Dion dithers on restoring support to Palestinian refugees


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provides life-saving food, education and medical services to over 5 million Palestinian refugees, including these ones in Syria. The Harper government reduced to zero the Canadian financial contribution.  The Trudeau government is hesitating about restoring funding. Read more

When Prime Minister Trudeau met UN head Ban Ki Moon in New York, officials in Ban’s office were confident that Trudeau would commit to restoring Canada’s contribution to UNRWA. After all, Canada had announced that it wanted a seat on the Security Council, and Mr. Trudeau had made it clear that “Canada is back”.

trudeau ban ki moon

In fact, the UN secretary general was so confident of Canada’s restored funding that his office released a press release saying so. However, much to the embarrassment of every one, Trudeau did not make such a commitment, and the press release had to be “walked back”.

Nearly 800,000 Palestinians were made refugees in 1947/48 when the State of Israel was created. Canada and many other nations including the USA contributed to UNRWA from the beginning, recognizing its humanitarian role and expecting that the problem would some day be resolved.

But still no solution to the refugee issue has been found after 68 years, and the financial demands on UNRWA grow every year. The agency is now responsible for over 5 million Palestinian refugees, and it runs operations in 58 refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.

The Harper Government dropped Canada’s core funding to UNRWA in 2010, leaving only money for “special “ programs, and even that was eventually cut. Embarassingly, Canada contributes nothing to this UN agency despite our desire to be a player at the UN.

Deer in the headlights

Trudeau is caught between opposing pressures. The Israel lobby, which has significant influence within the Liberal Party, actually opposes the very existence of UNRWA, which is a constant reminder of the Palestinian “Nakba’.

“UNRWA is a counterproductive anachronism, especially when juxtaposed with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency responsible for all other refugee populations throughout the world.” argued Shimon Fogel Chief Executive of CIJA, the main Israel lobby organization in Canada in an article in the Globe and Mail.

Undoubtedly, Israel is also made uncomfortable by UNRWA’s constant law based public advocacy for refugees and their challenges such as Israel’s ongoing home demolitions in the West Bank, and the effects of Israeli policy in Gaza and elsewhere..

On the other hand, many Canadians feel that until the Palestinian refugee issue is dealt with, Canada should recognize this as an ongoing humanitarian crisis – just as important as, for example, the Syrian crisis, which has gained a lot more attention recently.

Support for UNRWA in Canada is growing. Many Canadian church groups and other organizations, including Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East,  have begun lobbying for a restoration of Canadian funding.

Support has also come from former Canadian diplomats with experience in the area. In an op ed in the Globe and Mail, “Why Canada should restore funding for Palestinian relief agency”, Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel points out that while many countries continue to finance UNRWA, Canada is the only one to have withdrawn its support.

“The reason given (i.e. by Harper – ed.) was that UNRWA was a repository of Hamas-directed radicalism and terrorist activity. As so often, on-the-ground realities had nothing to do with Mr. Harper’s decision; rather it reflected his ideological commitment and community-focused politics.”

– Michael Bell, Former Canadian Ambassador to Israel

An on-line petition  has been launched asking that Canada restore its funding.

Readers wanting to share their views with key Canadian politicians can do so by sending an email to their offices.

  • Hon. Stephane Dion, stephane.dion@international.gc.ca
  • Hon. Tony Clement, PC Foreign Affairs Critic, Tony.Clement@parl.gc.ca
  • Mme Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic,  Helene.Laverdiere@parl.gc.ca

Will Dion’s “responsible conviction” extend to the Palestinians?  Will Trudeau’s “sunny ways” shine on the Palestinians?

We will know soon which way Trudeau/Dion will jump.


What do you think? Should Canada resume its funding? Or is UNRWA an anachronism that should be folded into UNHCR?  Or should Canada focus on finding a solution for the refugee issue? Your comments welcome.



  1. I strongly urge my Canadian government to restore funding for UNRWA. This is important not only on humanitarian grounds, but also for political stability. When people do not have jobs, access to schools and health services, what kind of political views we expect them to adopt? In the long term, Canada should support efforts to find a solution for this historic problem based on UN resolution 194. If UN makes UNRWA part of UNHCR this will not change the fact that most of these 5 million refugees live within 200 KM from their original homes, and they have national rights and demands. The solution is political, and not administrative. It begins with Israel acknowledging responsibility of what happened in 1948-47, and entering into a serious discussion to solve the problem. Denial is not a solution. It makes things more complicated with time.

  2. As an American let me just issue a factual correction here. The United States during the Truman administration did not believe that the UNRWA would resolve the issue but rather prolong it. They fought strongly for the Palestine refugee crisis to be grouped in with the other WWII displaced persons under UNHCR. The USA policy at the time was resettlement in reasonable host countries not trying to return people to their original homes and villages. The Arab league fought this and carried the day and so UNRWA was created.

    The Eisenhower administration, Sec Dulles, tried valiantly to settle the Arab refugees (Dulles agreed with Israel that there was no distinct Palestinian people) and failed because the Arab countries simply would still not embrace of policy of absorption. Dulles most certainly did foresee that in 2016 there would still be a refugee crisis. He saw the tracks being laid and fought against them. 1956-8 were a time when the United States (Dulles) worked quite hard to avoid allowing UNRWA to crisis into a permanent problem.

    After Eisenhower the USA began shifting even further away from UNRWA and towards considering Israel a strong ally and a keystone of USA’s middle east policy. It certainly was and remains USA policy to blame UNRWA’s resistance to resettlement as having led to the creation of a semi-permanent refugee crisis. This wasn’t accidental it was a deliberate policy choice made in the late 1940s.

    1. Hey CD Host
      I believe if you check the record you will find that when UNRWA was founded (Dec. 1949) there was no UNHCR. That agency was not created until the next year.

      At the time of the creation of UNRWA, by far the largest group of refugees in the world were Palestinian, and they were made refugees as a result of the UN partition of Palestine.

      1. I was oversimplifying a bit. During the Roosevelt administration the USA directly handled refugees through the War Refugee Board (WRB). The USSR had its own displaced persons system. In 1945 the USA and USSR joined their systems together into the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) which had been established in 1943. This agency handled all 11m non Germans in German, the refugees from Taiwan and China… The UNRRA was folded into the Marhall plan and structurally replaced by UNHCR. I didn’t think there was any reason to get specific with the naming since these organizations were contiguous with one another. In particular Eisenhower was involved with all 4

        So while you are technically right about the name that wasn’t the main point. The point was that UNRWA refusal to repatriate unlike: UNHCR, UNRRA, WRB, the League of Nations High Commission for Refugees … was what created and continues to create the problem. The USA was not then nor has it ever been in favor of a policy of creating a permanently refugee class in the middle east. The USA has consistently rejected UNRWA’s contention that refugee is a inheritable status, etc.. The USA was worried then about the effects of UNRWA policy exactly as it did historically.

        FWIW I believe Harper was right. This agency should not exist. It harms the people it is supposed to serve by preventing them from integrating into countries that will take them. Its primary goal is to keep the Arab-Israeli war of the 1940s hot rather than aiming to make peace like a normal UN agency. This problem BTW is more generally consistent with the problem with BDS. UNRWA is hostile to Israel and has always had a testy relationship. Were UNRWA to act how a normal UN agency acts towards refugees and adopt a policy of permanent resettlement would have strong Israeli support (including funding).

    2. CD Host, you’re ignoring the key detail here. Israel’s fledgling military, backed by Zionist gangs (called “terrorist organizations” at the time) forcibly-expelled these Palestinians from the regions the Zionists unilaterally declared independence over, in order to create the “desire demographic” of their new state. As such, they and their descendants have a legally-enshrined Right of Return. For decades, the PA has stated clearly that most would accept monetary compensation in place of an actual return to their land, but Israel refuses to deal with the consequences of its actions. That is what created and perpetuates the problem.

      1. I’m not sure how anything in your paragraph even addresses much less refutes my contention that the USA has been consistently opposed to UNRWA. Obviously I think you are misrepresenting some of the details and I could nitpick but I want to stay focused on the topic of this post UNRWA.

        I will address the point about their descendants have a legally-enshrined right of return to comment. I don’t know what you mean by a legally enshrined right passing on their descendants since as I’ve pointed out that’s been specifically one of the points the USA disagrees with UNRWA on. There is strong debate whether such a right exists. Certainly I agree UNRWA represents the Palestinian polity in asserting such a right but that doesn’t mean that it exists.

        The USA’s position though is clear and moreover I think a moral one. All people should be citizens where they were born. There should not be a global system of racial land allocation where generation after generation after generation people make claims to land based upon their parentage vs. present ownership and occupancy. The United States has a fairly good track record of supporting self determination: that people living in a country make the laws that govern that country. Which again is totally opposed to the racial system you appear to be advocating. For example the United States itself has a large number of descendants of people who entered our country illegally and were immigration criminals at the time of their birth. That has 0 bearing on their citizenship and they enjoy exactly and precisely the same rights as every other American. This BTW is distinct from Canada where at least one parent must be a citizen or permanent resident to gain automatic citizenship by virtue of birth. So I can understand why you might disagree, with that position, but we are talking here about the USA position.

        Which means in particular with respect to the Palestinian refugees those people who were actually expelled during the 1947-9 war would have a right of return provided they agreed to live in peace in Israel. But their descendants should not but rather should be considered ethnically Palestinian Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis… and enjoy the full protections of law in those countries.

        And moveover people like General Eisenhower didn’t “forget” about how the millions of people in the various ethnic groups they were resettling became displaced. They were well aware that ethnic strife including wars and civil wars had driven them from the homes and that armies or militias had quite often participated in ethnic cleansing to change the demographics of their countries or regions. When this could be rectified easily it was, when it couldn’t they were resettled elsewhere. That was the policy of UNHCR and as can be shown by the fact that their are no displaced persons from WWII other than those from UNRWA a very successful one. To quote an American expression: fix the problem, not the blame.

      2. Hey Jordan,
        It may be true that many, perhaps even most, refugees would accept monetary compensation.

        But I don’t think that is something that the PA can decide for them (even if it had been elected, and even if the refugees had had the right to vote, and even if that vote had been held recently.) None of which are true, as I understand it.

        My understanding is that the right to return is an individual right which cannot be bargained away by somebody else. What would European Jews think if Israel ‘struck a deal’ with Germany limiting the right of Jews to get back property that was stolen from them by the Nazis. Their property was stolen and they have the right to get it back, isn’t that so?

    3. The US is one of the major donors of UNRWA today. US understands well that most refugees live very close to their original homes in Palestine/Israel, and they have national demands. Without UNRWA. what is the alternative? I agree that we should fix the problem and not the blame. This solution, though, is not between Palestinian refugees and hosting countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan..). It should be regional with international support, and Israel should be central in it. The refugee crisis is not just an event that happened in the past, it continues in the present. Israel created this problem and it continues to target Palestinians as we speak inside Israel itself, in WB and G, and in the camps as well. It wages wars on refugee camps in Gaza and sometimes in Lebanon. This crisis has a national dimension, and not just about finding housing for displaced people. Palestinians sees themselves as one people with one national identity and character. Without changing Israel’s violent behavior and ideological views, without addressing the fair national demands of Palestinians including refugees, no solution is possible and sustainable. Unfortunately, Israel is violent and in denial. Its friends need to help.

      1. Truman had tried mighty for peace and had a been a strong supporter of a binational shared identity in Palestine until about 1947 where he finally became disgusted with Arab inhumanity towards the European refugees. He was similarly disgusted with the Jews after 1949 and wanted a humane solution. He never insisted on national demands.

        Sec Dulles as I mentioned explicitly held that the Palestinians were not a distinct nation though believed Israelis were a nation. Eisenhower didn’t believe either group (Jews or Palestinians) were a nation but clearly Israel was a country and as such would form a nation under it.

        You can’t just assert that Palestinians were a nation when talking about the USA position during the years of UNRWA. The position you are advocating as self evident was the Arab league’s position not the USA’s position. Saying you disagree with the USA’s position doesn’t mean anything about what was the position at the time and what the position is now.

        I agree the refugees (or at least those that were more political) wanted a national solution. The Arab league was ultimately more convincing because many countries did believe the Palestinians were a nation. So what? Lots of WWII national groups would have wanted a national solution. The Serbs who died in the camps were buried and records where possible were found. Those that wanted to return to Serbia did. Those had converted to Roman Catholicism and didn’t want to convert map were relocated to Australia, Canada, the United States and Germany. Even more drastic there are essentially no Ingrians today. Their descendants are half in Finland and half in Russia. The nationality simply disappeared.

        Refugees can have their national identity changed pretty easily. Heck the history of Israel with respect to Jews demonstrates this. The Palestinians are not the only people that had this problem and having a shared identity in the 1940s. But they are the only people for whom UNRWA’s insistence on impossible solutions has prevented them from getting on with their lives and healing from the trauma of the 1940s.


        A few comments on your other claims . Most Palestinians don’t live near their original homes. Their original homes mostly don’t exist today. The villages those homes were in, mostly don’t exist today. Most of the refugees who had lived in those long ago demolished homes died of old age. The people in the UNRWA camps never lived in Israel / mandate Palestine. Now it is true that for almost all of them many of their ancestors lived in multiple villages within Mandatory Palestine but the housing infrastructure has almost completely changed since the 1940s.

        “Their original homes” is fantasy. Its understandable why they would hold onto this fantasy. Those that are still alive were almost all young children at the time of the expulsion. Their actual home for their entire lives are the Palestinian villages that UNRWA has refused to build permanent infrastructure for. Their homes are where they live now. And they are being kept miserable on purpose. What’s really sad is this fantasy Palestine is being passed on generation after generation after generation to enhance hatreds.

        Which gets to the next point. Also I’m not sure how Israel hitting refugee camps is relevant. UNRWA has created a cycle where in areas where the government is weak or supportive of terrorism camp residents tend to engage in provocative acts. Those eventually lead to massacres or expulsions by Israel and the cycle continues. That’s a sign of UNRWA doing a bad job managing a refugee crisis.


        Where I think we do disagree is that no solution is either sustainable or possible. Everything moves towards a stable state. There is always a solution. The solution that UNRWA seems to be creating is one where the economic viability of these Palestinians villages deteriorates to the point that they experience large scale emigration. This solution is horrifically inhumane. It already has and will continue to involve millions of people wasting their lives waiting on a fantasy that will never happen as the pot that will eventually kill them or drive them out heats up slowly. The question is why countries would want to support UNRWA in this policy.

        UNHCR has a track record of success all over the world in this sort of situation. UNRWA has now 7 decade track record of failure leading to violence and suffering.

  3. Funding should definitely be restored, but the government should be doing much more to distance itself from the policies of the former government.

    The return to our faux “balanced approach” is really just a euphemism for the shameful inaction that has helped to enable Israel’s deliberate perpetuation of its military, political, and economic campaign to deny the Palestinians their rights and steal their remaining land and resources, carried out in brazen defiance of the UN and systemic violation of the very laws intended to prevent such a criminal injustice.

    It’s time for a policy based on the Rule of Law, one which recognizes that the conflict is not at all balanced.

    Like the Liberal support for C-51, TPP, arms sales to the Saudis, condemnation of BDS, etc. this simply reinforces that, where it counts, there are no fundamental differences between our two right-wing, special interest-beholden parties. Much like the RepubliCrats down south.

    Why else to you think that the bulk of our mass media, concentrated in the hands of people desperate to perpetuate the status quo, incessantly told Canadians (after Harper had really crashed and burned) before the election that a vote for anyone but Justin would essentially be a vote for Harper? This was social engineering at its ugliest, but because it was conducted so conspicuously, it was very instructive, and we should all learn from it.

  4. Interesting exchanges on UNRWA. Maybe the best policy is to restore Canadian financial support for UNRWA while working for and making it clear that UNRWA can and should be integral in contributing to a “two state” solution in Israel Palestine consistent with UN resolutions and the international and Canadian policy.

  5. Any solution that is not based on a process of truth and reconciliation will not be possible or sustainable. Truth means to acknowledge facts of 47-48, and acknowledge responsibilities on all sides and begin a serious discussion. Supporters of Israel are very concerned about UNRWA because they do not want to see any trace of what Israel did in 1947-48: the ethnic cleansing of 750 000 Palestinians according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. Interested people can read his book :” The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”. Everything is very well documented including the Zionist military plans to execute an ethnic cleansing process deliberately to create Jewish majority in historic Palestine. More than 200 000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes before even the Arab-Israeli war began in May 1948. To say that these historic facts are not important now, and let us focus on a solution between refugees and hosting countries, and Israel is not responsible, this will not lead to any solution. Palestinian refugees have memories and their homes, villages and towns are within 200 KM from most camps in the region. To say these are not important details, then, sorry, you do not know what you are talking about. To understand the full and real picture, people need to go the middle east. The Israeli journalist Gideon Levy says that Israel is addicted to occupation and it is destroying the two-state solution on purpose. Real friends of Israel need to deal with its addiction, violence and denial.
    Levy’s talk in March 2016:

    1. The idea that people like Eisenhower or Sec Dulles didn’t “know what they are talking about” in terms of refugee resettlement is simply nonsense. The idea that the United states in 1949 having successfully repatriated many millions over the last decade was just ignorant shows a staggering arrogance. I don’t know how to even respond to that.

      I don’t mean to be rude but if you had actually read Pappe rather than listening to youtube you would have gotten your dates right. The Yishuv / Arab war started November 29, 1947 before there was an Israel. The war didn’t start in May ’48, Israel started in May ’48. Prior to that it was an ethnic civil war in Mandatory Palestine. This ethic war incidentally the Palestinians started with several civilian massacres and kept escalating. In the early months the Palestinians were initiating the attacks. The Palestinians wanted more violence to scuttle the partition plan and the Jews for the same political reasons wanted less and where they could kept the violence narrow. The mass migration of the Palestinian middle class happens at this time when the Palestinians are mostly initiating violence. They did that entirely to themselves. Most of the articulate spokespersons who talk at BDS rallies are the descendants of people driven out by the violence from Palestinian troops not Israeli troops.

      April 1948 is when the Yishuv gets interested in territorial continuity and escalates the war. It is then that they start either driving out or at the very least encouraging a mass migration or Palestinians. That’s the bulk of the refugees who are still in the camps. The Yishuv didn’t want a hostile population at their back. Certainly there had been discussions of the long term value of ethnic cleansing of the hostile population. No one is ever going to know what percentage of the calculation was military and what was political, both pointed towards the same policy.

      And yes none of those facts are important now. The same way that in dozens of other refugee crisis the facts of why people needed to be resettled aren’t important. What’s important now is the same thing that was important then getting them resettled so they can go on to have a happy productive life. The alternative, the view that eventually won, was the Arab league approach which is not try and solve the problem but rather to keep these people as hostages to a fantasy that one can rollback the clock, essentially forever. If the UNHCR solution won’t work why are you so hysterical at the idea of trying it?

      This started as a simple question of fact regarding USA policy at the time UNRWA was created. I’ve addressed it. I’ve explained the reasoning for that policy. Israel in 1949 resisted strong pressure towards repatriation. Israel in the 1950s experiencing even a slow repatriation adopted a shoot-on-sight policy towards those refugees attempting to return and frequently counter attacks against camps in other countries. This policy caused border tension with Jordan and Egypt, that tension caused repeated incidents leading to a severe break with the United States and finally led to war. So Israel demonstrated that they were willing to get into a war rather than allowing even a partial return. That’s a demonstrated level of very high determination regarding a non-repratriation policy. Israel kept the shoot-on-sight policy on the books until 2013 when Israel returned to just arrest and deportation mostly because at this point all the neighbors were keeping the refugees out of Israel on their side. The Israelis don’t like the refugees and really don’t want them in their country. The Palestinian refugees don’t like the Israelis much either. People who are interested in peace don’t put groups together with the announced intention of killing one another on sight.

      The USA government, and for that matter the Canadian government don’t want a genocide. So even if they had the means to implement forced repatriation into Israel they wouldn’t do it. You do not move people into countries that hostile. That’s why we aren’t just shipping the Sunni refugees right back into Alawite territory in Syria.

      I feel like we are going in circles. I fully understand you support the Arab League’s position. I fully understand the Palestinian refugees live in an UNRWA constructed fantasy world where very soon now they are going to get to move back into their non-existent homes in non-existant villages in a non-existant country. I’ve explained why the USA rejected that position. I’ve explained what the holes are. You haven’t done more than assert that the Palestinians are entitled to their fantasy. I don’t agree but I’m not even sure how that is material.

      1. CD, you say that:” Most of the articulate spokespersons who talk at BDS rallies are the descendants of people driven out by the violence from Palestinian troops not Israeli troops.” This is so ridiculous 🙂 Frankly, it makes me question the value of this discussion.

        If someone knows the history of Palestine/Israel and what happened in 1947- 48, then it is Ilan Pappe. Read his book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”.

        You call national identity and international law a fantasy, it seems that Palestinians do not. You need to try and convince them with that. I am not sure if this would work. In other historic contexts, people tried truth and reconciliation to solve similar problems. Finally, think about this question: why is the US the major donor of UNRWA today? There must be a reason.

        Is it because Gideon Levy says credible facts on YouTube, then YouTube is a problem? I really advice that you watch it. Levy has a good and serious message to friends of Israel: if you are real friends, then you need to help with Israel’s addiction to occupation, violence and denial. I sincerely wish you a good luck with that!

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