Canada lifting freeze on UNRWA funding after weeks of protests, criticism

Canada has announced it is lifting a freeze on funding for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), after facing fierce criticism for cutting assistance during Israel’s war in Gaza.

In a statement on Friday, Canadian Minister of International Development Ahmed Hussen said the government is “resuming its funding to UNRWA so more can be done to respond to the urgent needs of Palestinian civilians”.

Canada had joined the United States and several other countries in cutting funding to UNRWA in late January, after Israel accused about a dozen of the agency’s more than 13,000 employees in Gaza of taking part in a Hamas attack on October 7.

UNRWA immediately sacked the employees in question and announced that it was opening a probe into the allegations, which it described as “shocking” and “serious”. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also appointed an independent panel to investigate.

Israel, however, did not provide concrete evidence to back up its allegations. Canadian broadcaster CBC News also reported in early February that Canada had not seen any intelligence backing the claim before it decided to cut the funding.

The decision to cut funding for UNRWA — which relies on government contributions to fund its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — drew immediate concern and calls from rights advocates to reconsider.

UNRWA also is the key agency providing critical humanitarian supplies to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where Israel’s continued bombardment and siege have killed more than 30,000 people and led to widespread hunger and disease.

Humanitarian groups had warned that cutting UNRWA funding would have dire repercussions for Palestinians in Gaza and urged donor countries to reverse their decisions.

Since then, the situation in the Strip has deteriorated further, as Israeli military attacks continue. About a dozen Palestinian children have died in recent weeks due to a lack of food and water in Gaza, according to health authorities in the coastal enclave.

‘Reckless political decision’

On Friday afternoon, Canadian human rights advocates welcomed the government’s decision to lift the freeze on UNRWA funding but stressed that the money should not have been cut to begin with.

“Resuming aid to UNRWA is a much-needed decision, and it would not have been possible without the important advocacy from across civil society,” said Thomas Woodley, president of the advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

“Minister Hussen’s cancellation of funding was a reckless political decision that never should have been made. Canada’s irresponsible actions threatened to collapse the aid infrastructure in Gaza, putting the lives of millions of people at risk,” Woodley said in a statement.

“Canada must significantly increase funding to UNRWA to compensate for the harm its actions have caused to the people of Gaza.”

The government contributed $66.5m ($90m Canadian) to UNRWA from 2019 though mid-2023. Last June, Ottawa also announced that it would provide as much as $74m ($100m Canadian) to the agency over four years to help fund education, health care and other services.

Canadian media outlets have reported that the next installment of that funding — about $18m ($25m Canadian) — is due in April.

Meanwhile, the head of the National Council of Canadian Muslims also noted on Friday that “there are no other agencies that can replicate UNRWA’s central role in the humanitarian response in Gaza”.

“While funding should not have been paused in the first place, the government made the right decision today by renewing and increasing funding,” the group’s CEO, Stephen Brown, said in a statement.

Pressure on Trudeau

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had faced pressure from pro-Israel lobby groups to maintain its freeze on funding for UNRWA. Members of Trudeau’s own Liberal Party also had urged him to withhold the funds.

Pro-Israel Liberal legislators Anthony Housefather and Marco Mendicino said in a letter on Thursday that they had recommended “that Canada work in lockstep with the United States and other allies”.

They urged the government “to leverage alternate partners and to create new vehicles of humanitarian aid that will meaningfully reach the civilians of Gaza in the short term”.

But experts and humanitarian groups have said UNRWA is best suited to provide much-needed assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

In a news conference on Friday afternoon, Hussen said the decision to resume funding was “in recognition of the significant and serious processes that the United Nations has undertaken to address the issues in UNRWA”.

It also comes in recognition of “the critical role that UNRWA plays in providing much-needed support to over two million Palestinians in Gaza, as well as … millions more in the broader region”, Hussen told reporters.

Source: Al Jazeera

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