Ooops! Canada, Israel, and UNRWA

Posted: July 6, 2011 by Rex Brynen in UNRWA

It had been widely reported that Canada’s decision in late 2009 to end support for UNRWA’s General Fund was driven by some “pro-Israel” lobby groups who had embraced the rather shoddy and ill-informed criticism circulating about the Agency. B’nai Brith Canada, for example, had long accused UNRWA of links to terrorism and of creating an “environment of hate and incitement.” The Canada-Israel Committee praised the funding cut when it was made, and noted that it had “long advocated for such a move by the government.”

Now, however, some investigative reporting by Embassy Magazine (“Israel asked Canada to reverse decision on funding for UN Palestinian refugee agency”) has found that not only was the Canadian move criticized by the Arab States, UN, EU, and US, but that even Israel was disappointed and asked Canada to resume its UNRWA General Fund contributions.

For more than a year, many have suspected that the Harper government’s decision to stop providing direct budgetary support to the UN agency responsible for helping Palestinian refugees in the Middle East was made at the behest of Israel.

However, newly released CIDA documents appear to turn that notion on its head as they show Israel was one of a number of countries actively lobbying Canada to reverse its decision last year to focus its funding on emergency food aid.

“The announcement of this targeted funding has provoked a number of reactions from countries in the region,” reads a document dated Aug. 24, 2010, “and in discussions with the US, Israel and the UN Secretary General, Canada has been asked to resume funding the General Fund.”

B’Nai Brith Canada, in a valiant effort to rescue itself from the debacle, is arguing that the episode “is a wonderful example of how Canada determines its own foreign policy, irrespective of what others may want it to do.” However, the comedy-of-errors is rather more a case of certain lobby groups being seduced by the ill-informed rhetoric of the most extreme elements of their own constituency, to the point of accidentally advocating policies at odds with those of the very Israel that they claim to support. (One former Israeli official, himself a veteran of past refugee negotiations, once berated me for using the term “pro-Israeli lobby” on the grounds that many of the policies advocated or accepted by such groups weren’t at all in Israel’s long-term interests. The Canada/UNRWA case seems to rather prove his point.) The Canadian government ought to have known better too—but apparently did not.

I doubt that these revelations will make much difference in Canada, where the government is unlikely to admit its mistake and change course. However it certainly will seriously undermine the “defund UNRWA” campaign in the US and elsewhere.

  1. Since UNRWA barely manages to cover the necessities of life for Palestinian refugees, we get a sense of what state the Israeli government wants to maintain as the status quo for Palestinians. On the other hand if UNRWA funding was slashed, the onus of dealing with and alleviating Palestinian suffering will be placed on Israel. Of course this is problematic for Israel since it can provide better funding per capita and would provide support to its own resistance while UNRWA can only provide what donor nations drop at its doorstep.

  2. […] ended support to the Agency in 2009. Far from praising the move, the Israeli government actually lobbied Ottawa to restart funding, and even to expand […]

  3. […] repeated statements of support for the Agency’s humanitarian activities and its requests to donors that they increase their funding of the Agency. Indeed, the UN more broadly (and UNRWA in particular) is now playing a key role in the […]

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