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Israeli flags flutter as Palestinians fleeing Khan Younis, due to the Israeli ground operation, move towards Rafah, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 28.IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/Reuters

Canada’s decision to suspend its funding to the biggest relief agency in Gaza is provoking a wave of criticism from human-rights advocates and several former high-ranking Canadian diplomats.

More than a dozen countries – including Canada, the United States, Britain, Germany and Italy – have suspended their funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) after Israel made allegations that a small number of the agency’s staff were involved in the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen announced on Friday that the federal government has “temporarily paused any additional funding to UNRWA” while the UN investigates the allegations. He said the government was alarmed by the reports and is taking them “extremely seriously.”

The aid freeze by the growing list of Western countries has the potential to affect hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the UN agency, which provides aid to about two million people in Gaza.

The UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said the funding suspensions were shocking and will threaten its humanitarian work. The agency shares its staff list with Israel every year and had never heard any concerns about any specific staff members, he said in a statement on Saturday.

“I urge countries who have suspended their funding to reconsider their decisions before UNRWA is forced to suspend its humanitarian response,” he said. “The lives of people in Gaza depend on this support and so does regional stability.”

The UN says 12 of the agency’s staff were implicated in the allegations. Nine of them were immediately terminated, one is confirmed dead and the identity of the other two is being checked.

The World Health Organization issued a similar plea as Mr. Lazzarini. “Cutting off funding will only hurt the people of Gaza who desperately need support,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement.

Poilievre vows to cut funds to UN agency amid reports of staff role in Oct. 7 attacks

Human-rights activists are protesting the Canadian funding freeze, arguing that those under investigation are less than 0.1 per cent of the agency’s 13,000 staff in Gaza.

Alex Neve, an international human-rights lawyer and a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the Canadian funding freeze is “collectively punishing the people of Gaza.” The Palestinians rely on the UN agency as “an essential lifeline in the best of times and now, the worst of times, more than ever,” he said in a social-media post.

Several former diplomats, who held senior posts in the Canadian foreign service before their retirement, have sharply criticized the funding freeze. In social-media posts on the weekend, some noted that Canada had announced the decision on the same day as the International Court of Justice had ordered Israel to ensure an urgent supply of humanitarian relief for Gaza to prevent the risk of genocide in the territory.

“I’m shocked that Canada has suspended funding to UNRWA in response to the alleged crimes of 12 employees,” said Nicholas Coghlan, who held six diplomatic posts in the developing world for Canada. “This is pretty much the definition of collective punishment.”

Alex Bugailiskis, who was Canada’s assistant deputy foreign minister responsible for Europe and the Middle East, said UNRWA is “one of the very few organizations able to deliver life-saving aid at this critical time.”

She noted that Canada could have responded to the world court’s ruling by suspending the export of military equipment to Israel or ending the charitable status of organizations that are allegedly giving funds to the Israeli military, but instead it halted the UN refugee agency’s funding.

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