Republicans Want To Cut Funding for Palestinian Refugee Agency

Representatives, senators cite U.N. Relief and Works Agency's terror ties and promotion of anti-Semitic materials

A UNRWA office in the Gaza Strip (Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)
July 27, 2021

Congressional Republicans are moving to cut American funding to the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency, citing its promotion of anti-Israel materials and ties to Iranian-backed terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Biden administration resumed U.S. funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) this year over the objection of many Republicans in Congress. UNRWA, the primary vehicle for educational and other aid services in the Palestinian territories, is a perpetually hot-button diplomatic issue due to the organization's skyrocketing budget and reliance on anti-Israel teaching materials.

Legislation filed in the House and Senate on Tuesday would cut off U.S. funding to UNRWA until the agency implements a series of reforms that include cutting ties to terrorist groups and ending its use of anti-Israel educational curricula and consents to a full-scale financial audit, according to a copy of the legislation obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. The bill would also require the Biden administration to certify in writing to Congress that UNRWA has ended its affiliation with all terrorist groups and rooted out anti-Semitism from its ranks.

The legislation comes just months after the Biden administration greenlit $150 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars to UNRWA, which saw its budget cut by the Trump administration in 2018. While it is unlikely that Republicans can pass the bill in a Democrat-controlled House and divided Senate, the measure will send a warning to UNRWA that if it does not reform, it will once again find itself iced out of U.S. aid if the GOP regains control.

The Senate version of the bill is spearheaded by Sen. Jim Risch (R., Idaho), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and already has 12 cosponsors, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Rob Portman (R., Ohio), and Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.). Risch requested in April that Secretary of State Antony Blinken reconsider U.S. funding to UNRWA, but the Biden administration declined. Rep. Chip Roy (R., Texas) is leading the House version of the bill, which has the early support of 28 members.

The bill also redefines what it means to be a Palestinian refugee. UNRWA claims there are more than five million Palestinian refugees who require its services, a number that has been used to justify UNRWA's skyrocketing budget. A classified report by the U.S. State Department put this number at closer to 20,000, according to reporting by the Free Beacon. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo put the number at less than 200,000 in a tweet issued shortly before he left office.

Under the legislation, only those individuals displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war would qualify for this status. This change would cut the number of refugees in need of UNRWA's services and set the stage for the embattled agency to be completely phased out—an effort UNRWA officials have pushed back against in recent years.

"When UNRWA was created, its specific purpose was to provide relief for refugees of the 1948 Arab-Israeli Conflict. More than 70 years later, the organization has employed individuals affiliated with Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, and its schools have been used to promote anti-Semitism and store Hamas weapons," Risch told the Free Beacon. "It is unacceptable that U.S. taxpayer dollars are being used to fund this agency."

Roy, in a statement, described UNRWA's definition of a Palestinian refugee as "nonsensical" and accused the agency of being "an obstacle to peace" between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Risch-Roy bill would also block all U.S. funding to UNRWA until the Biden administration can certify that the agency does not employ or work with terrorists, has rooted out anti-Semitism from its education materials, and ends partnerships with terrorism financiers.

Richard Goldberg, a former White House National Security Council official during the Trump administration and senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the former administration froze aid to UNRWA because the organization is "bloated, inefficient and mismanaged." UNRWA, he added, also "teaches antisemitism, incites hatred of Israel, abuses Palestinian human rights, and willfully hands out money to members and affiliates of designated foreign terrorist organizations."

David Milstein, the former special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Israel under Trump, said the Biden administration's decision to resume funding without forcing UNRWA to undergo reforms is "outrageous and unacceptable."

"UNRWA perpetuates the false notion the millions of descendants of the original Palestinian Arab refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war have a 'right of return' that in reality is another attempt to destroy Israel," Milstein said. "The U.S. and the international community need to abandon the failed policies of the past, formally adopt a proper definition of refugee, and phase out UNRWA to provide real assistance to the Palestinians trapped within UNRWA who deserve a better life."