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The EU says it will send funds to Gaza's main aid provider after the UN agency agrees to an audit

LORNE COOK
March 01, 2024

BRUSSELS (AP) -- The European Union said Friday that it will pay 50 million euros ($54 million) to the main provider of aid in Gaza next week after the cash-strapped U.N. agency agreed to allow EU-appointed experts to audit the way it screens staff to identify extremists.

The UNRWA agency 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 fired the employees, but more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half its budget for 2024.

The Israel-Hamas 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 agency is the main supplier of food, water and shelter, but it is also on the brink of financial collapse.

The European Commission had been due to disburse 82 million euros ($89 million) to UNRWA on Feb. 29, but wanted the agency to accept its terms for an audit. The EU's powerful executive branch is the third biggest donor to UNRWA after the United States and Germany.

The commission said the agency has now "indicated that it stands ready to ensure that a review of its staff is carried out to confirm they did not participate in the attacks and that further controls are put in place to mitigate such risks in the future."

The commission said the funds will be dispatched next week once UNRWA has confirmed in writing that it accepts the EU's conditions. Two further tranches worth 16 million euros ($17.3 million) each will be given to UNRWA as it complies with their agreement.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini welcomed the EU's announcement and said that the commitment to provide money next week "comes at a critical time."

"The full disbursement of the EU contribution is key to the agency's ability to maintain its operations in a very volatile area," he tweeted.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of tolerating or even collaborating with Hamas activities in or around U.N. facilities, but no one -- in Israel or abroad -- has offered an alternative for delivering aid to Gaza's besieged population.

UNRWA took the unusual step of immediately firing its staffers based on Israel's allegations against them, but with no hard evidence being provided. Each year, UNRWA gives a list of its staff to the Israeli authorities for vetting, and the agency said it has received no complaints.

Two U.N. investigations into Israel's allegations against the agency are already underway.

Even as the commission was negotiating the terms of its audit, Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenar?i? told EU lawmakers this week that "we have not received any evidence supporting the allegations by Israel that UNWRA's staff were involved in the terrible events on 7 October."

"To our knowledge, none of the donors -- other donors -- have received any evidence," he added.

Belgian Development Minister Caroline Gennez, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, tweeted on Friday that UNRWA "is the only organization that can structurally get humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Defunding would mean a death sentence for tens of thousands."

The funding dispute comes a day after witnesses said that Israeli troops had fired on a crowd of Palestinians racing to pull food off an aid convoy in Gaza City. More than 100 people were killed in the chaos. The death toll since October stands at more than 30,000, according to health officials.

The Hamas attack into Israel that ignited the war killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the militants seized around 250 hostages. Hamas and other militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of about 30 more, after releasing most other captives during a November cease-fire.

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

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