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opinion

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees is the subject of intense controversy between those who see it as a force conspiring against Israel and those who see it as essential to Palestinian welfare.

UNRWA, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, was founded to provide emergency relief and basic health, education and social services for Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war between the nascent Israeli state and the Arabs.

The Israelis won their war of independence, but innumerable Palestinians were displaced, leaving their homes, their employment and their entire social and economic universe. The welfare of these refugees and their descendents is still in the hands of UNRWA, including about 750,000 in the West Bank and more than one million in Gaza. The agency's footprint is deep.

UNRWA has been troubled since its birth. Some argue that it is a radical organization that foments discontent and perpetuates the refugee problem, demonizing Israel and sustaining those who call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Some maintain that the textbooks the agency uses are anti-Semitic by design. They say its officers in Gaza have been complicit with Hamas.

Today, rumours are circulating in Jerusalem, from where I write, that for these reasons Canada is likely to cut or eliminate its long-standing contributions to the only Palestinian relief agency that counts.

Has UNRWA outlived its usefulness? Should funding be wound up?

This possibility is deeply upsetting to the agency because it is only through support from countries such as Canada that it survives. The moderate leadership of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad depends on UNRWA not only to feed, doctor and educate the refugees, but also to provide relative stability in the camps, without which Palestinian society would be prey to further and perhaps irresistible chaos. Moderate Arab governments share this view, not only because in their eyes it would constitute a betrayal of the Palestinian identity, but because consequent radicalization would strengthen Islamic movements in their countries.

UNRWA does have blemishes. Many are inherent in the deeply troubled environment where the agency works. Western countries accept its sometimes bureaucratic ineptitude. But they see it as a reality in an imperfect world. Even if their public language is restrained out of concern for the reaction of domestic interest groups, the U.S. administration and Congress remain supporters because they fear the consequences of UNRWA's demise.

The agency has ensured the welfare of generations of refugees. It employs 15,000 Palestinians directly in Gaza. These employees have an average family size of six in a territory with the world's highest unemployment rate , 70 per cent. Twenty per cent of UNRWA's employees deliver solid health care, at very modest cost. Fifty per cent of its employees in Gaza are teachers, using texts devoid of anti-Israeli incitement, according to a recent study by Middle East expert Nathan Brown of Georgetown University. These textbooks are also used by the Israeli education authorities in Palestinian classes within Jerusalem itself.

Here is the rub. The Israeli government might be expected to advocate UNRWA's abolition for many of the same reasons the Jewish state's supporters abroad do. But it does not.

I have talked to many Israelis involved in the policy process over the past few days, indeed over many years. They are quick to cite reasons why they believe the UN system as a whole, including UNRWA, has often been an unreliable partner. They are dismayed by the fact that in the recent UNRWA staff elections, Hamas representatives, running as independents, did well, despite an agency ban on political activity.

That being said, no one in the Israeli mainstream wants UNRWA dismantled.

The agency is Gaza's lifeline to secular culture. Knowledgeable Israelis prefer that young Gazans go to UNRWA's summer camps, with their emphasis on sports, culture and the arts, rather than Hamas's jihadist equivalent.

No Palestinian agency has the ability to replace UNRWA. Nor does any international body. It would require that a massive operation be invented and put in place immediately. No one in authority on either side will contemplate this.

The only regional actors who may favour UNRWA's demise are Islamists, who would be only too happy to see it go because of the secular values it represents and promotes.

Ruth Lapidoth, a respected Israeli professor of international law, maintains that if UNRWA were not to exist, Israel would be legally bound to assume its mandate. This is a challenge Israel does not need, does not want and could not execute. The level of mistrust between the Israelis and the refugees is such that the necessary intimate relationships existing between UNRWA and Palestinians in the camps could not be replicated. Early and violent breakdown would be inevitable.

Michael Bell is a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan.