AFP — Getting foreign aid to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza has never been easy, but aid workers say Israeli allegations that several of their own colluded with Hamas could make it even harder.
In the past week three Palestinian aid workers have been accused of working with Hamas in Gaza, where humanitarians already felt squeezed between restrictions from Israel and the Islamist group that controls the strip.
The separate indictments of the Gaza head of major charity World Vision and a UN engineer, on charges of working for Hamas, have been met by aid workers in Gaza with a mixture of skepticism, fear and self-analysis.
Germany and Australia have suspended aid to World Vision, raising fears that other donors could withhold funds, while the United Nations rushed to stress it had “robust measures” to prevent aid being stolen.
Israel’s deputy foreign minister and other officials have called for tighter restrictions on aid.
“If the (World Vision) allegations are true it is a shocking amount of corruption,” said Ashley Jackson, research associate at the Overseas Development Institute think-tank. “It could have major implications for the wider humanitarian community.”
But others see political meddling behind the allegations, many of which are disputed.
A senior humanitarian, speaking like a number of colleagues on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, worried the allegations would be used to sideline senior Palestinian aid workers and to scare non-governmental organizations into silence.
Since 2008, Israel has fought three wars in Gaza with Hamas, which is branded a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Israel has long alleged that aid has been diverted to Hamas.
Aid workers privately admit to feeling pressure from Hamas, with the powerful group seeking to influence how projects are organized. In a few rare cases NGOs have seen their offices temporary closed by Hamas.
But they say materials and goods taken into Gaza are subject to some of the strictest monitoring in the world. And they accuse Israel of using concerns around Hamas as an excuse to restrict goods into Gaza, which Israel has blockaded for a decade.
At least two thirds of the 1.9 million Gazans rely on aid, according to UN figures.
On Thursday Israel charged Christian charity World Vision’s Gaza head Muhammad el-Halabi with diverting millions in aid, while on Tuesday an engineer working with the United Nations Development Program was indicted for working with the group.
An official from Save the Children was also allegedly turned to Hamas, according to Halabi’s charge sheet.
For Israel, the cases demonstrate at best the naivety of international aid groups. “This is not an isolated case, but rather a troubling trend of the systematic exploitation by Hamas terrorists,” Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said.
All aid workers AFP spoke to admitted that in a conflict zone a small amount of misuse is almost inevitable — with monitoring millions in aid difficult in contexts where multiple armed groups are operating.
But the scale of the allegations against World Vision have caused both shock and skepticism.
The Shin Bet security service alleged Halabi had diverted up to 60 percent of the NGO’s Gaza budget — equating to $7 million (6.3 million euros) a year — to Hamas, a figure every aid worker agreed was impossible without complicity at the highest level.
Israel says the central office in Jerusalem was unaware of the alleged thefts.
The NGO itself, while taking the allegations seriously, has said it has seen no evidence presented by Israel.
It s aid in a statement that the “cumulative operating budget in Gaza for the past 10 years was approximately $22.5 million, which makes the alleged amount of up to $50 million being diverted hard to reconcile.”
Aid workers fear the arrests will lead to tighter Israeli restrictions.
Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor — an Israeli group critical of aid in the Palestinian territories — said the disclosures were evidence charities need to share more security information with Israel’s security services.
Aid organizations see any such push as an attack on the principles of objectivity and neutrality between warring parties.
But allegations against World Vision — one of the world’s largest NGOs, with a rigorous auditing process — may impact donors, aid workers said.
“We have got so many compliance checks, we think we are sound,” said an international aid worker whose organization also operates in Gaza.
“But the concern is World Vision is big and professional and has many similar compliance mechanisms that we all do,” the aid worker said. “We are going to look, in light of these allegations, if there’s anything we can do differently.”
The allegations could also affect the willingness of banks to work with aid organizations across the Middle East, said Tom Keatinge, an expert on financial crime at the RUSI think-tank.
Anti-terrorism legislation in the United States and elsewhere has made banks increasingly wary of dealing with NGOs working in high-risk environments like Gaza.
Keatinge said the allegations could make banks reconsider their services for large NGOs not just in Gaza but in other areas where “terrorist” groups are operating, such as in Syria.
“I wouldn’t quite say this is a deathblow, but it is very serious.”