At the end of March, an Israeli government minister threatened “targeted civil eliminations” of the leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
This violent-sounding language was deliberately calculated to intimidate Palestine solidarity activists. The phrase “targeted eliminations” is a common Israeli government euphemism for assassinations of Palestinian and other Arab armed resistance figures (who Israel defames as “terrorists”).
BDS, an entirely non-violent movement, is now being targeted with similar language. Since that threat was made, Israel has increased its “war” against BDS and other expressions of solidarity with Palestinians – what Israel terms “delegitimisation”.
Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian co-founder of the BDS movement has been hit with a de facto travel ban. On Sunday, another Israeli minister announced that a task force will be created to “target” BDS activists in the country with foreign citizenship and expel them from the country.
This month, this war extended beyond BDS and activists, and Israel seems to have begun “targeted civil eliminations” of charities, aid agencies and even UN bodies working in the field of humanitarian aid in occupied Palestinian territories, especially the Gaza Strip.
In June, Israel abducted and detained without charge or trial Mohammad El-Halabi, the Gaza director of World Vision, a relief agency with strong links to evangelical Christian group around the world.
After 50 days of detention without trial, much of it without access to a lawyer, Israel’s Shin Bet spying and torture agency began to claim that El-Halabi had been responsible for misappropriating millions of dollars of World Vision’s funds to Hamas, Palestine’s Islamic resistance movement.
But these assertions fell apart almost as soon as they were made.
Firstly, the figures do not add up. Israel claimed El-Halabi transferred $50 million to Hamas over the course of six years. But, as World Vision clarified in a statement, that figure far exceeds the charity’s entire budget.
The CEO of World Vision Australia said that the budget of their programme in Gaza amounts to only $2-$3 million per year.
“If every cent has been diverted, it doesn’t add up to $50 million,” he said.
“I’ve been there, the [Australian] Department of Foreign Affairs has been there, PwC [professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers] audit our books,” Costello added.
Secondly, it emerged that El-Halabi has likely been tortured into making the “confession” which Israel cites as “proof” of their far-fetched claims.
Speaking to my colleague Ben White, El-Halabi’s lawyer says that he denies all the claims against him, and that the confession was coerced out of him after he was physically abused in Israeli detention. Israel systematically and habitually uses torture against Palestinians it holds in its prisons.
According to the dissident Israeli reporter Amira Hass, El-Halabi probably deliberately chose the $50 million figure since he knew it was not remotely credible, and it would not stand up to press scrutiny. If that is the case it was a smart move of resistance on his part, one he will likely suffer for at the hands of his Israeli torturers.
So this is not only a deliberate lie and smear, it’s also a really badly constructed one. They haven’t even gone to the effort of making the lie believable on a basic logistical level. For their claims to be true, El-Halabi would have had to not only abscond with World Vision’s entire budget for the last six year with no one noticing, he would have magically conjured up tens of millions of dollars more on top.
Israel’s response when journalists pointed out this discrepancy was blithe denialism. A foreign ministry spokesperson said: “It’s like when you catch a serial killer, the question of whether he killed 50 people or 25 people is not really relevant is it?”
It’s like they don’t really care about even a basic level of credibility any more.
Why is Israel now targeting such NGOs and aid agencies in Gaza? After all, these groups do purely humanitarian work, and are not involved in the BDS movement. Indeed, groups such as Oxfam often go to great lengths to distance themselves from BDS (as the Scarlett Johansson episode in 2014 showed).
The latest way the campaign against aid agencies has expanded shows why Israel is now also targeting the UN Development Programme in the same way, by similarly detaining without trial one of its staffers.
A new aim for Israel’s “targeted civil eliminations” now seems to be to dismantle the apparatus of international aid in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially Gaza. Although they are extremely cautious and apolitical organisations (sometimes frustratingly so), by the mere act of providing humanitarian aid, and (in the course of that work) listing and citing facts and figures of the ways Israel deprives and systematically de-develops the Palestinian people, they find themselves in opposition to the Israeli occupation by default.
As such, Israel sees them as part of the “delegitimsation” process – a continuum that stretches all the way from World Vision, to BDS-supporting activists, to Hamas. These Israeli claims are baseless and meaningless propaganda.