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With Israel calling on the international community to cease funding the Palestinian Authority in the wake of its takeover by Hamas, foreign governments and philanthropic organizations are discussing alternative means of aiding humanitarian efforts throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Among the most likely options being considered is increasing the funding many governments and charity groups provide to a host of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which operate throughout the Palestinian territories providing a range of services generally directed at poverty alleviation.
But in addition to providing food, water, shelter and other forms of humanitarian relief, critics charge that NGO money is often used for political activity, much of it anti-Israel in nature.
"NGOs give the money to Palestinians, and the Palestinians do all sorts of things with the money," said Gerald Steinberg, the founder of NGO Monitor, which tracks the activities of NGOs operating in Israel and the territories. "There's often a very big gap in what they say they are doing and what they actually do."
With foreign governments already partly funding the work of NGOs, and possibly increasing their contributions in the coming months, the activities of the more than 100 groups which operate mostly in the Palestinian territories are being examined in ever greater detail as Israel seeks to keep foreign money out of the hands of terrorists.
The history of NGOs in Israel and the Palestinian territories is a long one, with some groups having operated here for the better part of 50 years. But the activities of the large, international NGOs, and the smaller local ones with which they often form partnerships, has come under much more intense scrutiny since the beginning of the second intifada. Though no evidence has emerged of NGOs funding terrorist groups or violent operations against Israel, many groups, Steinberg said, are using their funds, either directly or indirectly, for political activities that often breach the mandate of their humanitarian work.
One such organization coming under criticism is Christian Aid, a United Kingdom-based, international NGO which has operated in Israel and the territories since the 1950s. Though it does not have its own staff or offices here, Christian Aid funds a variety of agriculture development, health care, housing, education and water resource management projects which are carried out by 26 local "partner" groups, most of which are Palestinian.
According to NGO Monitor, some of Christian Aid's partner groups here - among them Sabeel and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights - have used funds to campaign for divestment from Israel and the branding of Israel as an apartheid state as part of the process begun at the UN-sponsored racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
Reached by telephone at his office in England, Christian Aid spokesman Dominic Nutt said that Christian Aid funded projects and not political campaigns, and did not support divestment, nor anti-Israel rhetoric.
However, he added that the group's operative philosophy is a democratic one and that some of the local NGOs they partner with in the territories may be engaged in activities his group does not condone.
"If a local group's activities were anti-Semitic or advocated violence, we would pull out. If there was any suggestion or hint they were arguing for operations outside the law, we would not fund them," Nutt said. "But it is impossible to agree with everything everyone does. We're an alliance [of groups] and there's always going to be a compromise."
Of Christian Aid's $112 million in funding which it gathered during 2004 and 2005, $12.2m. came from British taxpayers via the UK's Department for International Development.
In addition to criticizing Christian Aid's affiliation with some of its local partners, Steinberg said Christian Aid's own political activities represented "a clear anti-Israel bias." Among the problems he listed were news articles posted on the group's Web site and statements made by many of the group's leaders, both of which laid the blame squarely on Israel for the rampant poverty in the Palestinian territories.
"Christian Aid's rhetoric displays deep hostility toward Israel, blaming it for Palestinian suffering while failing to mention terrorism and the legitimacy of security measures to ensure the human rights of Israelis," an NGO Monitor report on the group said.
In explaining why Christian Aid delves into politics rather than focusing solely on its humanitarian efforts, Nutt said the group's mission was not only to alleviate poverty but also to highlight its causes and bring about its cessation. In the case of the Palestinians, Nutt said, many of the reasons for the rampant poverty stemmed from politics.
"We would argue that one of the problems is the PA's rank corruption. We would also argue that the Israeli government, not the State of Israel, can tend to exacerbate [Palestinian] poverty," Nutt said. "The point we're making is that we're an organization that deals with poverty. Suicide bombing is morally repugnant, but it is a different issue in relation to Palestinian poverty. It's wrong, it shouldn't be done and it is one of the reasons Israel takes actions that cause Palestinian poverty and we don't take it lightly. But it's not our mandate to discuss it. It's not the primary cause of Palestinian poverty," he said.
Among the chief causes of Palestinian poverty, Nutt said, were corruption under Fatah, IDF closures of the territories, expropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements and the security fence, and the lack of a Palestinian government which could collect its own tax revenues.
When asked why the content of its political messages tilted more toward criticism of Israel than the Palestinians, Nutt said it was the view of Christian Aid that "there is more a burden of responsibility on the Israeli government than on Palestinian society as a whole [in sustaining Palestinian poverty], not least because the Palestinians have much less control over their environment, over what they do and don't do."
As part of its efforts to restrict the funding to terrorist organizations, Israel was "constantly reviewing" the activities of many NGOs, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
However, while Israel periodically protests the actions of some organizations, it has not sought to restrict funding to organizations that do not have clear ties to terrorism, even if their political leanings are more pro-Palestinian.
"The Israeli government has not given enough attention to the political role of NGOs," Steinberg said. "Israel was caught off guard at Durban and since then the interaction has been sporadic. There needs to be a greater recognition of the political war many NGOs are conducting."
This is the first part of a periodic series examining the role of NGOs in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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