More countries, including Canada, cut funding to UNRWA over allegations of involvement with Oct. 7 attack

UNRWA distributes flour to Palestinian refugees in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, Nov. 22, 2023. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A growing number of countries, including Canada, have suspended funding to the main United Nations agency aiding Palestinians in the wake of allegations that a number of its staffers were involved in Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre in Israel.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA, protested the cuts, saying that they were accelerating an oncoming famine in the Gaza Strip. The agency was founded to administer relief to Palestinian refugees and their descendants and is the main provider of aid in Gaza, where it employs about 12,000 people from a total staff of 30,000.

The United States, Canada and European Union have announced that they are suspending new funding for UNRWA, in addition to Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries.

The cuts follow reports that the agency’s staffers participated in the Oct. 7 attack, in which Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 Israelis and took some 250 hostage, sparking the current war. The Wall Street Journal cited intelligence sources who said ties between Hamas and the agency run deeper than previously known, with 10% of  UNRWA staffers implicated in the activities of Hamas. UNRWA last week fired 12 staffers after Israel shared evidence that they were involved in the massacre.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of complicity in Hamas’ malign activities. UNRWA staff have said Hamas has stashed weaponry in its schools, and Israel has said Hamas tunnels run underneath UNRWA facilities.

Canada’s Minister of International Development Ahmed Hussen stated in a post on X that Ottawa “unequivocally condemns the October 7th attack on Israel” and that he is “deeply troubled by the allegations relating to some UNRWA employees.”

“I have instructed Global Affairs Canada to pause all additional funding to UNRWA pending the outcome of the investigation,” he writes

“As UNRWA undertakes this investigation, Canada will not reduce its support to the people of Gaza. Canada will continue to work with other partners to provide life-saving assistance to civilians in Gaza,” reads the letter.

UNRWA’s commissioner general, Philip Lazzarini, said the cuts were threatening the “primary international agency” active in Gaza, nearly four months into the Israel-Hamas war that has devastated much of the strip.

“Many are hungry as the clock is ticking towards a looming famine,” Lazzarini said in a statement. International health agencies say the 2.3 million people of Gaza, most of whom have been displaced by the war, are facing starvation.

“The Agency runs shelters for over 1 million people and provides food and primary healthcare even at the height of the hostilities,” Lazzarini said.

Other top U.N. officials, including Secretary General António Guterres and World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, joined in expressing alarm at what the cuts will mean.

“The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences. But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized,” Guterres said. “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

It’s not clear how much the cuts from the group of nations will affect the agency, but the United States alone provides a third of UNRWA’s funding. A number of nations, including Ireland and Norway, said they would continue funding the agency.

“We must distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for,” Espen Barth Eide, the Norwegian foreign minister, said in a statement. “The people of Gaza urgently need humanitarian assistance and must not pay the price for the actions of others.”

The Wall Street Journal reviewed the intelligence reports the United States received from Israel. The reports said that 1,200 of the agency’s 12,000 employees in Gaza have ties to Hamas, including 23% of its male employees. The Journal did not say which countries aside from Israel provided intelligence.

Of the 12 fired employees, at least two were involved in kidnappings, another two were tracked to the sites of massacres, and others provided logistical support, the intelligence said.

More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched counterstrikes following Hamas’ attack, including thousands of children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry. Israel does not dispute those numbers, and says about a third are combatants. UNRWA says that 152 of its staffers have been killed.

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