Four local Republican members of Congress have been pressing the U.S. State Department over American funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the controversial organization that assists Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, from Chester County; U.S. Rep. Charles Dent, who represents the Lehigh Valley; U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, whose district is based in Delaware County; and U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, from Bucks County, first sent a letter Sept. 17 to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Recent news reports indicate that the UNRWA is using educational programs to promote violence, anti-Semitism and religious extremism among Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory,” the letter stated.
The House members called for an investigation of these allegations. They heard back from a State Department official 10 days later and then — apparently unhappy with the response they received — fired off another letter on Nov. 20, containing a new round of questions.
UNRWA was created in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees from Israel’s War for Independence, soon after the armistice that ended the conflict.
In 2012, the U.N. group received $232 million from the U.S. government.
The agency has been a subject of controversy for years. Critics have long alleged that the agency promotes an anti-Israel agenda, hires known terrorists and perpetuates a system of dependence for the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees.
Over this past summer, UNRWA got some new attention due to the release of a 19-minute documentary, available on the web, called Camp Jihad. Released by the Israel-based Center for Near East Policy Research, the video showed young children being exposed to anti-Israel propaganda.
The congressional letter was spearheaded by Gerlach. The issue was brought to the lawmaker’s attention by a constituent, according to Gerlach spokesman Kori Walter.
“Congressman Gerlach continues working on the issue with his colleagues because it is critical to ensure that American aid is used to advance the interests of our country,” Walter wrote in an email. “Under no circumstances should this aid be used to foment anti-Semitism or undermine our allies.”
David Bedein, a graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy who made aliyah to Israel in 1970, oversaw the Camp Jihad project. He said a number of the documentaries he’s made have gotten traction on Capitol Hill, but perhaps none more so than Camp Jihad.
“I have worked on the UNRWA issue ever since a sociologist and rabbi, Eugene Weiner, addressed our senior class at Akiba in March 1968 and declared that Arab refugee issue was our problem now —as a result of the Six-Day War,” Bedein wrote in an email.
In a Sept. 27 letter to Gerlach, Thomas Gibbons, acting assistant secretary of legislative affairs for the State Department, said the department “has closely monitored UNRWA’s actions in response to the allegations contained” in the Camp Jihad documentary.
But, according to the letter, the State Department’s analysis of the situation is based on an UNRWA internal investigation.
The Sept. 27 response apparently didn’t satisfy the congressmen.
In their own follow-up letter, Gerlach and the other House members wrote that the State Department failed “to provide specific examples of how the U.S. Department of State conducts oversight of U.S taxpayer dollars dispersed to UNRWA.”