Perilous Games, Palestinian Lives

There is little question that international NGO workers have been playing an important role for many Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. According to a recent Care International report, approximately 80% of the 1.5 million refugees living in these areas are dependent upon humanitarian organisations for livelihood facilities, such as health care, education and access to clean drinking water.

It is therefore an issue of grave concern that the status of NGO workers to legally operate in these areas may be in jeopardy. Last month, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced a change in its visa policy for international humanitarian aid workers. In an interview with the London Times, the head of Medecins sans Frontiers, Jean-Luc Lambert explained the situation: “we are now in a very precarious legal position.... [due to the change in the Israeli government’s policy] we can’t get B1 [working] visas, only [tourist] visas, and with this it is not permitted for us to work.” This policy change is expected to significantly limit the movement of NGO workers, preventing them from accessing those Palestinians living in areas under Israeli jurisdiction, including East Jerusalem and around 60% of the West Bank.

Predictably, the world’s media have taken this news as an opportunity to condemn the Israeli government for further repression of the Palestinian people. It is regrettable, however, that in concentrating their efforts there, little attention has been given to the rationale offered by the Israeli government for its sudden change in policy. The London Times did, however, give the following statement: “the [policy] move [from the Israeli government] came amid pressure from... Israeli groups to crack down on nongovernmental organisations, which are often seen as having a political, anti-Israeli bias”.

This is an important element to investigate. If this reasoning is indeed accurate, NGOs must be held to account for the fact that thousands of lives are at risk. In order for this to happen, the international community must firstly acknowledge the impact that NGOs are having at this level, and secondly, be encouraged to take action to ensure that they are held to account in the future.

So, are Israeli groups making a valid point when they say that NGOs are displaying a political, anti-Israel bias?  Frankly speaking, yes. Here are a few examples.

For years, the prominent New York based NGO Human Rights Watch has been accused of anti-Israel bias in its advocacy campaigns. A well established advocacy organisation and think tank, the NGO has as its aim to “stand with victims and activists to ....protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime.” But in September, the organisation was forced to suspend its Senior Military Analyst, Marc Garlasco in order to save public face. According to the New York Times, Garlasco was suspended ‘pending an investigation’ into rumours that he was collecting Nazi medals and other memorabilia. It was also alleged that he had authored a 400 page reference book on the subject and was blogging on Nazi collector sites under a pseudonym Flak88” – a Nazi code for ‘Heil Hitler.’

Regardless of whether or not these rumours were legitimate, years of politicking and biased research reports published by HRW have not put the NGO in a good position to claim innocence. In response to the alleged actions from Garlasco, the Israeli Prime Ministerial office accused the group of sinking to a “new low.”  Adding strength to this, Human Rights Watch’s founder, Robert Bernstein, declared in a New York Times op-ed piece, that “as the founder of Human Rights Watch, its active chairman for 20 years and now founding chairman emeritus, I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics”.

HRW is not the only international NGO which has been associated with anti-Israel sentiment lately. Christian Aid – one of the world’s largest development NGOs - on World Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, published the new edition of its online youth publication ‘Ctrl.alt.shift’, which contained a feature about the President of Israel, Shimon Peres. The article was called “Peres: War Criminal and Proud” – it was accompanied with stark images of dead Palestinians. A report in the British newspaper The Guardian articulated distaste for the NGOs advocacy move: “that this article would appear in the pages of a mainstream "humanitarian" organisation’s website is deeply disturbing.” Amidst a flurry of media attention, the article was removed from the Christian Aid website six days after it was published.

According to the not-for-profit organisation “NGO Monitor,” Christian Aid also has “a well-documented history of promoting a distorted narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its reports myopically focus on alleged Israeli ‘violations’ and seriously underplay the impact of Palestinian terrorism, as well as the threat posed by terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who openly call for Israel's destruction”.

There is little doubt that these types of accusations and actions are the “anti-Israel bias” that groups in Israel are referring to. To substantiate this claim is by no means to justify the Israeli government’s response of denying working visas to INGOs working on the ground. However, it does mean that these types of actions need to be addressed – and it is the responsibility of both the public and the mainstream press to shift public attention on to the tactics undertaken by NGOs rather than merely pointing the finger at the Israeli government.

The fact that Christian Aid published its ‘Ctrl.alt.shift’ article after the Israeli government announced its decision to stop issuing working visas to NGO workers on the ground reflects a the severe irresponsibility and inappropriateness of the organisation in its advocacy efforts. It is highly irresponsible because NGOs like Christian Aid are very much aware of the political instability in the region. They are also aware of the Israeli governements’ ability to put the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians in jeopardy.

Advocacy is an important role played by NGOs. There is no question about that. It helps to hold governments to account for their actions, raise public awareness, and over time, to change policies and address deep rooted issues. However, it should not be treated like a game. In particular, when it comes to volatile regions like Israel and Palestine, when it involves human lives.

The press should be more attuned to this. In its critique about the Peres article, The Guardian acknowledged that Christian Aid was acting irresponsibly, but only insofar as to raise questions about the future ‘moral standing’ of the organisation in the public eye. The report failed to acknowledge the fact that such politicking may have much graver and more significant implications.

It is clear that this is a time for reflection. First and foremost, NGOs must look closely at their overall objectives and at their tactics for achieving them. It is deeply saddening to think that most NGOs operating in the region are working towards the same goal – to alleviate human suffering. However, from the bottom up, their strategies are contradictory, and the negative impact of this is on the lives of those very people they are striving to protect. Advocacy should not be seen as a game or as a marketing opportunity for NGOs – it is not a competition about which one can come out with the most controversial statement or be seen to take the most disruptive stance. The jokes, the attitudes, and most importantly, the egos of NGO actors must disappear. The lives of human beings must come first.

Secondly, the press must do a better job of investigating NGO actions in order to encourage the public to hold them to account. The NGO sector has no overarching governance structure – the responsibility falls on governments and the broader public to ensure that they are acting in the greater interest of people. The Guardian are quite frankly missing the point when they say “cracking down on NGO workers...will only result in more hostility, more suspicion and more recriminations.” If the media were to do their job effectively, they could use this latest move as an opportunity to make NGOs take more responsibility for their actions.

There is no question that the Israeli government is acting inhumanely by withholding visas from humanitarian workers who are delivering basic services to Palestinians. But there are two sides to every story and the Israeli government is far from being the only actor at fault.


Human Rights, Israel, Palestine