CIJA says it will see the federal government in court over a decision to resume funding to UNRWA

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is preparing to take the federal government to court over its decision to restore funding to a UN aid agency despite reports that agency staff were involved in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen announced March 8 that Canada would honour its $25 million commitment, due in April, to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Although Canada had temporarily halted funding, no payments to the agency were missed.

Canada, and many other international donors, had suspended funding to the international agency in January after news reports that a dozen UNRWA staff had actively participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people.

Files compiled by Israeli intelligence alleged that about 10 percent of the 12,000 staff employed by UNRWA in Gaza have ties to Hamas or Palestine Islamic Jihad, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Resuming funding for UNRWA knowing those links between Hamas and UNRWA is a potential breach of Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation,” Richard Marceau, CIJA’s vice-president of external affairs and general counsel, said in an interview with The CJN.

“The decision is unreasonable, and I use the term unreasonable because that is the bar in administrative law to contest a government decision,” he said.

The Jewish advocacy group will be applying for an administrative review of the decision before the federal court within a few weeks. CIJA will be asking for a halt to UNRWA funding, however Marceau declined to say whether the organization is seeking a permanent or a temporary suspension.

One of the arguments that CIJA will present is that the United Nations has not yet released the finding of its own investigation into UNRWA, Marceau said.

Canada has reviewed an interim report from the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services and “looks forward to the final report,” according to the statement from Global Affairs Canada on March 8.

“In recognition of the robust investigative processes underway, UNRWA’s efforts to address serious allegations made against some of its staff, including the implementation of internal measures to improve oversight and accountability, as well as the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, Canada is resuming its funding to UNRWA,” Hussen said in a press release.

Canada and Sweden are to date, the only Western nations that have restored funding to UNRWA. The EU has said it will pay 60 percent of its commitment to the agency while it awaits a final report from the investigation.

In November, shortly after the start of the war, Canada allocated $60 million to relief in Gaza, with $20 million earmarked for UNRWA. An additional $40 million for alternative aid agencies in the region was announced in January, shortly after funding was suspended to UNRWA.

UNRWA has been a primary supplier of education, social and health services in Gaza and the West Bank. In July 2023, Canada made a four-year commitment to contribute $100 million to the agency.

The UN agency, however, has long been criticized by for its lack of neutrality. UN Watch, a Swiss-based advocacy group has issued reports documenting the agency’s antisemitic and anti-Israel teaching materials, among other concerns, since 2015.

Liberal MPs Anthony Housefather from Montreal and Marco Mendicino from Toronto opposed the government’s decision to restore funding stating, “We believe that UNRWA lacks sufficient governance and internal controls… and there is a serious risk funds will be misappropriated by Hamas.” The MPs urged Ottawa to work with other humanitarian aid groups in the region.

Iddo Moed, Israel’s Ambassador to Canada, also expressed concern about Canada’s decision to resume funding while an investigation is still ongoing, in an interview with the Globe and Mail.

“We are surprised that Canada takes a different approach than other top NATO countries. We did share intelligence with them,” Moed told the Globe.

The decision to resume funding to UNRWA reflects a level of “amateurism” in the federal government, Marceau said.

“We are seeing a government that shortly after Oct. 7 was clear-eyed about who the culprits were and the necessity to destroy Hamas. This government has since lost that clarity, lost that principled approach and I think making Canada more irrelevant.”