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Aid groups appeal to the European Union to release urgent funds for Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA

LORNE COOK
February 29, 2024

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Humanitarian aid groups appealed on Thursday to the European Union to release tens of millions of euros in funding due to the main U.N. agency that delivers most aid to people in the Gaza Strip as the organization teeters on the brink of financial collapse.

The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, was due to disburse 82 million euros ($89 million) to the UNRWA aid agency on Feb. 29. UNRWA said that it still hadn't received the payment as of Thursday morning.

"This is a moment of reckoning for the EU as a humanitarian leader and a critical donor for this crisis," said Niamh Nic Carthaigh, from Plan International's EU Liaison Office.

"Any further cuts to UNRWA funding would be an effective death sentence for civilians trapped in Gaza and the region who rely on the agency for their survival," she said in a joint statement from 17 aid groups, including the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and Oxfam.

Israeli troops fired on a crowd of Palestinians waiting for aid in Gaza City on Thursday, witnesses said. More than 100 people were killed, health authorities said, bringing the Palestinian death toll since the start of the Israel-Hamas war to more than 30,000.

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 its budget for 2024.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini has described the payment due from the EU as "absolutely critical." The agency has been the main supplier of food, water and shelter during the war in Gaza. Lazzarini has warned that it may be forced to suspend its work soon.

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.

Asked on Thursday how the audit is evolving and when funds might be released, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said that "work is ongoing."

"The plight of the Palestinian people is of utmost concern to us. At the same time, we have set out a number of points that need to be agreed with UNRWA before we make our decision on the next payment, which is indeed foreseen for the end of the month," Mamer said.

The war has driven 80% of Gaza's population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes, and U.N. officials say a quarter of the population is starving.

The European Commission acknowledged this week that no agency other than UNRWA is capable of helping Gaza's people properly, and that Israel has provided no evidence to support its allegations against the agency's staff. The agency provides Israel with a list of staff each year and has received no objections.

Despite this, it continues to insist 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.

Among the EU's 27 member countries, several have unilaterally suspended funding. Germany said that 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.

In an opinion piece in the Financial Times newspaper on Thursday, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said that "Gaza has been left on life support, and the life support machine is UNRWA."

He said that even if the allegations against it "are proved -- and as of now no evidence has been presented, no details have been shared -- how can the logical response from donors be the further cutting of life-saving aid to 2 million Gazan civilians?"

"Gaza is in freefall, hammered by a modern army funded and empowered by the world's wealthiest and most powerful nations. Palestinians are displaced, starving and desperate," Egeland said. "Only UNRWA has the capacity to support them: it must be allowed to do its job."

___

Find more of AP's coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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