Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gazans Fear Israel's Intimidation of INGOs Could Become Official Policy

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gazans Fear Israel's Intimidation of INGOs Could Become Official Policy

Article excerpt

TWO-THIRDS of Gaza's two million residents would be unable to survive without the assistance of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

"This aid is all we have left," says 50-year-old Attaa Darwish. He has been unemployed for years due to a disability he suffered 20 years ago while working in a Tel Aviv suburb.

"If they take aid from us, then we starve, and I tell you: they had better not strangle us further," he warns, "because you can never control a starving man who has nothing leftto lose."

But it's not really up to Darwish. Like so many others, he lives his life at the whim of Israel-which now insists that international aid agencies are colluding with Hamas because they choose to help nearly 2 million people who voted-along with their West Bank compatriots-for what Israel considers to be the wrong party in the 2006 democratic parliamentary election which brought Hamas to power.

In early August of this year, two Palestinian aid workers serving international organizations were detained by Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, on accusations of channeling aid to Hamas.

Given the reality on the ground, aid workers find themselves stuck between two firing lines: an occupation that controls all aspects of their professional lives, and the de facto authority in Gaza, which imposes new restrictions by requiring audit reports to see how money is spent.

The indictment of Mohammed El Halabi, head of the Gaza branch of World Vision, a Christian INGO, and Waheed Borsh, an engineer with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), on charges of working for Hamas has been met with skepticism and fears of intimidation in Gaza. El Halabi was accused of diverting millions of aid to Hamas, and Borsh of allowing rubble to get into their hands.

"Yes, they did intimidate us," acknowledges a local Gazan who works for a Swedish INGO, speaking anonymously in order to avoid reprisal.

According to the worker, the fact that Germany and Australia have suspended aid to World Vision already has made the Israeli occupation the victor-despite the fact that Israel's actions have violated the Geneva Conventions and Human Rights Commission for decades.

Other donors may also withdraw-although the U.N. immediately responded to the accusation that one of its staffallowed construction materials to get into the hands of Hamas by stating that it has "robust measures" to prevent aid from being stolen. Nevertheless, Israeli officials have called for more restrictions on aid to occupied and besieged Palestinians trying to survive in Gaza.

Previously, Israel tried to persuade many of its allies to cease funding projects to Palestinian NGOs that support BDS. While that attempt did not have much impact, Israel is now applying pressure on aid workers on the ground.

"This is a bigger project-of silencing the voices of NGOs," the worker adds, citing several examples.

"This could happen to any one of us," he explains. "I am not particularly Islamist, and there are oceans of difference between my thinking and Hamas, yet I realize Israel could throw any accusation at me-and I will stand unable to defend myself, because I am imprisoned."

Since 2008, Gaza has struggled through three Israeli offensives which caused massive destruction of infrastructure-including schools, hospitals, aid stations, power plants, water desalination plants and farming land-the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, and injuries to thousands more. While NGOs try their best to offer aid and assistance to the suffering, they are still not widely appreciated or considered totally transparent. …

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