June 22, 2006
NGOs Feel Sting of Hamas Ban
Nearly three months since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority, Western governments aren't the only ones trying to figure out how to deliver aid to the increasingly needy Palestinian population without inadvertently supporting its extremist government.
Nongovernmental organizations -- which Western governments opposed to ties with Hamas view as the most viable medium for delivering aid to the Palestinians -- are themselves running into problems trying to maintain their operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
With the Palestinian Authority in disarray and Western governments still in the process of defining what is permissible vis-?-vis links to the Hamas-run government, many nonprofit groups operating in Palestinian areas are facing serious funding problems, confusion about whom they are allowed to talk to and work with, and the challenge of having to establish ties with a completely new -- and far less institutionalized -- Palestinian bureaucracy.
The situation is nothing short of a crisis, many officials with these groups, sometimes known as NGOs, here say.
"I have never seen as much policy confusion in government as I have seen when Hamas was elected in the Palestinian Authority," said John Bell, director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground in the Middle East.
"Who can we have contact with? Can we be in the same room as a Hamas person? There are many legal issues for us to consider," Bell said. "Unfortunately, we're a bit in the realm of the absurd."
A variety of officials from nonprofits operating in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip discussed the challenges of operating in Hamas-run territory at a conference last week on nonprofits, human rights and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The forum, hosted by NGO Monitor, was held June 14 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.
Many officials from nonprofit groups complained that American, European and Israeli restrictions on contacts with the Hamas government are too far-reaching, threatening nonpolitical and even pro-peace activities, such as the teaching of coexistence curricula in Palestinian schools. Because those schools are now under the aegis of Hamas, coordination with officials from the Palestinian Education Ministry is now banned by Western governments.
"It's virtually impossible to fund Palestinian society today in the West Bank without encountering Hamas," said Daniel Seideman, legal adviser to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for a binational Jerusalem and promotes services to Palestinian residents of the city.
But many Western observers argue that the funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority -- precipitated by Western sanctions -- is a necessary part of getting the Hamas-run government to abandon terrorism.
"This crisis is necessary and overdue," said Saul Singer, an Israeli newspaper columnist who spoke at the conference. The idea, Singer explained, is to use the crisis to force Hamas to accept the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We're talking about a game of chicken here," Singer said, between the principles of Hamas, a terrorist group that mandates Israel's destruction, on the one hand, and the principles of the international community -- abandonment of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of existing Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements -- on the other.
"I think Hamas should give in," Singer said.
While this game is played, however, groups funded by Western governments must figure out how to adjust to the new reality of maintaining their activities in a territory where cooperation with the local government is restricted.
There are pitfalls and obstacles everywhere, officials with these groups say.
Other organizations report that donors' targeted gifts are harder to use because of the new bans. Some say they have been forced to return funds to donors.
Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, says his group does not accept funding from the Palestinian or Israeli governments in order to steer clear of restrictions and conflicts of interest. But his reliance on other governments, such as that of the United States, has come at a cost.
According to Bell, the United States is more stringent than Israel when it comes to restrictions on nonprofits' activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The United States "is putting out extremely stringent demands and conditions," Bell said. "The Israelis are a lot more practical about it. They know things have to be done, and they're trying to get them done while at the same time the U.S. government is prohibiting very common-sense activities."
Many officials with nonprofit groups say Western bans on contacts with Hamas should be more nuanced -- both to facilitate easier aid to the Palestinians and to help bring Hamas around to a more moderate point of view.
"I understand the logic behind a government boycotting Hamas," Baskin said. "I don't think that has to limit nongovernmental actors in trying to effect change."
"I would like to see the international community looking for ways that can help us to move the Hamas from where it is to a different place, to a better place, to a reformed political platform, which I believe is inevitable," Baskin said. "We have to be very careful about both boycotts against Israel and boycotts against Palestine that prevent peaceful NGOs from doing their work."