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Senate Republicans call to halt UNRWA aid pending reforms

In a letter to Blinken, 21 senators call for sweeping reforms at the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees

Lance Cheung

Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) in the USDA Forest Service Headquarters, Yates Building Fire Desk, on Sept 26, 2017.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led 20 fellow Senate Republicans in a letter on Thursday encouraging Secretary of State Tony Blinken to halt U.S. aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) pending significant reforms to the organization.

In a letter to Blinken, the senators cite concerns including “an inflated and duplicative structure,” ties to Hamas-affiliated individuals, UNRWA textbooks containing pro-violence and anti-Israel material and an overly-expansive definition of the Palestinian refugee status.

The senators encourage Blinken to secure reforms including independent verification that UNRWA employees, contractors and partners are not affiliated with terrorist groups; verification that textbooks do not include extremist content; a U.S. audit of UNRWA; public disclosure of the number of UNRWA refugees who have secured citizenship in their country of residence; and a policy which would automatically suspend aid if UNRWA facilities are used to house terrorist weapons or equipment.

“The United States has been one of the most generous donors to the Palestinian people. Our assistance is designed to be humanitarian in nature,” the letter reads. “However, UNRWA has grown into a bloated organization which does not embody the shared values between the United States and United Nations.”

The Biden administration announced in early April that it would provide approximately $150 million in aid to UNRWA as part of its decision to restore aid to the Palestinians.

“We are concerned that this administration’s decision to resume U.S. assistance to UNRWA was made in haste, without any actionable attempt to secure much-needed and meaningful reforms of the agency,” the letter reads.

Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Rick Scott (R-FL), Susan Collins (R-ME), John Barrasso (R-WY), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Rob Portman (R-OH), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Steve Daines (R-MO), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), John Boozman (R-AR), Todd Young (R-IN), John Thune (R-SD) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) joined Risch on the letter.

A bipartisan group of members of the House recently introduced a bill which would require the State Department to issue a report on the content of UNRWA and Palestinian Authority textbooks. According to the bill’s supporters, several senators have expressed support for that legislation and are likely to introduce a Senate companion bill.

A Risch spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question from Jewish Insider about his legislative intentions in regards to UNRWA.