Key lawmakers in Congress are increasing pressure on the Trump administration to release a long classified government report on Palestinian refugees that insiders have described as a potential game changer in how the United States views the refugee issue and allocates millions in taxpayer funding for a major United Nations agency, according to conversations with senior congressional officials working on the matter.
The State Department has, since the Obama administration was in office, been hiding a key report believed to expose the number of Palestinian refugees as far smaller than the U.N. and other have claimed for decades. The public release of this information could alter how the United States provides funding for Palestinian refugees.
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The Washington Free Beacon first disclosed the existence of the refugee report in January, when the Trump administration decided to significantly cut funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, an organization long accused of harboring anti-Israel bias and of aiding Hamas terrorists in the Palestinian territories.
Though the State Department is legally required to publish an unclassified version of the report, it has repeatedly ignored demands by Congress that the report be released.
The State Department, when asked by the Free Beacon, could not provide any information or timeframe on the report's possible release.
"The State Department is committed to taking all appropriate measures to provide information in response to requests from Congress," a State Department official said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.) spearheaded the initial effort to declassify the report. Congress must have a complete picture of the Palestinian refugee situation in order to ensure that U.S. taxpayer funds are not being wasted, he told the Free Beacon in April.
"It is critical that Congress investigates the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operates under the United Nations (UN) using a different definition of a refugee for Palestinians than all other UN refugees around the world," Lamborn said.
Congressional demands that the report be publicly released come at time of mounting criticism for UNRWA, which is facing a severe cash crunch following the Trump administration's decision to reduce U.S. funding. The tense situation with UNRWA has sparked protests in the Gaza Strip, where UNRWA mainly operates and employs hundreds.
In addition to regional protests over UNRWA's inability to pay salaries, Turkey was recently appointed at the U.N. to chair the agency's advisory committee for the next year. This has stoked concerns that UNRWA could take an even more anti-Israel position in the coming months.
Sources with direct knowledge of the report's contents have told the Free Beacon it puts the number of actual Palestinian refugees at around 20,000, far fewer than the 5.3 million figure routinely pushed by UNRWA and pro-Palestinian advocates who want to see the United States and international partners continue sending millions in aid to the Palestinian government.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), one of the main lawmakers pressuring the Trump administration to release the report, told the Free Beacon that efforts to suppress the information on the actual Palestinian refugees is preventing Congress from providing oversight for the U.S. taxpayer.
"UNRWA lashes out against America and engages in anti-Semitic incitement. Hamas terrorists use UNRWA facilities to target Israeli civilians," Cruz told the Free Beacon. "The American people deserve to see this reported State Department assessment, so Congress and the administration can have a transparent and productive debate about America's role in the organization."
Now that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is running the State Department following the ouster of former head Rex Tillerson, lawmakers and senior congressional officials see a renewed opportunity to ensure the refugee report is released.
They continue to view the classified report's findings as a critical tipping point in the debate over UNRWA's funding and core mission, which has found itself subjected to increased scrutiny as a result of what many allege is UNRWA's anti-Israel bias and close relationship with Palestinian terror groups.
One senior congressional official who has been involved in the UNRWA issue for several years questioned why the Trump administration is continuing to keep the report classified, particularly as the White House amps up efforts to foster peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The refugee issue has long been a sticking point in peace talks.
"It's not really a question of what they're hiding," said the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the situation. "We know what's in the report because it's just a matter of mathematics and demographics. The number of refugees was half a million people to begin with, and that was 70 years ago so many of them have passed away, so it can't be five million now."
"The question is why the Trump administration is trying to lock in the Obama era policy of never letting this report see the light of day," the source said.
Update July 13, 3:16 p.m.: This post has been updated with further information.