Canada resuming funding to UN aid agency for Palestinians in Gaza Strip

Canada resuming funding to UN aid agency for Palestinians in Gaza Strip
International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen speaks in the Foyer of the House of Commons before Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.

Canada has decided to resume funding to the controversial United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen said Friday.

The decision comes seven weeks after Canada and 15 other countries temporarily halted payments to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East after Israel alleged in January that a dozen of its workers participated in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

The Canadian government’s next $25-million payment to the agency, known as UNRWA, is due next month. Ottawa did not miss a payment as a result of the pause.

Canada made the decision to go ahead with the payment after seeing an interim report from the UN, Hussen said, and with the knowledge that the urgent need for aid in Gaza is growing more dire by the day.

“UNRWA forms the backbone of the humanitarian response in Gaza and in the region,” he said. Other aid agencies rely on UNRWA’s networks to help get aid to where it is needed most, he added.

Getting humanitarian aid to the millions of Palestinians living in desperate conditions has been an ongoing crisis, and aid groups warn of mass starvation if that does not change soon.

Hussen was in Egypt in February and visited the Rafah border crossing where he said trucks full of aid supplies had been sitting for weeks, unable to get in.

Canadians need to have confidence in the organizations the government supports, Hussen said, but he offered no detail on what has been done to restore that confidence.

“We’ve been reassured by the contents of this interim report,” he said, without providing details of the report’s contents.

“But in addition to that, we’ve been reassured by the number of processes and steps that UNRWA itself has undertaken, as well as reforms introduced through the leadership of the UN secretary-general.”

Israel has long accused UNRWA of being a “haven for Hamas’s radical ideology” and using its medical and education programs to incite antisemitism. UNRWA officials say they have been provided no evidence to back up those claims. Its website says it has investigated claims against 66 of its 30,000 employees in Gaza and elsewhere, including for ties to Hamas.

UNRWA did fire all 12 of the accused employees named by Israel. It also says it screens all of its employees twice a year against the UN Security Council Consolidated Sanctions List.

Hussen’s announcement was first expected Wednesday, but a scheduled news conference was abruptly cancelled without explanation amid media reports that UNRWA funding was about to resume.

The government later denied that report, saying it hadn’t yet reached a final decision. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not commit to the restoration when asked about it Thursday and Hussen would not explain the delay.

SEE PREVIOUS: Trudeau won’t say if Canada will restore funding to UN relief agency in Gaza Strip

UNRWA is the primary provider of social and humanitarian assistance in the territory, including health care and education. It relies almost exclusively on donations from UN member countries. Twelve of its 15 biggest donors, including Canada, hit the pause button after the allegations emerged.

Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner general, pleaded for the restoration of all funding earlier this week, warning UN delegates of the dire consequences if it doesn’t happen.

The pro-Palestinian advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East expressed relief at Canada’s decision Friday and urged the government to do more, quickly.

“This reversal must be accompanied by a major infusion of additional aid to UNRWA,” the group said in a statement.

Canada has provided $100 million in aid for Gaza since the Israel-Hamas war began, including $40 million in new aid to multiple agencies — including the World Food Program and UNICEF — in the week after the UNRWA pause.

Canada is also working to send aid via airdrops, including $100,000 for the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, Hussen said. Canada is also providing cargo parachutes to help with critical airdrops.

B’nai Brith Canada said earlier this week it was “outraged” at the idea funding would be restored and a lawyer for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said Friday it planned to sue the government for what CIJA deems an “unreasonable” decision.

As (CIJA’s) general counsel, let me make something clear: We are planning to challenge this decision in court,” Richard Marceau declared on social media.

Meanwhile, the tensions within the Liberal caucus remained on open display.

Montreal MP Anthony Housefather and former public safety minister Marco Mendicino wrote an open letter to the government Thursday urging it not to restore UNRWA funding.

The agency does not have the governance and internal controls to make sure aid doesn’t end up in the hands of Hamas, they wrote.

Canada’s decision to resume funding is “premature and imports the serious risk that Canadian resources could be misappropriated by Hamas, which would be devastating to Israelis and Palestinians,” Mendicino said Friday.

Ottawa should have waited until the final reports on UNRWA before making a decision, he added.

Friday’s decision appeared to make Canada only the second government to resume funding so far. The European Commission agreed last week to send 60 per cent of its contribution, holding on to the balance pending further actions by the agency to investigate its employees and take action to keep Hamas militants out of its ranks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2024.

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