A truck loaded with humanitarian aid passes into Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 21, 2021. (SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Overcoming the Hurdles: The Struggle of Palestinian Humanitarian NGOs

On October 22, the Israeli government designated six Palestinian humanitarian and human rights organizations as terrorist groups. This was the latest attack on an already-struggling Palestinian civil society, where occupation and counter-terror laws have chipped away at the remaining civic space. At a time when the humanitarian crisis in Palestine worsens, the survival of Palestinian humanitarian organizations continues to be threatened. Restrictive policies—including counter-terror-related hurdles, physical and bureaucratic impediments, and funding restrictions—imposed by Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Western donors—have strangled Palestinian humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), setting them up to fail. 

In this piece, I identify some of the most systematic challenges impacting the operations of Palestinian humanitarian organizations, based on desk research and interviews I conducted with organizations and key experts on the ground. Although many of the issues discussed here are applicable to Palestinian civil society writ large, the focus of this paper is on humanitarian Palestinian NGOs. The paper begins with an overview of the shrinking humanitarian space, and then explores the role of global counter-terror measures in constraining operations and how these measures, and others, are used to impose financial, physical, and bureaucratic impediments on Palestinian humanitarian NGOs. 

Shrinking space 

According to a recent assessment conducted by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), approximately 40 percent of the population of the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) is in need of humanitarian assistance. The main driver of needs is the lack of job opportunities. With a staggering 43 percent unemployment rate, Palestinians are growing increasingly dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive. Despite glaring humanitarian needs, the delivery of humanitarian assistance in OPT is a highly politicized endeavor. The humanitarian community, writ large, faces insurmountable challenges in carrying out their work. However, Palestinian humanitarian organizations, typically on the frontlines delivering to their communities with significantly less resources, are more vulnerable to international and local policies that complicate their operations. One Palestinian NGO worker I spoke with described the situation as “working here is a living hell and [it] continues to get worse and worse. People are not speaking up while the situation is deteriorating.” Increasingly, aid focused on helping Palestinians has become the target of the Israeli government, which often manipulates counter-terror legislation and employs intimidation tactics. When Israel, for instance, accuses an organization of aiding and abetting terrorism (through NGO monitor and other similar platforms),it triggers a series of consequences for the NGO that often result in reputational damage and potential loss of funding. According to another Palestinian NGO worker, the shrinking space has intensified in the past 21 years. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs [now closed] and NGO monitor have continuously labeled NGOs as terrorists and anti-Semitic. Moreover, he describes, “the smear campaign has intensified in the past decade where civil society organizations are being defunded and every organization has had some experience confronting these challenges.”

Impact of global counter-terror measures

The post-9/11 war on terror inspired a plethora of counter-terror measures imposed on humanitarian agencies working in contexts where sanctioned or malign actors exist. These measures include a variety of mechanisms—the most common of which are counterterrorism clauses inserted into grant agreements with the intention of preventing terrorist financing or support to sanctioned entities, known as “counter-terror clauses.” Although this tactic is used globally, in OPT these clauses add immense pressure on NGOs, forcing many to forgo the funding because it is impossible to meet the requirements. The European Union (EU) in 2019 began enforcing an anti-terror clause that stipulated “grant beneficiaries and contractors must ensure that there is no detection of subcontractors, natural persons, including participants to workshops and/or training and recipients of financial support to third parties, in the lists of EU restrictive measures.” Essentially, this article places the onus on NGOs to ensure that no amount of EU funding received goes to sanctioned entities or individuals. To avoid any risks of violations, international NGOs and philanthropic foundations are inserting the same anti-terror clauses into agreements with their Palestinian NGO partners. This sparked an outcry from the local Palestinian NGOs, because the risks and legal ramifications are too immense for them to shoulder while dealing with other compounded pressures. In response, over 300 Palestinian organizations launched the Palestinian National Campaign to Reject Conditional Funding. The reasons highlighted by the organizations include: the constant change in the sanctions list with new entities, the lack of a clear global definition of terrorism, and the lack of consideration for the local political environment for Palestinians. Not only does this assert an undue burden on local Palestinian humanitarian NGOs, it is also risks violating humanitarian principles. Humanitarians are guided by the four principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Humanitarian organizations have safeguards in place and risk management systems to monitor and ensure that their assistance is reaching those most in need. Needs assessments determine which households receive what aid. Imposing partner or beneficiary vetting could risk the way organizations are perceived by local populations by implying that they are partial actors, jeopardizing their reputation with the local community and possibly exposing staff to needless risk.

 In 2003, a similar uproar happened when many Palestinian NGOs boycotted U.S. funding after the anti-terrorism certificate (ATC) was introduced requiring aid applicants to confirm that they are not working with any designated entity. Most organizations have their own due diligence processes to monitor that their aid is reaching those most in need and not falling into the wrong hands. However, the imposition of these certifications and clauses exposes these local organizations to risks they do not have the resources to manage. Similarly, under the False Claims Act, any USAID contractor has to certify that the organization did not provide any material support to terror activities over the past ten years. Under this act, private citizens are allowed to file fraud cases on behalf of the U.S. government. In an interview with Assistant Professor Anwar Mhajne, she describes how “various people and organizations have exploited the law to intimidate and coerce NGOs into abandoning moral, humanitarian, political, and financial support for Palestinians.” Although most of those impacted are international non-profit organizations, the ripple effects are felt by Palestinian partner organizations and the Palestinians receiving this assistance.  

 As the authors from the Middle East Research and Information Project explain: “In perpetuating the premise that Palestinian charitable bodies must adhere to American and Israeli political demands in order to be legitimate, the United States exacerbated fragmentation and exclusion in Palestinian collective organizing.” The U.S. model of scrutinizing aid has been adopted by many humanitarian donors in Palestine with the EU anti-terror clause being a recent example. Currently, many Palestinian NGOs refrain from accepting USAID funding and the EU restrictions are driving many Palestinians to forgo EU funding because they cannot take on the added risk and political pressure.

 Moreover, in Gaza, the EU and U.S. designated Hamas—the de facto authorities in the Gaza strip—as a terrorist organization, and thereby is prohibited from receiving any assistance. This designation has been abused by Israel and the PA to curb independent civil society programs, including humanitarian operations that benefit Gaza’s civilian population. Israel justifies its blockade on Gaza arguing that it is not possible to provide any assistance without it benefiting Hamas. 

Although the type and severity of the challenges confronted by Palestinian organizations varies, they are all subject to obstacles that range from the daily constraints of living under occupation or blockade, funding shortages, disrupted or limited access to financial services, and direct attacks on NGO staff and assets. 

Financial limitations

 Given donor sensitivities and counter-terror restrictions, Palestinian NGOs are funded based on projects. Typically, humanitarian donors allow a certain percentage of their grants to be allocated to indirect costs. These Palestinian organizations, though, receive very little core funding that can be used for non-project related costs. This funding structure guarantees funding dependency, limits scale up, and does not allow for the building of sustainable infrastructure or internal systems with the NGO. It also prevents NGOs from being flexible in their response as needs shift. As a result, NGOs end up taking on more project funding dictated by the donors just to stay afloat. Some philanthropic foundations I spoke with are exploring alternative mechanisms to provide these local NGOs with more core funding, but no formal system has been established. 

In addition to all the outlined challenges Palestinian NGOs have to overcome, bank de-risking (the practice where financial institutions end their transactions with a client because they are deemed “too high risk”) and financial access pose a huge burden and disrupt operations. The designation of Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. and other countries has made financial transactions in the occupied Palestinian territory a very risky business for banks. Internationally, global banks are less inclined to transact with NGOs in “high risk” areas because it comes with high costs and little rewards for private financial institutions driven by profit generation. As Sherine Taraboulsi-McCarthy, from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), described: “bank de-risking has resulted in difficulties in receiving and transferring funds from and to Palestinian organizations and individuals, especially Palestinian NGOs.” In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, NGOs are able to open bank accounts whereas in Gaza, it is almost impossible to open an account or transfer money into the Strip to pay for programs or staff salaries. NGOs operating in Gaza often have to find convoluted workarounds to deliver money that typically incurs additional costs and delays. The Israeli government has limited correspondence with Palestinian banks as a safeguard against any terrorist-financing risk. Israel’s blockade on Gaza has also forced the Strip into becoming financially isolated. As the occupying authority, Israel can freeze or close bank accounts at any moment for any individual or organization it accuses of being affiliated with Hamas. The banks can push back against affiliation accusations but given the globally increasing bank de-risking trend, it is highly unlikely that banks will be inclined to take this risk for Palestinians or Palestinian NGOs. 

Physical and bureaucratic impediments 

Daily manifestations of the Israeli occupation impose immense burdens that Palestinian NGOs have to navigate. With freedom of movement being curtailed, staff members can only access certain areas based on their civil documentation—and their ability to obtain permits is unpredictable at best. In the West Bank, there are numerous checkpoints and designated roads, that are typically congested, for Palestinians to travel on. In Gaza, staff are not allowed to move in or out without permissions that are almost impossible to obtain. The blockade on Gaza also restricts the flow of goods and services that disrupts operations and delays people’s access to urgently needed humanitarian assistance. The military occupation of the West Bank and blockade on Gaza suffocates daily life—and Palestinian NGOs, working to improve peoples’ lives, have to overcome these hurdles as well.

Physical attacks on Palestinian NGOs are becoming normalized. Office raids, cyber-attacks, and detention of staff are now common practices endured by these organizations. Various NGO workers I spoke with in the West Bank described incidents where the Israeli army conducted these attacks without any warning. Raids can include the smashing down of office doors, seizing laptops, files, and other assets, and rummaging throughout the space—many of which occur at night or early morning when no staff were in their offices, according to those to whom I spoke. When asked for a reason, the Israeli military personnel would cite classified documentation or intelligence for national security, stating that they are under no obligation to share the information. When staff are detained, they can be denied access to their lawyers, prevented from speaking with anyone to let them know of their whereabouts, and held in detention for years. Cases that reach the courts have a conviction rate of almost 100 percent, so staff can be locked up for years regardless of the evidence. 

At a smaller scale, the PA have also adopted authoritarian policies that have contributed to the shrinking of civic space. Most notably, based on research conducted by Al-Shabaka, the PA’s new cybercrime law is squeezing out dissidents and is being used to surveil NGOs and other civil society actors. Palestinian NGOs must register with the PA’s Ministry of Interior. The registration process entails security checks and the sharing of detailed information. Given the security coordination between the PA and Israel, all the NGOs’ private information on personnel, financing, programs, and all other aspects can be accessible to Israeli authorities. This makes Palestinian NGOs vulnerable to two political systems that do not view them favorably. 

Humanitarian efforts inside Israel led by Palestinian citizens of Israel are also faced with numerous challenges. Palestinian humanitarian workers inside Israel must register with the Israeli authorities. And since they cannot register their NGOs with the PA, they are not categorized as Palestinian organizations. This affects their access to funding, because they cannot apply to opportunities earmarked for Palestinian organizations while, at the same time, they cannot easily access Israeli funding. As citizens of Israel, it is less common for them to experience raids or similar levels of harassment as Palestinian organizations in the West Bank, however, they are heavily surveilled by the Israeli authorities. There have been incidents of Israeli police entering NGO offices and seizing assets and maltreatment and marginalization is present.

Implications on humanitarian operations

The operational reality for Palestinians is mired with insurmountable complications. Not only are Palestinian organizations trying to respond in a protracted context with multiplying needs, they are doing so while trying to navigate political, legal, and financial restrictions that are slowly chipping away at their resilience. The global war on terror has bolstered Israeli counter-terror restrictions. These counter-terror laws are being weaponized against Palestinian NGOs without a unified response from donors to effectively push back against these attempts. Last month’s designation of the six organizations is the most recent example. Palestinian NGOs have no avenues to seek recourse. If the United States and other donors do not publicly and unequivocally denounce this latest encroachment on civil society, then it is very likely that these six organizations will be choked off from funding opportunities, banking services, and any other resources needed for them to survive. Without access to core funding, Palestinian NGOs’ capacity to absorb attacks is diminishing, risking their very existence. The status quo is ensuring these organizations stay vulnerable and set up to fail. 

There are concrete steps that the international humanitarian community can take to safeguard the humanitarian space for Palestinian NGOs. Firstly, donors need to take a principled stance against the constant attacks on Palestinian humanitarian NGOs, and promote a prosperous, sustainable civil society. They can begin by analyzing the impact of their counter-terror restrictions in inspiring other constraints under the auspices of counter-terror. Additionally, through diplomatic and political pressure, donors should defend independent, principled Palestinian humanitarian NGOs from any unjust constraints imposed on them. Moreover, the UN and international NGOs should support their local Palestinian partners in collectively protecting the humanitarian space in OPT and pushing back against interferences by parties to the conflict. The UN, INGOs, and donors also need to establish a risk-sharing mechanism so local Palestinian NGOs are not shouldering the operational risk. Finally, donors need to invest in core funding for these local NGOs to ensure they have the resources and capacity to become sustainable institutions that they can continue to provide the lifesaving assistance to their communities. Without this change, we will end up with a collapsed aid system and an even more desperate humanitarian crisis.

 

Basma Alloush is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on humanitarian trends and emerging issues in MENA.