Canada pledges $38 million to Palestinian refugee agency defunded by Trump

Contribution mostly earmarked for UNRWA’s health and education programs, but Ottawa says some funds allocated to ‘improve neutrality within the agency’

Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Canada stepped up aid for Palestinian refugees on Friday, announcing Can$50 million (US$38 million) for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees,  which is grappling with a financial crisis sparked by US funding cuts.

The Canadian contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) will be spread over two years, with Can$40 million earmarked for “meeting the basic education, health and livelihood needs of millions of Palestinian refugees,” Ottawa said in a statement.

Another Can$10 million will be used to provide “emergency life-saving assistance to more than 460,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon,” it said.

The statement added that a portion of the funds would be used to “improve neutrality within the agency and its operations,” which it said was “essential” for Canada’s continued support.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of International Development, said the funding to UNRWA was “urgently needed,” and would serve to “bring some predictability to the agency as the needs on the ground are increasing.”

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration reversed cuts to Palestinian aid by his predecessor, and has committed Can$110 million in support for UNRWA since then.

In this Jan. 14, 2018 photo, Palestinians receive food aid at a UNRWA warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

UNRWA supports some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and provides schooling for 526,000 children in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

The agency is grappling with a severe financial crisis after US President Donald Trump cut $300 million in planned 2018 funding to the “irredeemably flawed operation” and said the US will not fund the agency in the future.

The US funding cuts have crippled UNRWA’s operations in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, where its schools, health care centers, and food distribution offices play an important role.

Hundreds of laid-off workers have staged protests and strikes in recent weeks, warning that without their jobs, their families will be at serious risk in blockaded Gaza, where unemployment is at some 53 percent.

Around 80 percent of Palestinians in the impoverished Gaza Strip are eligible for UNRWA aid.

Israel, which praised the end of US funding, accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by, uniquely, granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year.

In this Jan. 14, 2018 photo, a Palestinian woman has her child checked at an UNRWA-run clinic in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

However, some in the Israeli defense establishment fear that Washington’s defunding of UNRWA may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security.

They say serious cuts to UNRWA’s budget risk creating a vacuum in the provision of basic services in the Strip, where the majority of residents are dependent on the organization. This would be particularly felt in food shortages and a breakdown of education, which Hamas could use to strengthen its grip on the coastal enclave.

The United Nations has warned that the situation in Gaza is “catastrophic” after 11 years under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, during which Hamas and Israel have fought three wars.

Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.

AFP contributed to this report.

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