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No evidence from Israel to back UNRWA accusations, says EU humanitarian chief

FILE PHOTO: Site of Israeli strike on UNRWA aid distribution center in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip

By Nette Noestlinger and Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's top humanitarian aid official said on Thursday he had seen no evidence from Israel to back its accusations against staff from the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA), which should continue playing a "critical" role in Gaza.

UNRWA, which provides aid and services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and across the region, has been in crisis since Israel accused a dozen of its staff of involvement in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks against Israel.

The allegations prompted UNRWA's biggest donor, the United States, and some others to pause funding, putting the agency's future in doubt.

The head of UNRWA earlier this month expressed cautious optimism that some donors would soon return, though U.S. officials said Washington's pause in funding might become permanent due to opposition in Congress.

The EU's executive Commission is a leading UNRWA donor after the United States. It said on March 1 it would pay 50 million euros to the agency, but hold back 32 million euros while it deals with the Israeli allegations.

Janez Lenarcic, the head of humanitarian aid and crisis management at the European Commission, said that neither he nor - according to his knowledge - anybody else at the EU executive, or any other UNRWA donor had been presented with evidence by Israel.

"Even if those allegations, at the end of the day, prove to be true, that doesn't mean that UNRWA is the perpetrator," he told journalists.

In that case, Lenarcic said individual accountability would be in order rather than summary justice - and the "irreplaceable" agency would be asked to clean up and carry on.

"UNRWA has reacted properly, immediately, effectively. It took several measures. There is an investigation. There is a review. We are satisfied so far with all this," said Lenarcic.

"UNRWA has of course a critical role to play here because it has unmatched infrastructure, warehouses, shelters, logistical capacities."

Israel unleashed a war against Hamas in response to the October attack during which fighters killed 1,200 people and captured more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Gaza health officials said on Thursday that more than 100,000 Palestinian had been killed or wounded since Israel launched its military offensive on the enclave.

The conflict in the Middle East exposed divisions in the European Union between countries including Ireland, Spain and Belgium whose governments have been more sympathetic towards the Palestinians, and those of Germany and Hungary who have sided more with Israel.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Toby Chopra)