Palestinians employed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N.'s main aid arm in Gaza, elected candidates affiliated with the terror group Hamas to 25 out of 27 seats on a union board that represents ten thousand UNRWA workers.
The development brings fresh criticism to the much-maligned U.N. agency, which oversees aid to Palestinians designated as refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and has been accused by members of Congress of having ties to regional terror groups that engage in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities.
"For the moment, Hamas and UNRWA seem to have an agreement that UNRWA may continue to function in Gaza so long as it does not engage in actions that significantly contradict Hamas' world view," one former senior UNRWA official, talking on the condition of anonymity, told Fox News. He added that the "dominance" of Hamas in the union was not a recent event, and that the terror organization had been winning the UNRWA Gaza staff union elections for a number of years.
And even though UNRWA had, in the past, disciplined some of its more radical members for violating the UNRWA rules on "no political speech," the official said he wondered what went on in classrooms staffed by teachers who were Hamas members, Hamas sympathizers or people frightened by Hamas.
So far this financial year, the U.S. government has given $225 million to UNRWA to support its mandate to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees, according to one State Department official.
The official told Fox News that the U.S. works closely with UNRWA "to ensure the neutrality" of the agency. She added that the department was presently looking into "the veracity of press reports alleging that candidates affiliated with Hamas won the majority of seats in the UNRWA Gaza Area Staff Union."
But Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has sponsored legislation aimed at reforming the agency, said that may not be enough.
"The most recent UNRWA union election reaffirms the significant control that Hamas exercises over UNRWA's operations in Gaza," he told Fox News in a statement. "It is time for the State Department to follow U.S. law and re-assess whether the American taxpayer should continue to provide aid to an organization that employs supporters of terrorism."
UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness says that UNRWA has strict neutrality policies and that "where wrong doing is established, disciplinary action is taken up to and including dismissal and the withholding of benefits. During these staff union elections, no credible reports of neutrality violations were received." Gunness also said that staff elections don't state political affiliations of candidates standing and that "the election process is monitored to make sure that the issues debated and voted are solely about industrial relations such as pay and conditions."
Jonathan Schanzer, author of "Hamas vs. Fatah The Struggle for Palestine," believes the terror group already has "great influence over UNRWA's Gaza operations." He adds: "It is the de facto government in the territory where UNRWA is the most active - the Gaza Strip. UNRWA downplays this for obvious reasons, but it could not operate in Gaza without coordination on a basic level with the Hamas government. This election only makes UNRWA more dependent upon Hamas.
According to a report published in May by Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C, U.S. taxpayers have given UNRWA four billion dollars since its inception in 1948. Schanzer says that in today's dollars, that amounts to ten billion dollars."
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