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Michael Bell has been four times Canadian ambassador in the Middle East. He has been director general for Eastern Europe and director of Middle East relations in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Michael Bell has been four times Canadian ambassador in the Middle East. He has been director general for Eastern Europe and director of Middle East relations in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Michael Bell

Why Canada should restore funding for Palestinian relief agency Add to ...

Michael Bell is a former Canadian ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and twice to Israel. Before the last federal election, he advised Justin Trudeau on foreign policy.

The question of renewed Canadian core funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) is on the table. International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau raised the issue this past Sunday on CTV’s Question Period. She said the government had the issue under review. Her comments likely represent another move toward activist internationalism to which Justin Trudeau’s government has a stated commitment.

A renewal of funding would reverse the sense of isolation and alienation former prime minister Stephen Harper favoured when he cancelled our ongoing commitment to UNRWA, an organization in which Canada had been prominent since its foundation.

On the direction of then minister of international co-operation Bev Oda, Canada had already reduced its core contribution and, in January, 2010, funding was eliminated entirely. The reason given was that UNRWA was a repository of Hamas-directed radicalism and terrorist activity. As so often, on-the-ground realities had nothing to do with Mr. Harper’s decision; rather it reflected his ideological commitment and community-focused politics.

Canada became the only donor to have ever withdrawn from funding. Main supporters remain a strong group of Western countries – the United States, the European Union, Britain, Germany, Norway, Japan and Australia – plus the oil-rich Arab states. In 2014, the U.S. contributed a total of $408-million (U.S.), including $74-million in special funds for Gaza relief. The same year, Britain provided $95-million and $15-million, respectively. The other countries are in line proportionally. In 2008, according to UNRWA statistics, Canada contributed a total of $28-million but Mr. Harper considered even that too much.

Founded in 1950 to cope with the refugee flow resulting from Israel’s foundational war, the agency today provides assistance to more than five million people in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. But it was the situation in Gaza that caught Ms. Oda’s eye and gained Mr. Harper’s ire.

Gazans total close to two million, of whom more than 75 per cent are refugees. UNRWA is heavily engaged in education and health care. UNRWA is active in microfinancing. Since the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel, it has been preoccupied with the reconstruction of 83 schools and other infrastructure. It provides rebuilding assistance to more than 140,000 households.

Youth unemployment stands at 41 per cent with close to half the population under 15 years of age. Gaza is a region of high social and economic instability with its political leadership loosing popular support because it cannot deliver the basic necessities of life.

When Mr. Harper made his decision on UNRWA, he ignored the advice of important elements of Canada’s Israel lobby and, remarkably, that of the Israeli government itself. They had asked that Canada continue its support role. The government in Jerusalem realized, and I’m certain continues to realize, that while UNRWA as an organization might not be its ideal choice there is no better alternative.

True Hamas dominates the UNRWA trade unions and its staff is replete with Hamas supporters, but in the world of the possible how could one expect otherwise. That staff may inculcate values we cannot accept, but how could one expect otherwise from a population living in misery and feeling itself dispossessed?

Having toured Palestinian refugee camps throughout my career, I have to ask myself, as do the Israelis, whether a UNRWA withdrawal from Gaza would make the situation better or worse. Is there any other entity capable of taking its place? Would Hamas running the Gaza operation, even if it could physically do so, better contribute to a minimally acceptable environment? Instead the lid, I’m certain, would blow, a situation neither Palestinian nor Israeli could accept. Both want no breakdown. They are both clear beneficiaries from UNRWA’s buffer function. They, if not others, know it.

The UNRWA question gives our new multilateralist Prime Minister the chance to prove his stuff. He should not let himself be deterred. I don’t think he will.

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