Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 30-31

Special Report

Legal Status of Aid Organizations in Palestine a Victim of the “Hamas Effect”

By Marwan Kanafani

Palestinian boys with the words “I’m under siege” and “I’m hungry” written in Arabic on their chests hold empty bowls on their heads during a May 11, 2006 protest in front of U.N. headquarters in Gaza against the aid cut to the Hamas-led Palestinian government. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed).

HIS WHITE beard closely cut, and sporting a black shirt and grey blazer, Omar Abdul Razeq walks with his hands in his pockets. Four loyal security guards surround him as he pushes his way to a tan Citroen. He has just been released from an Israeli prison after being held without charge since December 2005. Over the course of eight years, Razeq has spent eight months in Israeli jails. According to the United States and Israel, he is a Palestinian terrorist. He also happens to be the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) newly appointed minister of finance, representing Hamas.

Since the Jan. 25 elections, in which Hamas won control of the Palestinian parliament by capturing 74 of its 119 seats, the lines between terrorist and statesmen have become increasingly blurred—at least in the eyes of the occupying power and its acolytes in Washington. The ensuing changing of the guard also has affected what has long been considered the legal standing of charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working with the new Palestinian government.

Under the new Palestinian government, any financial activity such as securing permits, loans, government grants, and payment assistance, formerly approved by Minister of Finance Salam Fayyad under the Fatah-ruled PA, now will go through his successor, Razeq. Hamas will effectively be working with NGOs and non-profit organizations, sometimes providing direct assistance, to build infrastructure and develop Palestinian communities.

Organizations like the American Near East Refugee Association (ANERA), a Washington, DC based non-profit that focuses on projects to improve communities throughout the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan, now must deal with Hamas municipal officials. Because some of them are on U.S. and Israeli terrorist lists, there is doubt as to whether or not ANERA legally will be able to carry out its mission.

Currently under fire is one of ANERA’s most effective projects, the Mother Child Health Program. In the past, the program was administered in coordination with PA Minister of Health Jawad Tibi, distributing medicine, educating mothers-to-be during pregnancy, and bringing respite to the 80 percent of Palestinian children who suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies that cause anemia and immune disorders. The Mother Child Health Program was particularly vital in Gaza, where over 50 percent of the population lives in poverty. But with the appointment of the new minister of health, Hamas member Bassem Naeem, whose son the Israeli army killed during the first intifada, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) told ANERA to suspend its Mother Child Health Program in order to avoid contact with a terrorist organization.

In April, OFAC told ANERA president Peter Gubser that the charity must sever all ties with the Palestinian Authority. This meant cutting 20 percent of ANERA’s total aid to Palestinians. “The projects that we were doing before the Hamas government came into power which related to the ministries have been suspended,” Gubser explained. “Projects to start or build new schools along with the Ministry of Education will not happen. That’s what the [U.S.] law is.”

OFAC has essentially informed ANERA that any aid to Palestinians will have to be administered through Palestinian NGOs. But ANERA and the 50,000 or so Palestinians who benefit from its services are lucky, because Gubser has the resources and the connections in the U.S. and Europe to reallocate funds and maintain ANERA’s effectiveness by partnering with Palestinian nonprofits—organizations he says that “are some of the best NGOs in the world.” What remains unclear is what happens to mosques and smaller Islamic charities who are outside the reach of Gubser’s influence.

A main tenet of Islam is that Muslims are obligated to give donations in the form of money or property to mosques or Islamic charities. These donations, or “Waqf” in Arabic, are an essential part of the Islamic faith. Theoretically, freedom to practice their religion is a constitutional right of the six million Muslims currently living in the United States. With the number of Islamic charities decreasing monthly as OFAC’s terrorist list relentlessly expands, however, American Muslims fear that they may be donating to a potentially designated “terrorist” organization.

In February 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of KindHearts, a Toledo, Ohio-based nonprofit which raised $5 million yearly for the distribution of food, shelter and medical supplies to residents in the Gaza Strip. One of the largest Muslim charities in the United States, it raised funds via its Web site, mosques, and fund-raisers across the country. KindHearts insisted that the money went to help needy Palestinians in both the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon, but the government claimed that KindHearts also was supporting Hamas. Toledo resident Khaled Smaili, who founded KindHearts in 2002, was a former fund-raiser for the Global Relief Foundation, a charity shut down by the government in December 2001 for suspected ties to Hamas. “We just hope the government will not hide behind the facade of its own laws,” Smaili said. “We wanted to do everything legally, and we have done everything legally. But ultimately the government will do what it wants to do.”

Appearing on Sept. 24, 2003 before the House Committee on Financial Services, then-Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs E. Anthony Wayne outlined U.S. policy toward Hamas. The administration’s fundamental premise is that Hamas is a terrorist organization determined to sabotage peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israel. “Hamas must not be permitted to undermine the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a viable, secure state living side by side with Israel in peace and security,” Wayne testified. “Hamas is clearly a threat to Palestinian reform, including Palestinians committed to a negotiated peace.”

Wayne asserted that Hamas’ history in resisting Israeli occupation through the use of suicide bombing operations proves that, in defiance of the Palestinian populace, Hamas favors war over peace with Israel. Since Wayne’s committee appearance, Washington’s policy toward Hamas has remained static—while Israeli aggression and the face of the Palestinian government have changed drastically. In the past three years, Israeli military operations have resulted in over 2,000 Palestinian casualties, 500 of them children.

Because U.S. policy has remained mysteriously obtuse regarding the legal standing of the Palestinian Authority—a governing body essentially created by President Bill Clinton as part of the 1993 Oslo accords—the de facto result is that, with Hamas in control, anyone involved in bringing aid and relief to Palestinians—including NGOs, private donors, mosques and Islamic charities—risks being classified as a terrorist and imprisoned.

“There is a very real need for charitable relief, which is a part of the long-range political progress in the area,” notes Michael Malloy, former OFAC attorney and current distinguished professor of law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. “You cannot have that kind of physical oppression of people and their lives and expect peace. Unfortunately, charity work in Palestine has become swept up in a broader context of anti-terrorism policy.”

Given its emphasis on spreading democracy throughout the world, not least in the Middle East, Washington’s refusal to acknowledge that there have been few elections more transparent and peaceful than those held in the West Bank and Gaza this past January is awkward at best. How to explain that it is the result, not the process, that matters?

Not only does the U.S. risk exposing the hypocrisy of its position, but its continued support of Israeli aggression implies a moral and political obligation to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinians. In fact, it is in the U.S. national interest to allow NGOs and charities to administer aid to the millions of people suffering in the Israeli-occupied territories. Here at home, American citizens have a constitutional right to support domestic charities without the fear of risking jail for a presumed affiliation with terrorist organizations.

Aside from its human cost, the compounding of a political injustice with a humanitarian one can only increase resentment toward and suspicion of the United States at a time when, more than ever, this country needs international respect and good will. 

Marwan Kanafani is editor of The New Constitution Magazine, <www.thenewconstitution.com>.

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