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History should shame Canada into restoring funding for Palestinian refugees

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May 15 commemorates the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), over the course of which some 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes in a concentrated effort by Israeli Haganah forces to establish a Jewish majority state in historic Palestine.

To this day those refugees and their descendants, now numbering over 5 million, languish in 58 refugee camps dispersed throughout the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. 

Canada had a role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. Supreme Court Justice Ivan C. Rand, the Canadian delegate to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), came to "three basic conclusions" that "marked his contribution" to the committee's final report: the British Mandate should end, the Jews ought to have a state of their own in Palestine, and partition was the only way to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict.

On November 29, 1947 the UN adopted UNSCOP's recommendation to partition in General Assembly Resolution 181, with disastrous results. Within months Palestine had degenerated into inter-ethnic conflict and the expulsion of the Palestinians by Israeli forces had begun in earnest.

The horrendous effects of Canadian support for partition could be forgiven as a simple failure of politicians to anticipate the likely consequences of their diplomatic actions. Yet in the aftermath of the Nakba and at the expense of the Palestinians, Canada forged ahead with a foreign policy largely partial towards Israel.

As early as the 1950s Canada was selling substantial numbers of arms to Israel. Moreover, after taking power in 1957, the explicitly Christian Zionist John Diefenbaker often spoke of relocating the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such an action would be in violation of the international consensus that Jerusalem was to be an internationally administered zone outside of Israeli sovereignty.

The growing hostility of the Arab world towards Canada vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict was demonstrated quite strikingly in the weeks prior to the outbreak of the June 5, 1967 Six Day War when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the removal of the United Nations Emergence Force from along the border between Egypt and Israel. Nasser singled out the Canadian contingent for immediate withdrawal, citing as justification the pro-Israel foreign policy of the Canadian government.

Israel won the 1967 War and in the process drove a further 200,000 to 250,000 Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan. Among those who fled were the inhabitants of Imwas, Yalo and Bayt Nuba -- villages demolished to make way for the construction of "Canada Park," a 1,700 acre space that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors per year.

The establishment of the park was funded to the tune of $15 million by the Canadian branch of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), this made possible by the organization's ongoing tax-deductible charity status. As stated by the Israeli scholar and activist Uri Davis: "Canada Park is a crime against humanity that has been financed by and implicates not only the Canadian government but every taxpayer in Canada."

There are some deviations from this distressing record. To its credit, Canada once maintained a commitment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for providing essential services to Palestinian refugees, including health services, education and food aid. In the decades following the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Canada was the fourth-largest contributor to this organization.

That funding ended abruptly under the Harper Government. In 2010 the Conservatives slashed Canada's core funding to UNRWA. By 2012, they had cut it off completely. 

To make matters even worse, in January 2014 Immigration minister Chris Alexander announced that his government would not be resettling Palestinian refugees inside Canada because "the hundreds of thousands who want to live in a Palestinian state" will "want to go home eventually." "That", he continued, "is the objective we will be working towards under the leadership of the [United Nations Refugee Agency] and with our friends, allies and partners." The irony should be lost on no one. 

In the wake of the "most pro-Israel" government on earth (at least diplomatically) and in light of the current dearth of indication that the Trudeau government will deviate from the path of its predecessor, the Palestine solidarity movement in Canada is in serious need of a tangible victory. Restoring funding to UNRWA is an eminently achievable goal -- one that has already been endorsed by significant organizations like Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Moreover, the new Liberal government has recently felt pressure from a variety of mainstream actors to restore funding. In February, Michael Bell, the former Canadian ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and twice to Israel wrote an article in The Globe and Mail arguing in favor of the restoration of contributions to UNRWA, noting that the Liberals have already expressed that "the issue" is "under review."

In March, the United Nations preemptively announced "new Canadian funds" to UNRWA and was then forced to "walk back" the press release upon being informed that the statement "did not properly reflect" a discussion that had been held between Prime Minister Trudeau and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In short, both historical precedent and mainstream appeal would give a sustained grassroots campaign aimed at pressuring the Liberals to reestablish Canada's funding to UNRWA a high chance at success. Trudeau has pledged to have Canada "step up once again" at the United Nations in order to "help" the organization "make even greater strides in support of its goals for all humanity."

If he wants to convince Canadians that his statements are anything but platitudes, supporting UNRWA -- an organization providing for some of the most disenfranchised and oppressed members of humanity -- is where that commitment should start.

Yesterday, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East "learned that the Trudeau government will be making a decision within the next week as to whether to reinstate funding to the UN organization for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA.)

Colter Louwerse is a political science student at the University of the Fraser Valley and a Palestinian solidarity activist.

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