International aid groups providing humanitarian support to Palestinians in Gaza have to tread extremely carefully to avoid falling foul of western anti-terror legislation aimed at Hamas, the Islamic movement that controls the territory.
US rules, specifically their definition of providing support to terrorism, are the most stringent, according to a paper on Counter-terrorism and Humanitarian Action by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), part of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute. “In the US, no knowledge or intention to support terrorism per se is required [for criminal responsibility] if support is knowingly provided to a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” says the report.
In the UK, “having reasonable cause to suspect” that support will contribute to terrorist activity is enough to attract criminal responsibility.
This notion of "support" under US and UK anti-terror legislation means that, for example, one aid group that distributes milk and fortified biscuits daily to 10,000 pre-school children in Gaza, must avoid any contact with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MOHE) .
“Over the past five years, the MOHE has tried its best to decrease the number of problems caused by the imposed siege on the Gaza Strip, including the political siege [the no-contact policy] that hinders the procedures and work of the International Nongovernmental Organizations [INGOs] inside Gaza,” Ziad Thabet, MOHE assistant deputy minister told IRIN.
“In spite of our strong readiness to enable local NGOs to provide direct assistance to schools with minimal direct contact, we believe that it would behoove the international community to deal directly with the MOHE so that Palestinian children will be better serviced,” he added.
The Israeli blockade of Gaza, tightened after Hamas seized power in 2007, is an additional impediment to INGOs operating in the territory, increasing costs and affecting project oversight.
In terms of access by international staff, several agencies IRIN spoke to complained over the difficulty of getting permission to enter Gaza via Israel. All individuals, foreign or Palestinian, require permission from the Israeli authorities to enter via the Erez crossing, the only passenger terminal between Israel and Gaza. If an organization is not registered with the proper Israeli authorities, their staff are denied access.
While all INGOs operating in Gaza face similar frustrations, an aid worker, who asked not to be identified, said Israel’s objection to assistance reaching Hamas was sharpened by “Islamophobia” when that aid was delivered by Muslim charities.
At the practical level, Islamic INGOs face greater movement and access restrictions than other agencies because some are banned by the Israeli authorities, according to Ahmed Shurrab, including his own agency, Interpal.
But the restrictions are not insurmountable. “Israel has denied requests for permits for humanitarian staff to enter Gaza, but with the Rafah crossing [along the Gaza-Egypt border] functioning better, we [expect] international staff may be able to enter,” Muslim Hands International director Saed Salah told IRIN.
Financing, however, can be a problem, with US anti-terrorism legislation complicating transfers to NGOs operating in Gaza. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), under the US Treasury Department, administers and enforces economic sanctions against countries, groups and individuals deemed a threat.
“Banks are very sensitive, particularly in Gaza, and even if an entity is not marked by OFAC, it can still be assessed as a risk,” says the governor of the Palestine Monetary Authority, Jihad Al-Wazir.
Interpal was defined as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" that aids Hamas and was blacklisted by OFAC in 2003.
“Due to the banks being threatened by the US that they will lose their US operating licence if they deal with ‘terrorists’, we do not have full and open banking facilities,” Interpal’s Gaza field office manager, Mahmoud Lubbad, told IRIN. “That makes life difficult, but not impossible.”
Interpal’s UK headquarters are able to make Euro-denominated transfers directly to its implementing partners in Gaza.
|Ten new Islamic agencies have opened offices in Gaza since Israel’s large-scale military operation in Gaza – Operation Cast Lead - ended in January 2009|
The UK’s Charity Commission has launched two investigations into Interpal, and on both occasions concluded that the evidence did not substantiate (p.14) Washington’s claim that the organization was linked to political or militant activities.
In an out-of-court settlement in 2005 the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Britain’s leading Jewish organization, said it should not have described Interpal as a “terrorist organization”, in response to a libel suit filed by Interpal against the Board.
“We believe it was a political decision made at the request of the Israeli Foreign Ministry,” said Lubbad. “There was no due process, no investigation beforehand (and despite subsequent open invitations for the US government to send investigators to look us over, they have never been taken up) and it is a costly exercise to even request to be removed from the ‘terrorist’ list.”
However, despite the movement and access restrictions on humanitarian staff and supplies, and obstacles to the transfer of funds into Gaza, the number of Islamic INGOs working with the vulnerable in Gaza is actually increasing.
Ten new Islamic agencies have opened offices in Gaza since Israel’s large-scale military operation in Gaza – Operation Cast Lead - ended in January 2009, bringing the total to 24, according to Ayman Ayeish, information director of the Hamas-led Interior Ministry in Gaza. A total of 75 INGOs, and about 900 local NGOs, maintain offices in the territory.
Islamic aid groups based in Europe are noticeably more active than their counterparts from the US, a reflection of the different history and demographic of the two communities.
“The Muslim community in the UK works in local politics and has representation in Parliament, giving them more influence over policy,” said Muslim Hands director Saleh. “Most Muslims living in the US are more recent immigrants and less integrated into the community.”
According to an American-Muslim aid worker in Gaza: “The relationship between the US and Israel discourages US-based Islamic INGOs from delivering aid to the OPT... They may choose other areas to help people, due to the political sensitivities of the OPT, and the poor track record of receiving Israeli permits.”
* This article was amended on 8 February 2012 to remove reference to Secours Islamique France