There is horrifying news out of Islamic State-controlled areas of Syria. Not about beheadings, sex slaves, or other atrocities, but about support for the terrorist group from unexpected sources.
Two weeks ago, under the headline “US Humanitarian Aid Going to ISIS,” a Daily Beast exposé described how non-governmental organizations (NGOs), funded by the United States and European governments, were paying bribes “disguised and itemized as transportation costs” to gain access to areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State (IS or ISIS).
In addition to monetary contributions to IS, the article noted “fears [that] the aid itself isn’t carefully monitored enough, with some sold off on the black market or used by [IS] to win hearts and minds by feeding its fighters and its subjects.”
In other words, NGOs, ostensibly committed to human rights and guided by humanitarian values, have been supporting IS on multiple levels.
Similar challenges of delivering aid to areas controlled by violent, repressive terrorist groups also exist in another conflict zone in the Middle East: the Gaza Strip. Hamas, recognized as a terrorist organization by the US, EU and Canada, is the de facto ruling body in Gaza.
As became all too evident during this summer’s war, Hamas has been systematically weaponizing construction materials intended as assistance for the people of Gaza. Concrete, metal piping and electrical wiring have been diverted to build tunnels and rockets.
In the aftermath, NGOs and other international political actors are moving to rebuild the areas of Gaza devastated by Hamas’ tactic of conducting military operations from civilian areas. Preventing the exploitation of aid is paramount. Bribing IS or collaborating with Hamas poses a thorny moral quandary.
Is it acceptable to financially and otherwise support terrorist groups, whose very essence and standard operating procedures are an affront to human rights, international law, and decency, in order to deliver humanitarian aid to innocent people who are suffering? At the same time, one thing is certain: it is patently illegal. Under international law, as expressed in UN Security Council Resolution 1373, states must “prohibit their nationals or any persons and entities within their territories from making any funds, financial assets or economic resources or financial or other related services available” for terrorist activities. Similar principles are codified in US and EU law.
The Israeli government, in line with these regulations, has taken steps to eliminate illicit funding for Palestinian terror groups. On June 19, 2014, Israel’s defense minister declared British charity Islamic Relief Worldwide to be illegal, based on its alleged role in funneling money to Hamas, and banned it from operating in Israel and the West Bank.
This decision has had real consequences for Islamic Relief, limiting its ability to fundraise for Gaza aid. In September, Islamic Relief announced that it would carry out an internal investigation and would not accept funds from the Gaza Crisis Appeal of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a coalition that “brings 13 leading UK aid charities together in times of crisis... all collectively raising money to reach those in need quickly.”
In sharp contrast, the EU passed the buck. A major contributor to Islamic Relief (over 2 million pounds in 2012, the last year of comprehensive data), the EU refused to open an independent investigation. In correspondence with NGO Monitor, the EU Representative Office to the West Bank and Gaza claimed that, “At this juncture, we are not aware of anything which would suggest that IRW is not in good standing with its regulatory body [the Charity Commission for England and Wales].”
Apparently, guaranteeing that EU taxpayer funds have not ended up in Hamas’ hands – or in Hamas tunnels – is not a priority for the EU.
The EU is not alone in its laissez faire attitude toward preventing material aid from reaching terrorist groups.
International and Israeli NGOs, including Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Gisha and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, have campaigned intensively to “end the blockade of Gaza.” However, this slogan has not been accompanied by realistic and responsible proposals to ensure that aid is only used for humanitarian purposes and that a new policy does not facilitate weapons smuggling.
Likewise, the international NGO community has lobbied for construction materials to be brought into Gaza, despite serious concerns that they may, once again, be exploited for the construction of tunnels. While Hamas has announced that it has begun rebuilding the tunnels destroyed during the war, the NGOs have not adjusted their message.
The moral and legal obligation is even higher for those NGOs, such as Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE, that have been and will be involved directly in reconstruction.
They must answer difficult questions – if, like the NGOs that bribe IS, they are being forced to collaborate with Hamas, or if it is even possible to operate independently and securely in Gaza.
To be sure, none of this is to suggest that there are easy answers when it comes to delivering aid in Gaza and Syria. Nobody wants to further punish and abandon innocent civilians who have been betrayed and abandoned by those in control.
However, human rights and humanitarian aid groups, as well as their funders, need to establish best practices to minimize the risks of exploitation.
They must also engage in critical examination of whether their work encourages or otherwise facilitates the very problems they claim they are trying to prevent.The author is the managing editor of NGO Monitor (www.ngo-monitor.org), a Jerusalem-based research institute promoting critical debate and accountability regarding the political activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are active in the Arab-Israel conflict.