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Israel Declares War on Gaza’s NGOs

An ongoing crackdown on international organizations is paving the way for the next armed conflict with Hamas.

Israeli soldiers stand guard with their tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli Kibbutz of Nahal Oz on May 4, 2016.
The border between Israel and the Gaza Strip saw a bout of violence, with exchanges of fire that put a 2014 ceasefire agreement to the test. Israeli tanks fired into the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave at least twice, saying it was in response to mortar fire across the border, while the army designated an Israeli border town a closed military zone.

 / AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA        (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli soldiers stand guard with their tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli Kibbutz of Nahal Oz on May 4, 2016. The border between Israel and the Gaza Strip saw a bout of violence, with exchanges of fire that put a 2014 ceasefire agreement to the test. Israeli tanks fired into the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave at least twice, saying it was in response to mortar fire across the border, while the army designated an Israeli border town a closed military zone. / AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Jerusalem — Since the end of the 2014 Gaza war, top Israeli generals and politicians have stressed the need to boost Gaza’s economy and loosen the nine-year blockade on the strip. This summer, though, Israel quietly started doing the opposite — and many of the aid workers who help keep Gaza afloat fear another war is looming.

The dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Gaza have come under close scrutiny since Aug. 4, when Israel accused World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian humanitarian organization, of funneling aid money to Hamas, the Islamist group that has controlled the strip since 2007.

The charges were sensational: Mohammad el-Halabi, the director of World Vision’s Gaza office, was arrested on accusations of diverting up to $50 million over the course of seven years. The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, claimed that the money was used to dig cross-border attack tunnels and build bases. The agency also claimed that food parcels meant for needy families, and even bags of toiletries, were diverted to Hamas militants.

Many aid workers express grave doubts about the charges against Halabi, who has been accused of embezzling more than double World Vision’s entire Gaza budget. They see the case as part of a broader policy shift in Israel aimed at stifling humanitarian work and economic life in Gaza.

The new restrictions on NGOs are threatening Gaza’s already fragile economy and raising the odds of a fourth round of conflict between Israel and Hamas. Travel permits for aid workers and ordinary Gazans have been revoked on vague security grounds, and Israeli banks are increasingly reluctant to transfer salaries to workers in Gaza, something they have willingly done for years.

“It’s instilling a lot of fear among Gazans, and maybe that’s the point,” said one humanitarian official. “But I think what the Israeli authorities are missing is that fear can quickly turn into violence.… I don’t think it’s their interest to have another conflict right now, but this is a good way to get one going.”

Hamas is hardly above suspicion in the World Vision case. It has a well-documented history of diverting construction materials from civilian projects to build bunkers, tunnels, and other military installations. During the last war, it allegedly hid rockets in United Nations schools. It has also become more hostile to foreigners: It banned at least one American journalist from entering Gaza in May, and a new “office of general security” at the border has started to haul in other visiting reporters for lengthy questioning.

Officials at World Vision, however, say they still have not received a full accounting of the evidence against Halabi. He was arraigned on Aug. 30, in a hearing that was closed to the public, and future sessions will be held under a similar veil of secrecy. Halabi’s lawyer, Lea Tsemel, says even she will not be allowed to review all of the evidence.

Israel’s first statement about the case, relayed to journalists and foreign diplomats, accused Halabi of diverting roughly $7.2 million per year since he started working with World Vision in 2010 — close to $50 million over all. Those figures appeared widely in press coverage of the charges. The Shin Bet said the sum represented 60 percent of World Vision’s annual budget for Gaza.

That claim does not appear on the official charge sheet, however, and World Vision staffers have argued that it is mathematically impossible. The charity budgeted just $22.5 million for Gaza over the past decade, less than half the amount Halabi allegedly stole. A large chunk of that money was already tied up in fixed costs like salaries, cars, and rent. “Someone would have noticed if all that money had gone missing,” said a World Vision employee. “The employees wouldn’t have been paid for years.”

The charity’s accounting policies also would have flagged large discrepancies. Any contract over $15,000, for example, required approval from the head office in Jerusalem. And World Vision had already investigated Halabi in 2015, after one of its accountants, who had recently been fired, accused him of stealing money and working with Hamas. The charity brought in an outside investigator to review its books; the audit turned up nothing suspicious.

But even before Halabi was indicted, other NGOs said they were feeling unexpected pressure from Israeli authorities. Foreign Policy spoke with a dozen senior employees from NGOs and U.N. agencies for this article, most of whom were reluctant to talk on the record lest they cause more problems. Three-fourths of them said it had recently become more difficult to work in Gaza.

The director of one charity said that 30 to 40 percent of its Palestinian employees — from Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem — were now being refused travel permits. “These are people who have been getting permits regularly, as recently as last year,” the director said.

“It’s become very complex. [The Shin Bet] is even looking into social media of the people who are asking for permits, checking on their friends,” said another official, from a Scandinavian charity.

But not all NGOs have been affected, either. “We’ve been operating in Gaza for a long time … and we’re not having any new problems there,” said Mathilde Berthelot, a program manager at Médecins Sans Frontières, the medical charity also known as Doctors Without Borders.

The United Nations, however, is one of the international organizations that has found its work in Gaza increasingly challenged by Israeli restrictions. In 2015 and early 2016, only about 3 percent of U.N. employees were denied permits. Over the past few months, that number has increased to nearly 30 percent, a tenfold increase. At least eight staffers from the U.N. and foreign NGOs had their permits revoked at the border for unclear “security reasons” this year, something that happened only twice in all of 2015, according to U.N. statistics.

The Israeli army denies that it has imposed any new restrictions. “You’ll have to ask the Shin Bet about that. Our policy hasn’t changed,” said Hadar Horn, a spokeswoman for the unit that oversees the occupied territories. The Shin Bet, which rarely talks to the press, did not offer any comment.

Ordinary Palestinians, particularly the merchants who provide a vital lifeline for the strip, have also been affected by the shift. After the 2014 war, the Israeli army decided to drastically increase the number of travel permits issued to entrepreneurs, hoping to provide a boost to the local economy. By the summer of 2015, more than 10,000 merchants were traveling through the Erez crossing into Israel each month, a fivefold increase from the prewar average.

In June, though, the numbers took a sudden dive. Last month, 7,786 merchants were able to exit the strip, a 20 percent drop from the previous August. The figures in June and July were even lower, down 33 percent and 45 percent respectively from last year.

Some of the businesspeople had already been approved for travel before their permits were revoked. Dozens of merchants have been turned back at Erez in recent months, having been told that “security blocks” have suddenly been attached to their names.

“These are individuals whose permit has already been scrutinized and approved and ostensibly have been cleared for travel,” said Shai Grunberg, a spokeswoman for Gisha, an Israeli group that monitors access to Gaza. “They arrive at Erez only to be asked to surrender their permit and return to Gaza.”

The World Bank’s latest report on the Palestinian economy provided a window into the dire economic situation in Gaza. About 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and roughly the same percentage of Gazans are unemployed. Among young people, the unemployment rate is 58 percent — providing militant groups like Hamas with a seemingly endless reservoir of recruits.

The Persian Gulf donors who promised large sums to rebuild the strip have not followed through. Qatar pledged $1 billion, but only 19 percent of that has actually been dispersed. Three other Gulf countries collectively offered $900 million, but only $171 million of that has actually arrived. Norway has contributed more money at this point than Saudi Arabia. The United States, by contrast, has fulfilled its $277 million pledge.

Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the Israeli army intelligence chief, told the Knesset in February that economic development in Gaza would be the “most important restraining factor” that prevents a fourth war. His comments have been echoed across the political spectrum — not only from the left, but also from hawkish voices on the right. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the settler-backed Jewish Home party, said last year that it was “time to change the policy” in Gaza by striking a deal with Hamas to rebuild the strip. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has even tried to advance plans for an offshore Gaza seaport, showing journalists a mockup of the proposed complex.

The one notable exception to this consensus is Avigdor Lieberman, the nationalist lawmaker who became defense minister in May. Lieberman, who served as foreign minister in the previous Netanyahu government, was one of the most belligerent voices during the previous war, repeatedly calling for a ground offensive to topple the Hamas government.

He kept up the hawkish tone after Netanyahu’s latest cabinet took office in 2015. At a cultural event this May, Lieberman offered a stern promise: If named defense minister, he would give Hamas 48 hours to return the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during the war, or he would assassinate its political chief in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. One of his first acts upon entering the Defense Ministry was to ask his generals to draw up a plan for defeating Hamas.

Haniyeh, needless to say, is still walking around, and the war plan is gathering dust. Lieberman did take advantage of his one opportunity to hit Hamas: On Aug. 22, after a small militant group in Gaza fired a rocket at Israel, the air force carried out 50 airstrikes in Gaza, by far the heaviest barrage since the end of the 2014 war. In a press conference the next day, Lieberman argued that Hamas had become too comfortable and that Israel should only let reconstruction go forward if the Islamist movement relinquished its arms. “My attitude is — reconstruction in exchange for demilitarization,” Lieberman told reporters. “That is the formula.”

That formula, many aid workers fear, means that another war is not far off the horizon.

“If the stream of humanitarian aid is blocked, or limited to a very few [NGOs], then I don’t see how we’re going to avoid another conflict,” said a U.N. official.

Photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Gregg Carlstrom is a journalist based in Cairo.