns coordinator at Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a human rights group that challenges Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

Levitan told The New Arab the question remains only when the funding may resume.

"It's taking quite a bit of time, but I think that the government will make the right decision and reinstate funding to at least the same level as before, if not more, given the severity of the situation in Gaza and in refugee camps in the region, especially in Syria," he said.

UNRWA provides assistance to about five million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. The agency operates hospitals and schools and also provides emergency relief and social services.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the government had not made a decision on whether to restore funding for UNRWA.

UNRWA provides assistance to about five million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.


The department "is currently reviewing its options to provide assistance to a significant number of Palestinian refugees who remain vulnerable and in need of support", Tania Assaly said in an email.

UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness, meanwhile, said he was not commenting.

Human rights groups denounced Canada's move to defund UNRWA in 2010 and the agency urged then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reverse the decision. Even the United States and Israel asked Canada to reconsider, a Canadian International Development Agency memo showed at the time.

Canada's decision to end its support for UNRWA was seen as largely political, as the Conservative government in power at the time was a staunch supporter of Israel.

"I saw it sort of as a punitive measure," said Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, a Montreal-based advocacy group. "I think the Harper government was just showing so much favouritism to the Israeli government they had almost a vendetta against the Palestinians."

In 2007, Ottawa contributed $17 million to UNRWA's general fund and $15 million to its emergency fund, according to statistics put out by CJPME.

A year later, Canada reduced its total contribution to $28.1 million and in 2009 that dropped even further to $20 million solely for emergency relief, the group reported. The money stopped completely by 2013.

"I think at least in the past decade or so, Canada was the only country that went from being a regular, consistent contributor, to a zero contributor," Woodley said.

In mid-March, following a meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York, the UN retracted a version of a statement that said Canada would once again support UNRWA.

Canada's decision to end its support for UNRWA was seen as largely political, as the Conservative government in power at the time was a staunch supporter of Israel


"The first version of the readout was issued by mistake. It was only a draft and the earlier draft did not properly reflect the actual discussions between the prime minister and the secretary general," UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said at the time.

The former head of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, who is now the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recently encouraged Canada to resume its financial support.

"We had to scramble to find other contributions and that caused a lot of hardship and difficulty," Grandi told Canadian reporters in March.

But pro-Israel groups in Canada have urged the government to maintain its funding freeze, while accusing UNRWA of keeping close ties to Hamas, the Palestinian faction that governs the Gaza Strip.

Shimon Fogel, CEO of pro-Israel lobby group the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, recently wrote about "why Canada should not restore funding to UNRWA" in national newspaper The Globe & Mail.

Fogel described UNRWA as "a counterproductive anachronism", and alleged that "UNRWA employees and facilities have been implicated in fomenting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement to violence and abetting terrorist activity".

UNRWA has repeatedly denied these types of accusations.

Levitan, meanwhile, said pro-Israel attacks on the UN agency reflect a desire to have the world forget about Israel's role in the creation and continued plight of Palestinian refugees.

"The ongoing existence of Palestinian refugees from 1948 is an indictment of Israel and its reputation. Israel's defenders want us to forget that the Nakba took place," said Levitan, referring to the ethnic cleansing and forced displacement of about 750,000 Palestinians before and during the creation of the state of Israel.

"They refuse to acknowledge any Israeli responsibility for what took place in 1947-1948 that created this horrific refugee crisis, and so would rather that UNRWA just dissolve and that we would never talk about Palestinian refugees."

Follow Jillian Kestler-D'Amours on Twitter: @jkdamours

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