US implored Canada behind the scenes to continue supporting UNRWA: Hussen


Last month, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations implored Canada to continue funding the U.N. aid agency for the Palestinians, says International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen.

In January, Canada was one of 16 countries to freeze funding to the organization following accusations by Israel that a dozen of its workers participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israeli soil.

But earlier this month, Hussen announced that Ottawa would proceed with a scheduled payment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East after Canada agreed to an interim report into the allegations.

The decision came about two weeks after Hussen met with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the UN.

He urged Ottawa “not to withdraw from UNRWA,” as the organization is known, Hussen said.

“He implored us to continue to engage with UNRWA and provide it with the support it needs, in recognition of the lifeline UNRWA provides to the Palestinians,” the minister said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

The United States has been UNRWA’s largest financial supporter for years, sending $343 million in 2022.

It withdrew its funding on January 26 following the allegations.

Hussen said Canada made the decision to move forward with a $25 million payment to the agency that is due in April because of reforms and greater accountability within the agency.

He also said that the decision was made because the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is becoming more serious every day and help is urgently needed.

UNRWA is the “backbone” of aid in the territory, Hussen said.

The European Union, Australia, Sweden, Finland and Iceland have also restored at least some of their funding to UNRWA, but several of its largest donors, including the United States, have not yet done so.

On Tuesday, Germany pledged new funding for UNRWA’s work in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, but its aid to UNRWA in Gaza remains suspended.

Last week, the United States extended its pause in UNRWA funding for at least a year after Congress passed a spending package that averted a government shutdown. The move to cut aid was championed by Republicans.

The White House has said as a general principle that it supports the work of UNRWA.

In mid-February, President Joe Biden’s administration signaled it was holding talks with allies to keep humanitarian assistance flowing.

At the time, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said discussions were underway with international partners “about the importance of ensuring humanitarian assistance is not disrupted.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa declined to comment on the details of the private diplomatic talks.

Hussen said Ottawa is increasingly concerned about the “lack of adequate access” to bring aid to Gaza, particularly in the north, where officials say famine is imminent.

“It’s still not at the level that we would like to see or at the level that the need demands,” Hussen said.

UNRWA has continued to blame Israel for denying permission to an aid convoy to deliver supplies to northern Gaza, saying it has been two months since a convoy was able to reach the area.

Israel’s government has responded by stating that hundreds of truckloads of aid are simply waiting for the UN and its partners to distribute it.

Hussen was in Egypt in February, where he said he saw 700 aid trucks parked at the border, where they had been detained for three or four weeks.

He said he raised the need for more entry points into Gaza with Israel’s ambassador to Canada, just as Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the issue with other Israeli officials.

The situation is extremely “frustrating” for aid groups and for Canada, Hussen added, noting that fewer trucks passed through in January and February than in November and December.

UNRWA said that during the first 23 days of March, 157 aid trucks per day crossed into Gaza on average, below the target of 500.

Security has been a concern for Israel, which is heavily involved in controlling access to the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

It has a “very rigorous” process for verifying and certifying aid trucks, Hussen said.

“However, I think even with that consideration, the amount and volume of aid that is coming can be increased, particularly considering more border crossings,” Hussen said.

Meanwhile, Canada and its partners began funding airdrops for aid earlier this month.

Jordan’s air force is carrying out the effort, which has included Canadian contributions of food, medical supplies, winter blankets and clothing, and 300 parachutes.

Canada is also working with international partners to deliver aid to a temporary port the United States is helping to build. Biden announced the project in his State of the Union address earlier this month.

But airdrops and sea routes are not an alternative to delivering aid across land borders, Hussen said.

He said he will not stop fighting until trucks and aid workers have unhindered access to the territory.

“People are in a very desperate situation and they are resorting to using animal feed, to cook something with it. They are eating grass, they are fighting for anything they can get,” Hussen said.

“The humanitarian situation is very, very serious. And in some parts of Gaza, we are facing the threat of mass famine and famine-like conditions.”

Canada also continues to call for a humanitarian ceasefire and the release of all Israeli hostages by Hamas.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2024.

With files from The Associated Press.

This is a corrected story. An earlier version misstated the acronym for the UN aid agency.

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