Canada’s To Probe UNRWA Materials, Will Keep Funding Agency

gaza on map
Photo courtesy Unsplash

Canada will not suspend funding to the United Nations agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinians throughout the Middle East, pending this country’s investigation into how anti-Israel, pro-violence teaching materials found their way to Palestinian schools.

The CJN last week was granted a 10-minute telephone interview with the Minister of International Development, Karina Gould, who oversees Canada’s role in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

In January, Gould announced that Canada would investigate teaching materials used in schools run by UNRWA in the Palestinian territories which “violated UN values of human rights, tolerance, neutrality and non-discrimination.”

Canada takes this situation “extremely seriously,” Gould’s statement said.

Gould told The CJN her department was spurred to probe the issue in light of a study by IMPACT-se, an Israeli non-profit that analyzes textbooks, curricula, and teachers’ guides used in UNRWA-run schools in the Palestinian territories.

The report detailed numerous instances of content which “egregiously violated UN values…and UNRWA’s stated principles.”

It found that materials distributed by UNRWA to Palestinian children in Gaza and the West Bank between November 2020 and January 2021 contained incitement to violence; demonization of Israel, which was erased from maps; endorsements of jihad and martyrdom; the promulgation of “libels and conspiracies;” and failed to promote peacemaking.

Classroom materials referred to Israel solely as “the Enemy” or “the Israeli Occupation.”

A Grade 9 lesson uses the term “pieces of corpses” and references a text containing “graphic descriptions of corpses and body parts strewn about city streets,” the study found.

“The teaching of Palestinian nationalism remains a central theme in the UNRWA-labeled content, in contravention of UNRWA’s principle of neutrality. It is often framed in violent terms,” the study stated.

UNRWA pulled the offending material, saying it has been distributed in error. According to IMPACT-se, following the release of its report, UNRWA “immediately locked all access to the self-study material, blocking further external scrutiny.”

On learning of the report from IMPACT-se, “I engaged with leadership at UNRWA,” Gould said, and instructed her department “to do a deeper dive…to determine how this came to be and what steps UNRWA is taking.”

She also engaged with her ministry’s German and Australian counterparts “because we recognize as donors to UNRWA the really important role it plays in providing basic services to Palestinian refugees and (to) regional stability.”

Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia have also launched probes into the matter.

Gould said the investigation will be conducted by officials at her ministry and staff at Canada’s diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Last December, Canada announced $90 million in new funding to the agency over three years. The Liberals reinstated funding in 2016 after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives froze it because of the agency’s ties to terrorist groups.

In a tweet last month, Conservative Senator Linda Frum wondered why funding to UNRWA was not suspended until Canada’s probe into the educational materials was completed.

Gould said Ottawa will not withhold funding as the investigation proceeds.

“We believe we need to be an engaged donor,” she said. “UNRWA provides a very vital service, both in the Palestinian territories and also in neighbouring countries, Jordan, Lebanon (and) Syria, for Palestinian refugees.”

She noted that the agency serves more than 500,000 students in those areas (in about 700 schools), and provides medical services to 3.5 million people, as well as other basic aid, on an annual budget of $800 million.

“It is better for us to have a seat at the table to engage in these issues, to address them, and fix them. If we’re not at the table, we don’t have a voice.”

Gould stressed that UNRWA did not produce the problematic educational material, and that the agency is bound by curricula in the countries in which it operates.

She said Canada has much less “leverage” with the Palestinian Authority, which was responsible for the content cited in the Israeli report, because Ottawa provides no direct aid to the PA.

Still, UNRWA-run schools “do have an obligation to uphold UN values,” Gould said.

On its website, UNRWA says it has “zero tolerance” for the promotion of anti-Semitism and hatred in its schools.

The Israeli report said that while the UN agency acknowledged it had distributed the materials to children, its officials “attempted to minimize the issue by arguing that only a small percentage of the overall material was identified as being inappropriate.”

In 2017, Canada and UNRWA signed a “Framework for Cooperation” laying out Ottawa’s expectations regarding reforms at the agency, regular monitoring and reporting, and compliance with Canadian anti-terrorism requirements.

Gould said the agreement has been “very well implemented.”

The problematic materials at UNRWA schools were raised in the House of Commons on Jan. 27 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day – by Conservative MP Marty Morantz, who quoted some examples.

In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s presence in UNRWA “continues to ensure that the materials and the funds that are (directed) to the Palestinians are done in the right way. We will continue to stand up for a two-state solution and for the kind of peace that we need to see through direct negotiations between both Israel and the Palestinian state.”

Morantz shot back: “The Prime Minister just said a moment ago that he would stand up to anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it occurs. Well, here it is. Stand up to it.

“The fact of the matter is that $90 million in taxpayer dollars is being used to fund UNRWA’s indoctrination of children by inciting violence toward Jews. The government talks about supporting a peaceful two-state solution, yet we see funding of an agency that is working to push hatred, not peace.”

Trudeau charged that the Conservatives “have long tried to use approaches like this to score cheap political points on the backs of intolerance and victims. We will continue to do the right thing. That means, yes, standing up for Israel, standing up for a two-state solution, working closely with our partners in the region, and yes, funding development aid for the most vulnerable, including through UNRWA. That is something this government stands for.”

(Photo of Minister of International Development, Karina Gould)

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