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Chief of UN aid agency in Gaza calls EU funds 'absolutely critical' but the bloc wants an audit

BRUSSELS (AP) — The head of the U.N. agency that delivers most aid to people in Gaza expressed guarded optimism Monday that the European Union will provide it with a vital financial lifeline in coming weeks, although divisions within the EU threaten to derail the move.

The aid agency UNRWA is reeling from allegations that 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff members participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel. The agency immediately fired the employees, but more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half of UNRWA’s budget for 2024.

Speaking to reporters after talks with EU government ministers in Brussels, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini described the 82 million-euro ($88-million) payment due from the EU by March as “absolutely critical.”

Lazzarini had previously warned that the agency, which has been the main supplier of food, water and shelter during the war in Gaza, might be forced to suspend its work by the end of the month. The war has displaced about 85% of the Palestinian territory's population.

Had no donors frozen funding, UNRWA would probably have been able to operate until late July, according to Lazzarini. Without the EU money, he warned, the agency’s “cash flow” will drop by up to $40 million in March and spiral significantly downward from April.

Two U.N. investigations into Israel’s allegations against the agency are underway, but the European Commission -– the third biggest donor to UNRWA after the United States and Germany -– has demanded a separate audit and wants to appoint experts to carry it out.

The audit would focus “on the control systems needed to prevent the possible involvement of (UNRWA) staff in terrorist activities,” the EU’s executive branch said. It also is insisting on “a review of all UNRWA staff” to confirm they had no role in the attacks.

Of the U.N. agency’s 13,000 Gaza staff members, more than 3,000 continue working there. Screening them all within weeks would be impossible, and time is of the essence.

Among the 27 EU countries, several have unilaterally suspended funding. Germany said it “will temporarily not approve any new funds” until investigations are concluded. France, Italy and the Netherlands have taken a similar position.

The combined weight of its member nations and institutions makes the EU the world’s biggest provider of assistance to the Palestinians; almost 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) was earmarked for 2021-2024. But the members are deeply divided over their support for Israel and the Palestinians.

Part of its audit would involve a new “pillar assessment” of UNRWA. The commission routinely carries out these checks of agencies that it funds to ensure they are complying with EU standards.

But even the EU’s crisis management commissioner, Janez Lenarcic, conceded on Monday that such an assessment of UNRWA “has been concluded very recently.” The agency was also included in an audit the commission launched in October, which found that no funds were reaching Hamas.

Despite the divide, Lazzarini said his discussion with the ministers and the European Commission "was very constructive. There is a mutual commitment to find ways to address (questions) in order to make release of this contribution possible.”

He also told reporters that the agency faced mounting difficulties along its supply lines, with aid trucks and convoys in Gaza being looted because local police are reluctant to provide protection due to Israeli strikes.

Several members of the Hamas-run police force have been killed in recent days in strikes on Rafah, the southernmost town in Gaza where most aid is brought into the territory.

Lazzarini said a shipment of food that could feed 1 million people for a month was being held up in the Israeli port city of Ashdod. Contractors “have been instructed not to handle and move this food because it is for UNRWA,” he said.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired Monday's meeting, told reporters that “nobody else can do what UNRWA is doing.”

Israel has long accused UNRWA of tolerating or even collaborating with Hamas activities in or around U.N. facilities, but it had stopped short of demanding the agency’s immediate closure. No one -– in Israel or abroad -– has offered an alternative for delivering aid to Gaza’s besieged population.

Over the weekend, though, the Israeli military said it had discovered tunnels underneath the agency’s main headquarters in Gaza City, alleging that Hamas militants used the space as an electrical supply room.

Still, Borrell said that Israel has provided no proof that UNRWA employees were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas massacres.

“Allegations are allegations,” he said. “Maybe it’s true, maybe not. But the fact that, since the recent allegations, people (have) to blindly believe the allegations is against the elementary basis of law.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war