They say, if you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. But if you teach someone to fish, they can learn to feed themselves for a lifetime. And so is the quandary of the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) – an agency that was specifically designed to keep Palestinians refugees.
It’s the only UN agency specifically set up in 1949 and internationally funded for a designated group of people – to keep them under refugee status for eternity or as long as Israel exists. Since the Second World War, millions of refugees have successfully resettled around the world, including over 860,000 Jews fleeing Arab countries, but UNRWA has kept Palestinians reliant on aid and as pawns in the Middle East conflict.
UNRWA’s website says that roughly half of its US$747 million budget in 2018 was designated to education with service to the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. That “education” also involves report after report of anti-Israel bias in textbooks in UNRWA-run schools, to say the least about alleged infiltration by extremist groups. But this week, revelations appeared to reinforce the pre-existing suspicion the agency appears to want to advance its leadership, not the very population it purports to service.
At issue is a widely reported 10-page report into the agency’s operations assembled by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services citing “credible and corroborated reports” that members of an “inner circle” at UNRWA had engaged in “abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve personal objectives.” Additionally, Agence France-Presse said the document describes abuses at the top of the organization, including “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority….”
So far, in response, the Netherlands and Switzerland have suspended their funding to UNRWA. But what about Canada? Since reinstating funding to the agency in 2016, Canada has committed $110 million in support for the UNRWA, including a $50 million contribution this past October that is being spread over two years. According to the UNRWA, Canada pledged almost US$27 million last year. In early talks, when the government of Canada considered this contribution, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) had specific discussions with Global Affairs expressing concern over accountability. The organization suggested direct aid be delivered on the ground (some of that is happening). Despite this, time and again, FSWC was assured Canadian officials on the ground (and at Global Affairs) would be scrutinizing how our money was being spent.
Global Affairs’ statement that our “government is concerned by the allegations of wrongdoing within UNRWA” does not go far enough. Canada should immediately suspend all aid pending our own review. Canada is well-meaning with respect to wanting to meet the “basic education, health and livelihood needs of millions of Palestinian refugees, especially women and children.” But again, aside from the fact that those needs are not being properly serviced by this agency due to allegations of corruption, UNRWA’s mandate must be redesigned.
We need a new strategy that will lift the Palestinian people out of so-called “refugee status” and be aligned with the continued success and reinforcement of the Jewish state of Israel. The strategy will not only promote advanced education in science, trades and skills, but will promote industry – including hi-tech with partnerships from Israel and elsewhere around the planet. Canada could be investing its hard-earned money on creating hi-tech zones, university partnerships, industrial alliances and democracy-advancing institutions to bring about hope, prosperity and in turn, peace to the region.
Many of these ideas are already in play – even between Israeli business leaders and Palestinian communities. At the same time, given the oppression and intended suppression of Palestinians by Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a change from the “status quo” is nothing short of impossible, but a concerted strategy for advancement toward economic, social and cultural prosperity must be the objective. Change must also come from the inside – but a refugee mindset under UNRWA should not be eternally perpetuated.