Brussels, Feb 12 (AP) The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Monday that it's vital that it receives new European Union funding within weeks because Israel appears to be readying a ground assault on Rafah, where many civilians have taken refuge.

The aid agency UNRWA is reeling from allegations that 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff participated in the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel.UNRWA immediately fired the staff, but more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about USD 440 million, almost half of UNRWA's budget for 2024.

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Asked how important it is that UNRWA receive an 82 million euro (USD 88 million) EU payment by the end of the month, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said, “It's absolutely critical.” He has previously warned that the agency might be forced to close by the end of the month.

Two UN investigations into Israel's allegations 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.

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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 UN 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.

The agency has been the main supplier of food, water and shelter during the war in Gaza, where around 85 per cent of the population has been displaced.

Part of the audit would involve a new “pillar assessment” of UNRWA. The commission routinely carries out these checks of agencies that it funds to ensure that they're 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.

Lazzarini was in Brussels on Monday to update EU ministers responsible for development policy on the agency's needs and the allegations against it.

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

“The presumption of innocence is valid for everyone, at any time, even for UNRWA. It is not a secret that the Israeli government wants to get rid of UNRWA,” Borrell said.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of tolerating or even collaborating with Hamas activities in or around UN 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.

But over the weekend, 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.

Borrell warned that if UNRWA ceases to operate, “it will make it still worse. You know, hundreds of thousands of people are being fed, eat, everyday thanks to the work of UNRWA. And not only in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Jordan.”(AP)

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