JARED NIEUWENHUIS: Washington taxpayers deserve accountability for federal funding of UNRWA

About this commentary: The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire Bellevue City Council.

Federal funding can have a real, immediate, and local impact on the lives of those who call the Pacific Northwest home. Famously, King County voters rejected funding for mass transit in 1970, including $900 million in federal matching funds. Decades later, when voters approved Sound Transit’s light rail expansion across the region, that price tag increased significantly. Eastside residents are eagerly awaiting the opening of light rail service next month, which benefited from nearly $2 billion in federal transportation grants in addition to $1.3 billion in TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loans. This is an investment in our long-term success as a region as a sustainable growth engine that enhances mobility, stimulates economic growth, promotes equitable access to transportation, and is environmentally friendly. But these federal investments come with tremendous fiscal oversight and analysis on behalf of taxpayers, which made the news out of the Middle East last week so upsetting.

On January 26th, the federal government announced it would suspend new funding for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. This extraordinary decision was made after deeply disturbing revelations that UNRWA employees were involved in the October 7th attack on Israelis and other civilians by the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas. According to press reports, UNRWA employees helped kidnap civilians, supplied weapons, and joined Hamas terrorists at Israeli sites where hundreds of people were massacred.

Some were shocked to hear this news, others unsurprised. Since the news broke, the Wall Street Journal and others have reported that at least 10 percent – more than 1,000 individuals - of UNRWA employees have ties to Hamas. For years, aid workers have been accused of funneling tens of millions of dollars of aid to terrorists, who have used the money to train and arm terror cells while building a tunnel network under Gaza longer than the London Underground, London’s metro system. Hamas itself has claimed to have built more than 311 miles of tunnels, colloquially known as the “Gaza metro,” to house fighters and store weapons, and now, since October 7th, imprison hostages, including children, infants, and the elderly.  It was built, at enormous expense, while Gazans live aboveground in abject poverty.

Why should Washingtonians care? Well, for one, we helped pay for it. Since 2021, American taxpayers have sent more than $1 billion directly to UNRWA. In addition to funding the construction of world-class terrorist infrastructure, this has helped underwrite textbooks and curricula for schoolchildren glorifying violence against civilians and deepening extremism, while UNRWA schools and hospitals are routinely misused to house weapons and launch attacks. Notably, the decision to “pause” federal funding for UNRWA only applies to funds not yet delivered – about $300,000 appropriated but undelivered out of $121 million appropriated last year.

Other refugee populations, including those who now call Washington home, are also directly harmed by this willful negligence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has less than 19,000 international employees to manage 29.4 million refugees across 135 countries worldwide, unlike the more than 30,000 UNRWA employees. As these underserved refugees work and pay taxes in Washington, they too, contribute to UNRWA.

Why shouldn’t there be accountability for U.S. taxpayer dollars in Gaza, just as there should be for all foreign aid or public spending closer to home? Why is this abuse of our money accepted, especially in light of the revelations that UNRWA employees supported the murder, rape, and kidnapping of civilians alongside an entity that was first designated a terrorist organization in 1997 and terrorizes or radicalizes Palestinian and Israeli civilians alike at every opportunity?

Taxpayers deserve better. So do local Jewish communities in Washington state, who have been targeted with psychological warfare and physical intimidation since October 7th. So, too, do all with the moral clarity to see the difference between right and wrong and condemn it without equivocation. Our federal officials should use the power of the purse to investigate misuse of public funds by UNRWA immediately and follow through on their findings in a public, transparent, and morally defensible manner.

Councilmember Jared Nieuwenhuis was first elected to the council in November 2017 for a four-year term starting in January 2018. In 2022, Jared led the effort to make Bellevue the first city in the Pacific Northwest to adopt and utilize the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism.

Image: Title: unrwa funding
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