United States implored Canada behind the scenes to keep supporting UNRWA: Hussen

OTTAWA — The United States ambassador to the United Nations implored Canada last month to keep funding the UN relief agency for Palestinians, International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen says.

In January, Canada was one of 16 countries to put a freeze on funding for the organization following allegations from Israel that a dozen of its workers participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli soil.

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

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

She urged Ottawa "to not disengage from UNWRA," as the organization is known, Hussen said.

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

The U.S. has been UNRWA’s largest financial backer for years, sending US$343 million in 2022.

It pulled its funding on Jan. 26 following the allegations.

Hussen said Canada made the decision to go ahead with a $25−million payment to the agency that’s due in April because of reforms and increased accountability within the agency.

He also said the decision came because the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is growing more dire by the day, and aid is urgently needed.

UNWRA is the "backbone" of aid in the territory, said Hussen.

The European Union, Australia, Sweden, Finland and Iceland have also restored at least some of their funding to UNRWA, but several of its biggest donors, including the U.S., have yet to do so.

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

Last week, the U.S. extended its pause on funding for UNRWA for at least a year after Congress approved a spending package that averted a government shutdown. The measure to slash 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 signalled it was holding conversations with allies to keep humanitarian assistance flowing.

At the time, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said conversations were being held with international partners "about the importance of ensuring that humanitarian assistance is not interrupted."

The U.S. didn’t immediately respond to questions about Hussen’s comments.

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

"It’s still not at the level in which we would like to see, and the level in which the need calls for," Hussen said.

UNRWA has continued to blame Israel for denying permission for an aid convoy to deliver supplies to northern Gaza, saying that two months have passed since a convoy could reach the area.

Israel’s government has responded by contending that hundreds of trucks full of aid are simply waiting for the UN and partners to be able to distribute it.

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

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

The situation is extremely "frustrating" to aid groups and to Canada, Hussen added, noting fewer trucks went through in January and February than in November and December.

UNRWA said during the first 23 days of March, 157 aid trucks per day crossed into Gaza on average, below a 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 to check and certify aid trucks, Hussen said.

"However, I believe that even with that consideration, the amount and the volume of aid that’s going in can be increased, particularly by considering more border crossings," Hussen said.

In the meantime, Canada and its partners began funding airdrops of aid earlier this month.

Jordan’s air force is conducting 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 U.S. 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 for delivering aid through ground borders, said Hussen.

He said he won’t stop fighting until trucks and humanitarian workers are given unimpeded access into the territory.

"People are in very desperate shape, and they are resorting to using animal feed, to cook something out of that. They’re eating grass, they’re scrambling for anything that they can get their hands on," Hussen said.

"The humanitarian situation is very, very dire. And in some parts of Gaza, we’re looking at the threat of mass starvation 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.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press