WASHINGTON, July 14 (JTA) — U.S. lawmakers leading the effort to reform UNRWA reject proposals to disband the U.N. body administering aid to Palestinian refugees. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has sponsored UNRWA reform legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said the U.N. Relief and Works Agency performs an indispensable service, despite what they called problems with its transparency. “I don’t think we should cut UNRWA off,” Kirk said Thursday at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “UNRWA does a lot of good.” JINSA has long advocated for folding UNRWA into the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Shoshana Bryen, JINSA’s director of special projects, opened the session by saying the continued existence of an agency uniquely dedicated to Palestinians dispersed by the 1948 war, and their descendants, perpetuates a myth that Israel’s creation was a mistake. “As long as the Palestinian community is led to believe its status is unique, they become pawns for the most radical elements of the Palestinian leadership,” Bryen said. “Israel is not a mistake that needs to be corrected.” Palestinians should be treated no differently than any other refugee community, and should be settled where they now live, Bryen said. Coleman, who leads U.N. reform efforts in the Senate, would not count out folding UNRWA into UNHCR in the future, but said that the agency fulfills a critical need for now. “One of the realities is we don’t have anyone else on the ground,” he said. Coleman and Kirk continued their arguments for greater transparency for the agency, which they say does not have a transparent budget. UNRWA’s budget runs about $400 million annually, most of it from Western nations. Now that Hamas, a terrorist group, has assumed governance of the Palestinian Authority, the Bush administration and other Western nations are considering funneling assistance money through UNRWA. On Friday, David Welch, the top State Department envoy to the region, met in Ramallah with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas and announced plans to funnel $50 million in humanitarian aid through UNRWA. UNRWA officials say the agency undergoes periodic audits, adding that one such audit should be ready in six weeks. Kirk says UNRWA’s previous audits have been too broad and opaque, and that U.N. auditors lack credibility. UNRWA officials counter that the U.N. Board of Auditors is an independent body comprised of individual auditors rotated in by member countries. Auditors from South Africa, the Philippines, and France are carrying out the current audit. Moreover, the UNRWA officials note, Congress’ own General Accounting Office works for the U.N. Board of Auditors. Kirk and Coleman also allege that among UNRWA’s 25,000 employees are individuals loyal to Hamas. UNRWA says its employees are banned from any political activity, and notes that those who ran for political office first had to quit the organization.
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.
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