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Canada pauses funding for UN agency amid alleged staff role in Israel attacks

Click to play video: 'Liberals say pausing UNRWA funding for Palestinians is the ‘prudent’ thing to do amid terror allegations'
Liberals say pausing UNRWA funding for Palestinians is the ‘prudent’ thing to do amid terror allegations
WATCH: During question period in the House of Commons on Sunday, Canada’s Minister of International Development Ahmed Hussen addressed the country’s “prudent” decision to pause funding for the UN refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA), following Israeli allegations the organization was involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in south Israel – Jan 29, 2024

Canada has temporarily paused “any additional funding” for the United Nations agency charged with delivering aid to Palestinians amid allegations that staff members were involved in the Oct. 7 attacks against Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed.

A statement posted to the United Nations Relief and Works agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) website on Friday morning says Israeli authorities provided information to the agency about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the attacks.

The statement does not name Hamas, the group behind the attacks on Oct. 7, 2023.

“To protect the Agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay,” the statement quotes UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini as saying.

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“Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”

Click to play video: 'UN agency fires staff after ‘shocking’ allegation of roles in Israel attacks'
UN agency fires staff after ‘shocking’ allegation of roles in Israel attacks

The statement calls the allegations “shocking.” It states that more than two million people depend on lifesaving assistance UNRWA delivers.

International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen said in a statement Friday he spoke directly to Lazzarini to “express Canada’s alarm” over the allegations.

“Canada is taking these reports extremely seriously and is engaging with UNRWA and other donors on this issue,” Hussen said.

“Canada has temporarily paused any additional funding to UNRWA while it undertakes a thorough investigation into these allegations. Should the allegations prove to be accurate, Canada expects UNRWA to immediately act against those determined to have been involved in Hamas’ terrorist acts.”

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The federal government said last June that between 2019 through 2023, Canada has committed a total of $90 million in support for UNRWA.

Since the Oct. 7 attacks, Canada has sent an additional $20 million to the UNRWA, part of a total of $60 million committed to aid groups to address “urgent needs stemming from the crisis in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Israel and neighbouring areas.” It was not immediately clear if that money will be affected by the new temporary pause.

Click to play video: 'Israel-Hamas: Gaza civilians, Israeli hostages to get urgent aid as new deal reached'
Israel-Hamas: Gaza civilians, Israeli hostages to get urgent aid as new deal reached

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the U.S. is “extremely troubled” by the allegations that “12 UNRWA employees” may have been involved in the Hamas attack.

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He said the department has also temporarily paused additional funding as it reviews the allegations “and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them.”

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Global News reached out to the State Department to ask how much aid it was freezing and where that aid would have been directed. The State Department did not respond by deadline.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres about the allegations, according to the statement.

“We welcome the decision to conduct such an investigation and Secretary General Guterres’ pledge to take decisive action to respond, should the allegations prove accurate. We also welcome the UN’s announcement of a “comprehensive and independent” review of UNRWA.  There must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of October 7,” the statement said.

The United States is a major funder of the UN and UNRWA.

Merissa Khurma, the Middle East program director at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, said the firing and investigation comes at a crucial time, with the World Food Programme warning Gaza faces a famine because Israel allows so little food and water in.

“It makes it very difficult, it hampers (UNRWA’s) ability to distribute much needed humanitarian aid in this context of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza,” she said, speaking from Washington.

She said the investigation was important – as was the agency being allowed to deliver aid to the two million Palestinians in Gaza, “in one of the most dire humanitarian crises we have seen in modern history.

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“The vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza are internally displaced, and they need access to water, food and other key, key resources, including medicine. And UNRWA has always been key to the humanitarian aid delivery infrastructure in Gaza.”

The U.S. statement also says it has reached out to Israel’s government for more information and that it stays in close contact with the Knesset and the UN.

Former Canadian Ambassador to Israel Jon Allen told Global News relations between Israel and the UN has “never been good” because the UN has condemned Israel numerous times in the past while Israel has been critical and suspicious of UNRWA.

“Since Oct. 7, it has deteriorated further,” he said in an interview from Toronto.

Allen, speaking from Toronto, told Global News relations between Israel and the UN were “never good” because the UN has condemned Israel numerous times in the past while Israel has been critical and suspicious of UNRWA.

Click to play video: 'Daily toll on civilians in Gaza ‘far too high’: Blinken'
Daily toll on civilians in Gaza ‘far too high’: Blinken

Allen said the firing will confirm the views of people who “hate” the UN, “and for people who support UNRWA, they will be shocked and disappointed.”

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Iddo Moed, Israel’s Ambassador to Canada, told Global News UNRWA has “been abusing its facilities and its status to support Hamas.”

“We have multiple evidence (sic) of people, of teachers in schools that have held… Israeli families, hostages in their homes.”

The Palestinian Authorities’ representative to Canada Mona Abuamara called the allegations against the employees “shocking and shameful.”

“You don’t fire first and then investigate,” she told Global News.

“If someone has done something, they get the chance to be protected until proven guilty.”

She also called the firing of the employees was because of “racism” and was “anti-Palestinian,” saying they were fired in an attempt to overshadow the International Court of Justice ruling on Israel.

Allen said it was crucial the investigation into the allegations take place – and also said UNRWA’s must be allowed to continue delivering supplies.

“There wasn’t enough aid going in before Oct. 7th. There’s not by a long shot and nothing going in now,” he said.

“If this were somehow to affect the little amount of humanitarian assistance, food, medicines, water that’s going in, it would be a further disaster.”

The United Nations General Assembly founded UNRWA in 1949 to help registered Palestinian refugees. It operates in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

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Nearly 26,000 Palestinians have been killed and 63,740 injured in Israel’s attacks on Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, including 210 killed in the past 24 hours.

— with files from Reuters

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