UN Agency That Helps Palestinians in Serious Need of Reform: Jewish Group

B’nai Brith questions Canada's $10M donation given the fomenting of anti-Israel hate in UNRWA schools
April 19, 2018 Updated: April 19, 2018

Ottawa’s recent $10 million emergency donation to the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees has drawn criticism from Canada’s former ambassador to Israel and Jewish groups who say the agency is in need of serious reform, including curbing the incitement of hate against Israel in its classrooms.

Following the U.S. government’s decision in January to withhold $65 million of its $125 million planned funding to the UN Relief and Welfare Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the head of the agency appealed to other donor countries to supply emergency humanitarian aid, claiming the loss of U.S. funding would risk instability in the region.

Global Affairs Canada stepped up, along with several other democratic nations, and provided an additional $10 million that will go toward helping the poorest and most vulnerable Palestinian refugees by delivering essential food, health, education, and social services through UNRWA.

But like the Trump Administration, B’nai Brith Canada and former ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici allege neutrality violations within UNRWA haven’t been addressed, and reforms and more peace talks need to take place before any new tax dollars are doled out.

“We think that especially at a time like this, when UNRWA is more desperate for money because of the American decision to cut some of the funding, that Canada and other Western donor countries should be banding together to demand change and to make sure that this money isn’t being dumped into a bottomless pit of grievance and perpetuating the conflict,” said Aiden Fishman, a spokesperson for the Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada.

A chief concern, Fishman said, is the ample evidence that anti-Semitism runs rampant among teachers in UNRWA schools, and within the curricula and textbooks there is incitement of hatred and anti-Israel bias.

UNRWA has five million Palestinian refugees listed under its agency and operates schools in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Schools use textbooks and curricula of the countries that host the refugees.

B’nai Brith points to a February review conducted by Princeton scholar Arnon Groiss that found UNRWA textbooks represent Jews as aides of the devil, erased Jewish historical and religious ties to Jerusalem, and described all of Israel as “occupied Palestine.”

What’s worse, Fishman said, is that Palestinian children are being taught the only solution to the conflict is the complete elimination of Israel.

“Obviously if you’re a U.N. agency that is supposed to be politically neutral—political neutrality is actually written into UNRWA’s mandate—and yet you’re teaching on one side of the conflict that the other side of the conflict is going to inevitably lose and be destroyed and they should just keep fighting until it happens, that’s very problematic,” he said.

Another concern from critics is UNRWA’s alleged ties to Hamas, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Canada and other Western donor countries.

Last year, UNRWA said a Gaza school principal was no longer with the agency but didn’t disclose why he left. The Times of Israel reported he was suspected by the Israeli government of being a newly elected member of Hamas’s political leadership.

“We would like to see Canada and the other Western donor countries work harder to end these problems with UNRWA,” Fishman said.

‘Openly toxic curriculum’

According to Global Affairs Canada, the government is using “due diligence” to address these concerns and ensures the funding goes only toward helping those who truly need it in one of the most challenging and volatile regions of the world.

“Canada supports UNRWA in its ongoing efforts to improve neutrality within the Agency and its operations,” Global Affairs spokesperson Brianne Maxwell wrote in an email.

“Canadian funding has allowed UNRWA to engage a neutrality coordinator to monitor activities related to neutrality, lead the development of neutrality initiatives, respond to allegations of neutrality violations, and uphold UNRWA’s neutrality.”

Maxwell added the government is aware of the criticism and allegations UNRWA has faced and while some are based on fact, others are unfounded. Canada, along with other donor nations, will closely monitor any substantiated issues as they arise, she said.

But for former ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici, this isn’t good enough. At the beginning of the year she wrote an open letter to Marc-Andre Blanchard, Canadian ambassador to the U.N., asking for clarity on how the government is conducting its neutrality reviews. She is still awaiting a response.

Bercovici points out that UN Watch, a Geneva-based watchdog NGO, reported Global Affairs has “glossed over specific allegations against UNRWA, claiming that they were unfounded or had been addressed, without explaining why or how.”

She is also critical that Canada doesn’t have an independent review panel for UNRWA; instead, the agency “is getting money from Canada to police itself.”

“There is copious evidence of Hamas rockets and military accessories being sheltered in the same UNRWA schools and health clinics which Canada is funding,” Bercovici writes, adding that the “openly toxic curriculum” promotes and glorifies terror against Israel. She notes that the Palestinian Authority authors the UNRWA curriculum in the West Bank while Hamas does so in Gaza.

‘Highest standards of neutrality’

UNRWA’s chief spokesperson Chris Gunness said the focus of the agency is to provide dignity and a shot at a decent life for Palestinian refugees living in horrid conditions. Allegations of a lack of neutrality are rare but always taken seriously, he said.

“You can certainly be assured that we do everything in our power to maintain the highest standards of neutrality in the most difficult of circumstances. We take the issue of neutrality with the utmost seriousness,” Gunness told The Epoch Times.

“We employ more than 30,000 staff and they are required to comply with strict neutrality-related obligations. In rare cases where alleged breaches occur and investigations show that accusations are well founded, action is taken in accordance with UNRWA’s regulatory framework.”

The decrease in the number of cases of neutrality issues around social media in recent months, he adds, show the agency’s policies are working.

Gunness said UNRWA put in place a “curriculum framework” in 2013 to protect from discrimination in the classroom and uphold U.N. values such as human rights, tolerance, and equality throughout the teaching process in UNRWA schools.

Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, has said that much of the allegations of incitement of anti-Israel hatred in UNRWA schools has been debunked.

Woodley points to a 2013 report funded by the U.S. State Department and conducted by both Israeli and Palestinian researchers from Tel Aviv University and Bethlehem University who did an in-depth study of 74 Israeli textbooks and 94 Palestinian textbooks.

The study found that “dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other were very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books.”

The research team observed 20 extreme negative depictions in the Israeli state books, seven in the ultra-Orthodox books, and six in the Palestinian books.

Ultimately, Woodley said, Canada must demand both sides in the conflict do better at educating their children toward peace.

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed that “it is important that agencies like UNRWA are not funded blindly, and that our resources are instead allocated thoughtfully to most effectively achieve Canadian foreign policy objectives.”

“The federal government should ensure that its efforts are results-focused and do not contribute to further entrenching the plight of those we wish to help or diminish the prospects for peace.”

Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism covering the Stanley Cup Riot in 2011.