There is no need for any humanitarian organisation which does not do what it claims to do. This aligns with my position on the inhuman, illegal and immoral blockade of the Gaza Strip led by the Israelis.
I believe very strongly that good people in this world cannot stand by idly and watch the suffering of nearly 2 million people languishing in what was described as a “prison camp” by a former British prime minister. The siege and blockade of the enclave have created shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies; increased unemployment due to businesses being unable to export and import; condemned seriously ill people to death by refusing them permission to travel abroad for vital treatment; and increased the number of people struggling below the poverty line and dependent on food aid.
The British charity Interpal, which was established in 1994, has built up its humanitarian credentials through its achievements on the ground. It has funded many development and relief projects that have benefitted Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in the Diaspora, especially the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Syria. The organisation has focused on the health sector in Gaza by providing medicines that are unavailable due to the siege, ambulances, baby milk formula, electric wheelchairs for the disabled and other forms of support. Interpal has provided about $10 million in aid since the start of the blockade 10 years ago.
This has, of course, attracted the attention of those in Israel who have worked almost since the charity’s first day to get Interpal closed down. This is not an exception or special case; many organisations have fought legal battles against Israel and its supporters in Europe; Interpal’s, though, remains the longest and fiercest struggle so far.
Many humanitarian organisations have suffered financially and administratively, with resources having to be re-directed to fight lawsuits to clear their name; such litigation has negative consequences for their fund-raising and operations in the field. Another British charity, War on Want, had its funds from the British government’s foreign aid budget halted under the pretext of its involvement in “political activity” against Israel, after it sponsored Israel Apartheid Week at London University’s SOAS in February 2016. One of the speakers at the event accused Israel of stealing organs from Palestinian corpses.
In Belgium, Al-Aqsa Foundation has faced similar challenges. Its management was forced to defend before the courts the charity’s work for the Palestinian people suffering under Israeli occupation. It also suffered as a result of a campaign to discredit the organisation, which had prompted several Belgian banks to close its accounts, putting further transactions under intense scrutiny and adding to the pressure of what is, after all, a relatively small charity.
In Canada, several Muslim charities are fighting to prove their innocence against false allegations that they support terrorism. The International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy (IRFAN), for example, is challenging the Canadian government which cancelled its charitable status in 2011 and then added it to the list of terrorist organisations in 2014. This prompted the charity to take a brave and principled stand to defend its right to show sympathy for the suffering of the poor and needy and provide humanitarian aid; defend its legitimate status; and challenge the allegations and suspicion surrounding the organisation resulting from the pro-Israel lobby’s defamatory campaign against it. It filed a formal request to be removed from the Canadian government’s list of terrorist organisations, but this was rejected last year. The charity was thus forced to resort to legal measures to regain its legitimate right to operate and continue to provide support and aid to the poor and needy, including orphans.
The example of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in the United States embodies the power of political to inflict immeasurable damage on humanitarian and charitable work. The deliberate distortion of the reality of the situation in occupied Palestine, and the humanitarian catastrophe therein, serves the interests of malicious pro-Israel lobbyists whose aim is to falsify facts and direct the compass of charity work away from the Palestinians, with complete disregard for the loss of human rights and reinforcing Israeli oppression, injustice and tyranny in the process.
The Holy Land Foundation (HLF) spent many years providing assistance and support to poor families and those affected by the policies of the Israeli occupation; it kept within the law at all times. However, the rabid pro-Israel defamatory campaign lasting many years finally succeeded, under President George W. Bush, following the visit of the then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the US in the wake of the events of 11 September, 2001. The campaign destroyed an institution which was built upon integrity and transparency. Along with several other community organisations, the foundation was closed by the US government in December 2001, and then the prosecution of its officials and employees began.
The trial of the five HLF founders appeared to be a collective punishment of the Arab and Muslim communities which believe in the right of Palestinian orphans, widows and the poor to have access to the basic necessities of life. The harassment by security agencies extended to the HLF’s loyal donors and the court proceedings demonstrated how much the US administration is directed by the pro-Israel lobby for the benefit of what is, after all, an alien state, even to the detriment of US interests. The impact of the lobby on US policy has been explained in detail by Professors John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt in “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” (www.fsgbooks.com, 2007). Charges against the HLF were fabricated and the US judicial system was essentially put at the service of Israeli politicians in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” which claims to champion impartial legal institutions, the principles of democracy and respect for human rights.
The events of 9/11 were an opportunity for the pro-Israel lobby and right-wing politicians in the US and Israel to attack Islamic humanitarian and social institutions, and look at them solely through the lens of security; the inevitable result was a string of accusations of support for terrorism. This undermined the experience of the Holy Land Foundation, which recorded remarkable successes in institutionalising Islamic charity work in the West. The HLF officials and staff were tried with complete disregard for the contribution that they had made towards highlighting the civilised and civilising image of US philanthropy at home and abroad.
The painful irony is that the foundation was not found guilty on the basis of more recent US legislation which criminalises anyone who donates to or helps in any material way individuals or institutions listed as terrorists by the US Treasury. Instead, it was convicted of “conspiring to fund the Zakat committees” in the occupied Palestinian territories which the prosecution insisted were affiliated with Hamas. The fact that the US government’s own overseas aid agency, USAID, provided financial support to the same Zakat committees, and continued to do so even after the closure of the Holy Land Foundation, was conveniently overlooked by the court. This is not unique; almost every project that Interpal funds in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and Lebanon also receives funding from USAID; its distinct donation stickers are everywhere. No charges of “support for terrorism” have ever been directed against USAID by the US or Israeli authorities.
The original charges against HLF did not include providing funds to Hamas, providing money for weapons purchases or involvement in violent acts. The indictment did not state that the funds collected by the Zakat committees from HLF were misused or siphoned for funding violent acts. Furthermore, no Zakat committees listed in the indictment were on the list of terrorist organisations issued by any US agency.
Moreover, the US prosecutors did not deny that during the investigations, they found that all of the funds collected by the HLF were spent on providing food and clothing to Palestinian children. This was confirmed in the courtroom, but the proceedings did not progress in favour of the five HLF members: Ghassan Elashi, co-founder and board chairman; Shukri Abu-Baker, president and CEO; Mohammad El-Mezain, co-founder and California HLF office representative; Mufid Abdulqader, volunteer fundraiser; and Abdulrahman Odeh, New Jersey office HLF representative. It is obvious, from close scrutiny of the facts of the case, that the motive behind the prosecution was purely political, and driven by Israeli interests.
Shock and disapproval were expressed during the course of the HLF Five trial because the procedures were riddled with errors. The trial began on 23 July 2007; after two months of the hearing and 19 days of deliberations, the jury could not reach a consensus, so the judge ordered a mistrial. The government then decided to re-open the case after changing the judge and jury and presenting so-called “evidence obtained by the Israeli army from the PA headquarters that suggests the PA considers the charity as a main funder for Hamas.”
On 24 November 2008, the HLF Five were charged with conspiracy to fund and support a terrorist organisation. On 27 May 2009, a US court in Texas sentenced HLF President and CEO Shukri Abu-Bakr and his four co-defendants to prison; the sentences ranged between 15 and 65 years and were described by one American lawyer as being the most unfair sentences he has seen in his 30 years’ practice in the US legal system.
The unjust war waged by Israel against charities and NGOs supporting the Palestinian people reflects the state’s moral contradictions. While it encourages charity work and supports its own institutions within Israeli society — around 28,000 of them — as well as sending emergency relief and assistance to foreign countries at times of natural disasters, Israel persecutes humanitarian bodies working for the Palestinian communities in the occupied territories and neighbouring countries. This smacks of overt racism on the part of the self-styled “Jewish state”; it is as if they regard the Palestinians as being less than human; charity is permissible for Israeli Jews, but not for Palestinians.
Israel does not hesitate to take arbitrary measures against humanitarian organisations and will break whatever laws and conventions it wants to in the process. As it does so it has complete confidence that its supporters in Western corridors of power will give it their unconditional support, regardless of the cost to the integrity and credibility of human rights and international law. In their hands, what is lawful becomes unlawful and what is unlawful becomes lawful.
Nevertheless, and thankfully for the rest of us who seek to abide by the law in all of our dealings, there are still legal ways and means for humanitarian organisations to challenge Israeli tyranny through the courts and get a fair hearing. As long as they continue to demonstrate the legitimacy and transparency of their work, and maintain their faith and trust in the rule of law, then eventual success is assured, no matter how long it takes. In the end, truth and justice will always win in the face of falsehood, oppression and injustice. The world is always changing, and what goes around comes around. Ultimately, no individual or entity is above the law, and Israel is no exception. The principle behind that legal truth is inviolate, as Israel will one day discover.
Translated from Felesteen.ps, 28 September 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.