By cutting funding to the UN organization assisting Palestinian refugees, Ottawa is inadvertently strengthening Hamas.
In yet another action that will tarnish Canada’s international image, the Harper government has decided to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
For over 60 years, UNRWA, which relies on contributions from UN member states for funding, has been responsible for providing education, health care, social services, and other much needed assistance to the Palestinian refugee population. The Canadian government, using the lame excuse that it cannot properly monitor how money is spent by UNRWA, has drastically cut its contribution, deciding to redirect the money towards the Palestinian Authority’s specific programs. This is a purely political decision aimed at further weakening UNRWA, which has long been attacked by Israel and its supporters in Canada and elsewhere.
There is no doubt that the UNRWA – like all other UN agencies – is too bureaucratic and suffers from inefficiencies. But the main accusation against it is that it is not impartial in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has put Hamas on its “payroll.”
To perform its numerous functions, including running schools and hospitals and providing various social services, the UNRWA hires many Palestinian employees. And Palestinians, as one can imagine, are highly politicized. Many are sympathizers or members of one of the various political factions, including Hamas. UNRWA has no way of knowing, controlling, or preventing this.
The Palestinian refugee situation is one of the most complex aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not every Palestinian is a refugee, not all refugees live in camps, and not every refugee is registered and protected by UNRWA. All those whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, as well as their descendents, are registered as refugees with UNRWA. More Palestinians were displaced and became refugees after the 1967 war, but since UNRWA could not provide them with protection, UNHCR, the main UN refugee agency, stepped in to oversee their protection. There is also a third category of Palestinian refugees, located mostly in Lebanon, known as “non-ID” refugees, who are covered neither by UNRWA nor UNHCR. As a result, they cannot register their children’s birth or put them in school, or formally find a job.
Of these three categories of refugees, UNRWA protects the largest group, originally over 900,000, and now, according to the latest census in 2007, numbering over 4.5 million. They are scattered across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. About 1.3 million live in 58 official refugee camps located in these countries.
The decision of the Harper government to redirect money from UNRWA to the PA tragically ignores the fact that a large majority of Palestinian refugees do not live in the Occupied Territories. This was nothing more than a political decision aimed at dividing Palestinian refugees. Ironically, the weakening of UNRWA will only add to the unresolved problems between the Israelis and Palestinians by exacerbating both humanitarian and political tensions. If Israel supporters think that impoverishing the UNRWA will help Israel, they could not be more misguided.
If Hamas is the main concern, it should not be forgotten how this fundamentalist religious organization became so powerful in the first place. Hamas began as a charity organization, which ironically was supported by the Israeli government of the time as a way to weaken the secular PLO. In the absence of sufficient social service providers, Hamas established schools, clinics, and hospitals, becoming more and more popular among Palestinians. The majority of Hamas supporters in Gaza are women, not because they are zealots who want to live under strict Shari’a laws, but because they need to use the services Hamas provides for their families. Weakening the UNRWA will only strengthen Hamas.
Certainly, UNRWA should one day be closed down completely, but this can only happen when there is a just peace settlement – when the occupation of the West Bank and enclosure of Gaza is ended, a viable Palestinian state is established, and Palestinians have formally recognized the state of Israel within its 1967 borders. Integral to all of these processes is a solution for the Palestinian refugees, with some returning to Palestine and Israel and some becoming citizens of other countries and being compensated for their losses. There is simply no other way of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.