OTTAWA â The Liberalsâ decision to renew funding to a controversial UN agency working with Palestinians was both praised and criticized this week as being the first noticeable split between Prime Minister Justin Trudeauâs Middle East policy and that of his Conservative predecessor.
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced on Wednesday that Canada will restore funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA) after a multi-year absence, pledging $20 million this year and an additional $5 million for the special urgent needs of Palestinian refugees from the Syrian conflict in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and even Syria.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a discussion during a luncheon given by the Argentina-Canada Chamber of Commerce, in Buenos Aires, on Friday.
âMore than five millions Palestinian refugees face urgent needs, especially in health and education,â she said at a press conference. âIt is a reality, and Canada cannot close its eyes to this situation. Like all our G7 allies, we have a role to play.â
Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) applauded the move, noting that in recent weeks UNRWA had cut staff and services because of budget shortfalls.
âThe Trudeau government has finally differentiated itself from the [Stephen] Harper government in regards to the Middle East,â CJPME president Thomas Woodley said in a news release.
"Canada cannot close its eyes to this situation."
Conservative Senator Linda Frum, a big fundraiser in the Jewish community, shared CJPMEâs press release on Twitter, calling the group Canadaâs top Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) organization and suggested that its praise for Trudeauâs changing Middle East policy is proof the Liberals are not as committed to Israel as the Conservatives are. BDS campaigns, which are popular on some university campuses, are intended to pressure Israel to ends its occupation of Palestinian territory.
âJT promised Jewish community âno daylightâ between his Israel policy & Harperâs (minus the $ for Hamas-tied orgs.),â she tweeted.
In 2010, Harper cut funding to UNRWA after reports emerged that its schools were being used as storage facilities for Hamas rockets intended to kill Israeli civilians and its staff were diverting funds to the terrorist group. Even so, the Conservatives provided the group with $14 million in emergency food support in 2012.
Bibeau stressed this week that the Liberals are aware of concerns about UNRWAâs neutrality and that the government has negotiated regular updates for Parliament and more robust oversight, including: regular site visits, a systematic financial screening process for senior UNRWA staff, training for UNRWA employees on ârespective neutralityâ and the appropriate use of social media.
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau speaks in Ottawa on Nov. 16, 2016.
After winning the Liberal leadership in 2013, Trudeau tried to reach out to many in the Jewish community whose votes and party donations had fled to Tories.
Wearing a yarmulke, he posed in front of Israeli and Canadian flags, telling them: âThe Liberal Party will have Israelâs back â but not because itâs in our political interests to do so at home â but because it is the right thing to do on the world stage.â
He appointed as chief Liberal fundraiser Montreal businessman Stephen Bronfman. And he spoke out against the BDS movement, saying it had no place on Canadian university campuses.
Liberals promised to keep supporting Israel
On the campaign trail last year, the Liberals also took great pains to tell the Jewish community that Canadaâs support for Israel would not waiver.
Montrealâs Liberal candidate Anthony Housefather â now the local MP â assured constituents in Mount Royal for example, the riding with the second largest Jewish community in Canada, that the Gritsâ votes on Israeli and Palestinian matters at the United Nations would not change.
The Tories, however, pointed to comments by Trudeau and later Foreign Affairs Minister StĂ©phane Dion who suggested Canada should become a more âhonest brokerâ in the Middle East. Robert Libman, Housefatherâs Tory challenger in last yearâs election, told HuffPost during the campaign, that that phrase is interpreted by many to mean âwatered down support for Israelâ as a way to âto get along with the United Nations.â
Refuelled by Bibeauâs announcement, the Conservatives and several candidates for the partyâs leadership sought to fundraise on the issue this week, calling the Liberalsâ support for UNRWA âtroublingâ and a transparent attempt to regain a United Nations Security Council seat in 2021.
Tories call the move 'despicable'
Quebec MP and leadership candidate Maxime Bernier described the Liberalsâ $25-million pledge as âdespicable.â
âUNRWA gives money to Hamas. This terrorist group preaches violence against Israel, and excuses the killing of Jewish children,â he wrote in fundraising email.
Saskatchewan MP and fellow leadership contender Andrew Scheer suggested the Grits were pursuing an unprincipled foreign policy and asked supporters to sign a petition urging for UNRWA to be defunded.
Ontario MP Kellie Leitch, another challenger, sent an email titled: âHave they lost their minds?â Renewing funding to UNRWA sends a signal to Canadaâs friends and allies that is âhorrifying,â she said.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which was consulted before Bibeauâs announcement, said it continues to have âserious reservationsâ about funding UNRWA.
âHave they lost their minds?â
âHamas is notorious for diverting funds and materials provided by the international community intended for humanitarian aid to terrorist purposes,â CIJA chair David J. Cape stressed.
Still, he said, he appreciates the federal governmentâs acknowledgement of his groupâs concerns and will continue to advocate for strong accountability measures to ensure Canadian aid isnât putting the security of Israelis at risk.
âOur approach is to be engaged, not disengaged,â Bibeau told reporters. As a member of UNRWAâs oversight board, she pledged, Canada will remain vigilant.