Canadian officials still haven't seen intelligence linking UN's Gaza aid agency with Hamas: sources

Activists and their children hold a giant Palestinian flag during a protest demanding that countries resume funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians Refugees (UNRWA) near the European Union headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Bilal Hussein/Associated Press - image credit)
Activists and their children hold a giant Palestinian flag during a protest demanding that countries resume funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians Refugees (UNRWA) near the European Union headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Bilal Hussein/Associated Press - image credit)

The government of Canada did not see any evidence backing up Israel's claim that staff employed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) colluded with Hamas before suspending funding to the agency, CBC News has learned.

Government sources tell CBC that Israel still has not shared evidence with Canada to substantiate its claim that 12 employees of UNRWA were involved in some capacity in the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and the affiliated group Islamic Jihad.

Around 1,200 people were killed in Israel on Oct. 7 during Hamas-led attacks, including several Canadians; Israeli officials said 253 others were taken hostage, with about 130 yet to return home. Palestinian officials say more than 27,000 people have been killed in the Israeli military response to the Hamas-led attacks.

Britain's Channel Four News earlier this week obtained a copy of a dossier that the government of Israel shared with the U.K. government, which also cut funding to UNRWA.

Channel Four reported that the dossier was only six pages long. The news service said it rehashes long-standing Israeli government complaints about UNRWA and alleges the involvement of UNRWA staff in the Oct 7 attack, but "provides no evidence" to back up Israel's explosive allegations against the agency.

Britain's Sky News also reviewed the dossier and reached a similar conclusion:

"The Israeli intelligence documents make several claims that Sky News has not seen proof of and many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA," the news channel reported.

CBC News has not yet been able to review the Israeli intelligence document.

Channel Four quoted from relevant sections of the document, which is in Hebrew.

"From intelligence information, documents and identity cards seized during the course of the fighting, it is now possible to flag around 190 Hamas and PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) terrorist operatives who serve as UNRWA employees. More than 10 UNRWA staffers took apart in the events of October 7," the paper says.

The report includes photographs of 12 UNRWA employees it claims were involved, but does not provide the information or documents it mentions to substantiate those claims, Channel Four reported.

French public broadcaster France 24 also had access to the Israeli report, which it compared to the notorious "dodgy dossier" of intelligence claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that led the U.K. government to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Israel refuses to provide proof

Israel has refused to provide the intelligence it says backs up its allegations, either to UNRWA or to the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the UN body assigned to investigate.

"I don't think we need to give intelligence information. This would reveal sources in the operation," Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for Israel's foreign ministry, told France 24.

That statement appeared to contradict a tweet by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Monday which pledged that Israel "will submit all evidence highlighting UNRWA's ties to terrorism and its harmful effects on regional stability."

Hassan Eslaiah/Associated Press
Hassan Eslaiah/Associated Press

UNRWA moved quickly to fire 12 individual staff members on January 26, as soon as Israel made its allegations.

"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," said Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner-general.

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

UNRWA blindsided by sudden cutoff

UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma said the agency acted to fire the staff immediately because of the seriousness and timing of the allegations — not because it had credible evidence against them.

"The commissioner-general of UNRWA did this in the best interests of the agency, due to the huge risks both to the reputation of the agency and also the largest humanitarian operation in response to the Gaza war," she told Channel Four News.

She said the firings were intended to reassure donor nations and forestall drastic actions.

The U.S. responded to the allegations by cutting funding immediately, although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that it was relying on Israel's word alone.

"We haven't had the ability to investigate [the allegations] ourselves," Blinken said on Jan. 30. "But they are highly, highly credible."

Canada announced the suspension of all funding within hours of the U.S. announcement.

WATCH: Displaced Gazans worry about UNRWA's future

"I don't think any of us has anticipated this huge number of our friendly donors, who have been our partners for decades on end, to suspend the funding so, so quickly, like they've done," said Touma.

"I also think none of us have anticipated that this would be done in the middle of a war, and to the largest humanitarian organization, who's responding to what has become very quickly one of the most complex and difficult humanitarian crises in the world."

Unless funding is restored within the next few weeks, she said, the agency will struggle even harder to deal with the famine conditions now prevailing in the Gaza Strip.

"We're going to be forced to make very tough decisions that humanitarian aid workers are not supposed to," she said.

Canadian officials told CBC News that Canada's own decision to defund was a reaction to UNRWA's decision to dismiss the staffers, which created the impression that the agency saw Israel's allegation as credible.

Splits within Israel

Israel's decision to go public with its allegations has caused friction between the Netanyahu government and the Israeli military, which has initiated an investigation to find the sources of the leak, according to Israeli media reports.

Israeli media outlets have reported commanders in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) want UNRWA's operations to continue because they fear being left with sole responsibility for a territory gripped by famine.

Israel's civilian government has been pushing for the elimination of the agency for some time.

"It's time that the international community and the UN itself understand that UNRWA's mission has to end," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a visiting UN delegation on Jan. 31. "UNRWA is self-perpetuating. It is self-perpetuating also in its desire to keep alive the Palestinian refugee issue."

Mahmoud Illean/Associated Press
Mahmoud Illean/Associated Press

"UNRWA employees participated in the massacre of October 7," foreign minister Israel Katz wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "Lazzarini should draw conclusions and resign. Supporters of terrorism are not welcome here."

Touma pointed out that the Israeli government itself signs off on every employee hired by UNRWA.

"Every year we send a list of all our staff working across the region to the host governments," she said. "And we have not received a response to the contents of that list from the government of Israel."

Touma said she believes the names of the dozen employees accused by Israel were all on the list provided to the Israeli government in 2023.