Americas

Canada, the UNRWA and the Arabs

Palestinian schoolchildren walk out of their U.N.-run school in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on Dec. 16. The UNRWA center and several schools were destroyed by Israeli bombing during last winter's three-week war. (Photo: Mohammed Abed/ AFP-Getty Images)

When the Conservative Canadian government announced it would no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in January, the caretaker agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendents, many deplored how far we've strayed from the Canada of Lester B. Pearson, prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner—Canada the peacekeeping nation, the globally respected middle power.

Organizations critical of Israel, or supportive of Palestinian rights, such as the Canadian Arab Federation, the Christian group Kairos, the Parliament's Rights and Democracy, and UNRWA, have all felt the sting of an unabashedly pro-Israel Canadian government.

Canada should keep funding UNRWA for principled as well as pragmatic reasons. But while many excoriate Prime Minister Stephen Harper's predisposition to one party in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now would be a good time to wonder why Canada was ever one of UNRWA's biggest donors to begin with. More pointedly, why have the contributions of Arab states been so measly?

UNRWA was originally set up as a temporary agency to deal with the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948. But as the refugees were not permitted to return to their villages in what has become Israel, and as they were unable or unwilling to resettle in their host countries, the agency's work became permanent.

UNRWA serves 4.7 million refugees, making the Palestinians the world's largest refugee group. Its services range from health and education to micro-credit financing and emergency aid. Its humanitarian operations have been vital to Palestinians. Those it serves in Gaza have become wholly dependent on its handouts since Israel imposed a blockade in June 2007—when Hamas took control.

But the agency is consistently underfunded. Even after Israel's devastating war in Gaza, which left around 1,400 Palestinians dead and much of the territory in ruins, UNRWA reached only 86 percent of its funding target in 2009 for running core programs.

That year, the United States was the largest donor, contributing around $268 million. The European Commission was second with $233 million. The Scandinavian countries were the largest donors relative to population size and GDP per capita.

Of the top 20 overall donors to UNRWA's general fund in 2008, not one was from the Middle East. Canada was the 8th top donor, contributing nearly $17 million. In U.S. dollars, Jordan gave 233,551; Syria gave 118,719; Egypt gave 10,000; Lebanon gave 1,703; and Saudi Arabia gave nothing. The Vatican, on the other hand, gave $20,000.

These paltry figures do not include state money given through NGOs or independent charities. But UNRWA is the only agency capable of reaching so many Palestinians, on so many levels, and of undertaking large-scale projects such as the reconstruction of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon.

If only the Arab states paid UNRWA what they pay the Palestinian cause in lip service.

The Arabs have not only failed in ending or preventing Israeli occupation or aggression, they have often been complicit in it. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel, and Palestinian refugees in Arab states are usually treated as second-class citizens.

While the Arab world, and much of the international community, condemns Israel's collective punishment of the people of Gaza with the blockade, Egypt is constructing an underground steel wall along its border that will block many of the tunnels used to smuggle food and supplies into Gaza. Without tunnels, Gaza will look even more like a concentration camp.

Pro-Israel and Zionist groups have accused UNRWA of many things, such as being complicit in terrorism or hiring Hamas members. These allegations have proved unfounded, and the agency has addressed each of them on its website on a page titled "Setting the Record Straight."

The Canadian government has not been clear as to why it is dropping UNRWA, but its decision will be counterproductive. Not only is UNRWA's work vital and in agreement with Canada's mores and values, but if UNRWA were to decrease its services in Gaza, for example, Palestinians would be forced to turn elsewhere for help. This would only push people closer to Hamas, which the Canadian government considers a terrorist organization.

Many Canadians initiated letter-writing campaigns and circulated petitions to pressure the government into reversing its decision. They were justified in doing so. But one also has to wonder where the Arab countries in all of this are?

Barnabe F. Geisweiller, a Canadian, is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of Journalism. More of his work can be found at www.barnabeg.com.

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