After Israel charged two Palestinian aid workers in the Gaza Strip with assisting the Islamist militant group Hamas, NGOs operating in the enclave face increased suspicion their aid to Gazans is a pipeline to terrorism.
On Tuesday, Israel's Shin Bet security agency alleged that Waheed Borsh, an engineer for the United Nations Development Program, used UN resources to help build a jetty for Hamas' naval forces. The Shin Bet says he turned a blind eye to Hamas tunnel entrances and weapons caches, and prioritized housing rehabilitation in areas populated by Hamas.
The charges were far less severe than those leveled Thursday against Mohammed el-Halabi, the manager of operations for the Christian charity World Vision in Gaza. The Shin Bet claims el-Halabi diverted 60 percent of the charity's budget in Gaza to Hamas. In his indictment, the Shin Bet also named an employee of Save the Children that it believes belongs to Hamas.
All three groups say they are investigating the charges and claimed they closely watch their operations.
Israelis say the indictments justify their suspicions over the years that well-intentioned NGOs are sloppy with their vetting and monitoring.
Former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter claimed in an interview with Israel Radio that in Gaza, the amount of clerks working for the UNRWA refugee welfare agency on behalf of Hamas is "close to 100 percent" and added that the international donor community "is terrifyingly naive."
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon circulated a cartoon showing a child and an elderly panhandler in Gaza. A bowl for donations connects to a shaft leading underground, where an armed, masked man stashes cash. Asked whether it is possible for aid groups to support Gazans without aiding Hamas, Nahshon said this would require "better control mechanisms over the money and its use."
Gerald Steinberg, head of NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel group that watches assistance to the Palestinians, called on aid groups to use surveillance and intelligence technologies to track their workers. His organization said in a statement that the failure to stop the siphoning of funds to Hamas "stems in part from a lack of will."
Aid groups say they are already closely monitoring their operations. Oxfam, which provides water, food and agricultural assistance to Gazans, said in a statement that it has "rigorous controls in place to ensure the assistance we provide gets to the people who need it most." The group said it runs programs directly or through "trusted partner organizations."
A spokeswoman for World Vision said the charity uses stringent internal audits and hires external consultants to check its operations. Germany and Australia have suspended their funding to the Gaza programs while the investigations continue. World Vision has stopped its Gaza operations for the time being. The organization noted that the amount of money Israel says el-Halabi diverted, well over $30 million over five years, surpassed the total budget for its Gaza offices in the last decade.
The US State Department said the United States contributed more than $1.4 billion to the West Bank and Gaza since 2012, and that it thoroughly vets its staff and coordinates with the Israeli government to prevent its funding from being used to support terrorism.
One veteran aid worker of a prominent group operating in Gaza said the donor community working in the enclave is "one of the most audited industries in the world" and said that the charges were sparking self-examination across the sector. The employee said working in Gaza is complex, but manageable, and noted that other regions present equally difficult monitoring challenges. The worker was not authorized to speak to the press and spoke anonymously.
Hamas deeply entrenched
Gazans describe a mode of survival.
The enclave's 1.8 million residents are ruled by Hamas, which the United States, the European Union and Israel regard as a terrorist organization. Israel and Egypt maintain a land and sea blockade of the enclave to prevent the group from importing weapons. The closure has also made it difficult to grow the moribund economy, and it has made defiance of Hamas risky, as there are few places to escape repercussions in the tiny territory.
Hamas does not provide for the needs of the residents, and international aid groups have stepped in to provide assistance, including food, education, medicine and housing.
Mohammad Mahmoud, a lawyer for the accused World Vision manager, denied Israeli claims that Mohammed el-Halabi confessed to being an embedded Hamas member. He said el-Halabi told investigators that Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and its armed operatives seize what they want from the charity's warehouses. El-Halabi's father has said his son was not a member of Hamas.
Political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada of Gaza City's Al-Azhar University mused that Hamas might not even have to use force to take supplies, because the group is deeply entrenched in the territory.
"We all have relatives, we all have friends, we all have neighbors who are part of Hamas, and sometimes people make favors," he told DW.
The veteran aid worker said accounts of Hamas seizing aid are among the reasons for "stringent diversion policy."
For now, the Israeli charges are making all aid groups more wary.