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Humanitarian organisations in the face of Israeli tyranny

There is no doubt in the minds of those following Israel's dealings with humanitarian organisations, including international institutions, that there is a flaw in its application of the law due to the political status quo. This has obvious contradictions and has led to several parties accepting the idea that Israel is above the law.

The result is that decision-makers in the international community, led by the United States, ignore Israel's contempt for international laws, conventions and resolutions and its failure to implement them. This is evident with Israel ignoring UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions which include demands to restore the rights of the Palestinian people, end the occupation, stop building settlements on occupied land, and end all forms of violations against the Palestinians. Israel is a member of the UN and so, by implication, is bound to abide by the organisation's Charter, and yet it demands a degree of exceptionalism unthinkable for anyone else (apart from, perhaps, Israel's main sponsor and protector, the United States of America).

This has encouraged the Israeli occupation authorities to act as a gang rather than as a state by killing civilians; seizing land, resources and property; harassing, besieging and starving people; falsifying facts; practicing racial discrimination and segregation; and stealing the culture and identity of the Palestinian people after first displacing them from their land and turning millions into refugees around the world. Israel does all of this with apparent impunity.

A Palestinian girl leans on sacks of flours on back of a horse-drawn carraige during a food aid distribution by UNRWA in Rafah, Gaza on January 22, 2017 [Abed Rahim Khatib / Anadolu Agency]

A Palestinian girl leans on sacks of flours on back of a horse-drawn carriage during a food aid distribution by UNRWA in Rafah, Gaza on January 22, 2017 [Abed Rahim Khatib / Anadolu Agency]

The implication is that Israel is receiving the support and encouragement of international — maybe even supranational — decision-makers allowing it to operate outside the laws that the rest of the world are expected to abide by. Consider, for example, the UN General Assembly election of Israel as chair of the legal committee in June 2016, considered the most important out of its six main committees. This bizarre move came shortly after the UN Human Rights Council declared Israel to be one of the worst countries in the world for human rights and adopted four resolutions condemning the Israeli occupation.

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How can Israel head an international committee whose work is focused on strengthening international law and protecting human rights, while it occupies the land of others and breaches international laws and conventions on a daily basis? Its occupation is the only remaining colonial project left in the world in an age when colonialism is supposed to have been consigned to history.

Israel's violations do not stop at its disregard for UN resolutions and decisions; even humanitarian and charitable organisations are not spared. Its victims in this sense include international NGOs which are neither Arab nor Palestinian; many, in fact, are based in states which have strong relations with Israel. The Israelis have cracked down on such bodies and arrested their employees, sought to discredit their officials and levelled outrageous accusations of illegal activity with no evidence whatsoever. It is in this way that Israel has tried to discourage such organisations from providing humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees living under the occupation or in squalid refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In the Gaza Strip alone, 80 per cent of the population receives some form of humanitarian aid.

Israel's war against humanitarian organisations and charities has taken many forms and does not distinguish between their national origins. It reached its climax with Israel targeting the staff of such organisations directly. The past three Israeli offensives against the people of the Gaza Strip saw rescue and relief workers from the Palestinian Red Crescent and hospitals targeted by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), resulting in the killing and wounding of many. Furthermore, many ambulances were targeted and destroyed during air strikes on Gaza, despite high-level urging of Israel to respect international humanitarian law and treat health workers as neutrals and not parties to the conflict. In May 2016, the then UN Secretary-General made it clear that "intentional and direct attacks on hospitals are war crimes. Denying people access to essential health care is a serious violation of international humanitarian law." Furthermore, said Ban Ki-moon, "All State and non-State parties to conflict are bound by a strict obligation to respect and protect medical personnel, facilities and vehicles, as well as the wounded and sick. Parties to conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief, including medical missions. These obligations are at the very heart of international humanitarian law."

The Palestinian paramedics have spoken about their experiences during the wars in Gaza. They confirmed that they were targeted directly in order to prevent them from reaching the victims of Israel's bombs, many of whom died due to the lack of medical treatment. These practices and violations confirm the barbarity of the Israeli occupation authorities, which have no qualms about committing such acts.

Combatting international organisations

Israel goes to great lengths to try to deny humanitarian assistance reaching the Palestinians living under its military occupation. It is not only hostile towards humanitarian organisations but also indifferent to the human values that such NGOs represent. The pro-Israel lobby in the West puts pressure on politicians to do everything within their power to follow a pro-Israel agenda. An example of this was seen when Israel and the US government — which affords political, economic, diplomatic and military protection to the Zionist state — were successful in blocking the UN efforts to increase the voluntary budget for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

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Such an approach is very dangerous for the millions of refugees against whom it is ultimately targeted. They depend on the aid that they get from UNRWA, including medical services and education. These are services for which Israel as the occupying power has the legal duty to provide to the people living under its occupation. That is what international humanitarian law makes very clear; Israel has sidestepped the law and ignores its responsibilities.

It is a fact that Israel bears the full responsibility for the continued suffering of over 6 million Palestinian refugees distributed across refugee camps in the territories occupied in 1948 and 1967 and in the diaspora. There are over three million Palestinians living in 30 UN-registered refugee camps in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip who lack even the most basic necessities of life.

The accusation made by Israel, which is openly hostile towards UNRWA, is that part of its budget goes to the resistance factions in Gaza; such claims are not new. Israel has regularly made false allegations to discredit anyone who provides assistance to the Palestinian people regardless of their location or political and religious affiliations. It has expressed its desire repeatedly to shut down UNRWA completely and put an end to its work as a relief agency for Palestinian refugees. This is part of Israel's policy of collective punishment and ongoing aggression against the Palestinian people.

In response, UNRWA asserts repeatedly that aid is given to all refugees, regardless of their political affiliation. This is the same requirement followed by NGOs from many different countries around the world, including those in Britain, where it would be regarded as illegal for a charity or NGO to discriminate in the distribution of its aid on the basis of race, religion or politics. UNRWA's media spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Adnan Abu Hasna, has pointed out that the agency has a strict monitoring system; that its budget is available on the Internet for all to scrutinise; and that its donor countries monitor all of its funds and where they are spent.

Israel's arrest of officials working for international humanitarian organisations over the past few years is as part of its intensification of the siege imposed on the Palestinian people in general and in the Gaza Strip in particular. Its arbitrary measures aim to increase the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, which has been besieged for over 10 years.

Image of Mohammed El Halabi, World Vision's area development programme manager [Mohammad Awed]

Image of Mohammed El Halabi, World Vision's area development programme manager [Mohammad Awed]

Mohammad El-Halabi was arrested in July last year; he is World Vision's head of operations in the Gaza Strip. His is just one example of what Israel is prepared to do in order to suffocate the enclave and its people. It has some stock allegations to place before the world's media whenever it seeks to justify its arbitrary actions: "Supporting resistance movements, including Hamas, by providing funds to the movement," is just one of them. According to the Israelis, El-Halabi siphoned off $7.2 million of the charity's funds and gave it to Hamas over a five-year period. However, World Vision Germany spokeswoman Silvia Holten said in a press release on 8 August 2016 that the charity's budget in Gaza over the past decade totalled just $22.5 million.

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"There is a huge gap in these numbers the Israeli government is telling and what we know," she said in response to the Shin Bet security service accusations against El-Halabi. Shin Bet claimed that he handed over 60 per cent of World Vision's total Gaza budget.

An inquiry by the Australian government — a major donor to World Vision — cleared the charity after demonstrating that there was no evidence to suggest that its staff misused taxpayers' money in the Gaza Strip. A spokesman for the charity called Israel's accusations illogical and unrealistic, explaining that World Vision's spending is controlled and subject to audits by foreign officials. He added that the head of the charity can't even spend $1 outside of this system. Nevertheless, World Vision suspended its humanitarian projects in the Gaza Strip until its internal audit is completed and the outcome of El-Halabi's trial in Israel is known.

In the same context, Wahid Al-Bursh, an engineer who worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Gaza Strip, was released this year after being held for six months from August 2016. This is further confirmation that Israel's accusations against the UN of "turning international projects into projects serving Hamas" are not based on any real evidence and have no legal standing.

There are many examples of charities and individual aid workers who have been targeted by the pro-Israel lobby in the West, usually to discredit them in the eyes of their national governments and donors; sometimes accusations are made solely to divert the charity's resources away from humanitarian work towards efforts to clear its tarnished name. In most cases, no evidence whatsoever is presented to back up the allegations; national institutions and ministries are simply expected to jump through the hoops when commanded to by Israel and its lobby.

The fact that so many NGOs continue to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid to Palestinians in desperate situations is testimony not only to the dedication of their staff and supporters, but also to the baseless nature of the allegations thrown at them by Israel. Its tyranny knows no bounds.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Felesteen.ps on 26 September 2017

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleInternational OrganisationsIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestineUN
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