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Canada, Sweden Restore UNRWA Funds as Israel Accused of Torturing Agency Staff

In a new report, UNRWA employees testify that Israeli officers beat and waterboarded them into making false confessions.

A man bikes by the UNRWA headquarters, which has been destroyed by Israeli attacks, in Gaza City, Gaza, on February 21, 2024.

The governments of Canada and Sweden have announced they will resume funding for the United Nation’s agency that provides humanitarian aide and protection to Palestinians living in Gaza and elsewhere — a move that other powerful nations, including Israel’s most powerful ally the United States, continue to refuse.

Calling the lack of humanitarian relief inside Gaza “catastrophic,” Canadian Minister of International Development Ahmed Hussen said Friday his nation would restore funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in order to help address the “dire” situation on the ground living.

Sweden made its announcement Saturday and said a $20 million disbursement would be made to help UNRWA regain its financial footing.

The restoration of funds follows weeks of global criticism and protest for the decision by many Western nations to withhold UNRWA funds after Israel claimed, without presenting evidence, that a few members of the agency — the largest employer in the Gaza Strip — had participated in the Hamas-led attacks of October 7.

As a result, UNRWA has said it’s ability to provide aide and services to Gaza — where over 100,000 people have been killed or wounded in five months of constant bombardment and blockade by the Israeli military — has been pushed to the “breaking point” as malnutrition and starvation has been documented among the displaced population of over 2 million people.

“Canada is resuming its funding to UNRWA so more can be done to respond to the urgent needs of Palestinian civilians,” Hussen said. “Canada will continue to take the allegations against some of UNRWA’s staff extremely seriously and we will remain closely engaged with UNRWA and the UN to pursue accountability and reforms.”

“I welcome Canada lifting the pause on funding for UNWRA,” said Canadian MP Salma Zahid, a member of the Liberal party representing Scarborough Centre in the House of Commons. “The work that UNWRA does cannot be overstated. It will save lives as we have seen the visuals of children dying of hunger in Gaza. The need for immediate aid is non-negotiable.”

Earlier this week, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told a special meeting of the U.N. General Assembly the agency was “facing a deliberate and concerted campaign” by Israel “to undermine its operations, and ultimately end them.”

On Friday, Reuters reported on an internal UNRWA report that included testimony of employees who said they were tortured by Israeli officers while in detention to make false admissions about involvement in the October 7 attack.

According to the reporting:

UNRWA communications director Juliette Touma said the agency planned to hand the information in the 11-page, unpublished report to agencies inside and outside the U.N. specialised in documenting potential human rights abuses.

“When the war comes to an end there needs to be a series of inquiries to look into all violations of human rights,” she said.

The document said several UNRWA Palestinian staffers had been detained by the Israeli army, and added that the ill-treatment and abuse they said they had experienced included severe physical beatings, waterboarding, and threats of harm to family members.

Michael Bueckert vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, said the new report was “more evidence that Canada’s political decision to suspend UNRWA funding was based on false allegations obtained through torture.”

“While the resumption of UNRWA aid is certainly welcome,” said Bueckert, “there needs to be accountability for the harm that Canada’s actions have caused.”

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