The Charity Commission has warned that making grants to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) could potentially constitute a breach of the Geneva Conventions Act of 1957, in a significant hardening of the Commission's approach to the issue.
It is understood to be the first time that the Charity Commission has specifically cited the 1957 Act in communication with a charity regarding Israel and oPt.
The new statement from the Commission comes in response to questions about UK Toremet, a charity which, as revealed by Middle East Monitor in September 2015, is acting as a conduit for donations to Israeli settlements in the oPt.
Settlements are considered a serious violation of international law, a position held by the United Nations Security Council, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the British government, among others.
Following the initial report in Middle East Monitor, the then-Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office disclosed that the Commission would be meeting with the charity's trustees to review UK Toremet's "governance, policies, procedures and operational activity".
In May 2016, the Commission confirmed that it had an "open case", and a few months later, said UK Toremet had been issued with "an action plan" and that its "compliance" was being monitored. The Commission uses such plans to advise and require the trustees to carry out certain actions.
The latest statement from the Commission, issued earlier this month, adds significant details to what is known about its communications with UK Toremet.
According to a spokesperson, the Commission has "informed the charity that it must consider the risk of making a grant to a charity operating in the occupied territories, including whether it would breach the Geneva Conventions Act 1957".
While "a grant to a charity in the occupied territories does not automatically constitute a criminal offence in the UK", the statement continued, it is "for the trustees to manage the risk of doing so and to consider whether it is in the charity's best interests".
The Geneva Conventions Act 1957 incorporates the provisions of the Geneva Convention into British law. Israeli settlements in the oPt are widely seen as constituting violations of the Convention's prohibitions on, respectively, transferring the Occupying Power's civilian population into the occupied territory, and the appropriation of property not justified by military necessity.
The Commission further added that it "is in continued engagement with the charity", and that when this is completed, the Commission "will provide a report detailing the engagement".
UK Toremet receives donations on behalf of what it calls 'recipient agencies', organisations or charities in Israel and elsewhere, who donors wish to support. By September 2014, it had distributed over £1 million, and represented "over 250 carefully-vetted Recipient Agencies".
Crucially, the charity enables "tax-efficient online donations", making it "easier to gift money to charities outside the UK by facilitating a UK tax receipt and Gift Aid qualification". Donating through Gift Aid enables a charity to claim from the UK government an extra 25p for every £1 given.
Among the list of UK Toremet's approved recipients are several operating in, or for the benefit of, Israeli settlements in the oPt and their residents. These include a religious school built in the heart of Hebron, as well as projects in the settlements of Susya and Ma'ale Hever.
Other recipient agencies listed on the UK Toremet website include one foundation established "for the benefit of the residents of Efrat [settlement]", and another which supports some 20 settlements south of Jerusalem and works to maintain "maximum Jewish presence in the region".
The recipient agency that has attracted most attention, however, is Makor Chaim, a religious school raising funds for a new campus under construction on land adjacent to Neve Daniel, a settlement west of Bethlehem in the southern West Bank.
According to the school's website, the campus "will serve as the beachhead for a whole new expansion, tripling the size of Neve Daniel". Building permits were issued by the Israeli authorities after the land was "clear[ed]… of contesting Arab claims", the website adds.
This effective expansion of Neve Daniel settlement bodes ill for the nearby Tent of Nations, a well-known Palestinian-owned educational and environmental farm whose land is at the centre of a decades-old legal battle with the Israeli occupation authorities.
In a recent newsletter sent to supporters, the Tent of Nations warned that they "may face a permanent closure of our main access road to the farm" as a result of the settlement expansion. Photos taken this week show the proximity of the religious school to the farm, and how Israeli soldiers have already blocked the access road to vehicles.
In May 2016, this state of affairs was the subject of a Parliamentary Early Day Motion (EDM), tabled by Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Tommy Sheppard. The EDM attracted support from dozens of cross-party MPs, who expressed "serious concerns regarding donations to UK charities that are alleged to be funding construction projects at Neve Daniel".
The EDM noted how "existing UK case law demonstrates that activities carried out abroad are not charitable if contrary to public policy" and affirmed that "charity funds should under no circumstances be directed towards the development or maintenance of Israeli settlements". The text urged the government to "liaise" with the Charity Commission "to investigate this matter".
Welcoming the latest developments, Tommy Sheppard described the Charity Commission's new statement as "very important and a step forward".
"There is no question that Israeli settlements in the oPt are illegal under international law", the SNP MP continued. "As a general principle, British charities shouldn't be supporting illegal activities, and especially, as in the case of Israeli settlements, when it leads to the oppression of the Palestinians and violation of their human rights".
The Charity Commission also revealed that UK Toremet has appointed a QC to legally review the list of organisations to which it distributes funds, but as this is being done independent of the Commission, the timescale or nature of this review is unclear. UK Toremet founder and CEO, Jonny Cline, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Cline is a city councillor as part of the religious Zionist party Jewish Home, whose leader – Minister Naftali Bennett – is a vocal opponent of Palestinian statehood and supporter of the settlements. Cline moved to Israel from Manchester aged 18, and has previously both lived in a West Bank settlement himself, and also worked for senior, settlement-based officials.
One question presumably being considered by the charity, in light of the Commission's communications, is to what extent trustees are obliged to ensure the removal of settlement-linked recipient agencies, given their duty to protect the charity from risk. The British government already actively discourages UK citizens from pursuing "economic and financial activities in the settlements", based on the "legal and economic risks", as well as the "potential reputational implications" and "possible abuses of the rights of individuals".
One issue that remains unaddressed directly by the Commission is the human rights angle; Israeli settlements in the oPt are not just illegal under international law, but are also – in the words of Amnesty International – part of an "inherently discriminatory" policy.
"Since the occupation first began in June 1967, Israel's ruthless policies of land confiscation, illegal settlement and dispossession, coupled with rampant discrimination, have inflicted immense suffering on Palestinians, depriving them of their basic rights", Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK Campaigns Manager, told Middle East Monitor.
"Any organisation, including charities, which enable and support Israel's illegal settlements is fuelling the suffering of Palestinian civilians and complicit in discrimination, violence and illegality".
Campaigners are heartened by the Charity Commission's latest stance. "We welcome the news that the Charity Commission is taking a more serious approach to the complicity of a British charity with Israel's illegal occupation", said Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, "but further action is required, especially from the Government".
"Whilst the government recognises the illegality of Israeli settlements it has taken no decisive steps to end UK financial support for them", he added. "Such steps would include introducing a ban on the import of settlement goods to the UK, and excluding from public procurement all companies involved in settlements".
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.