Israel's Crackdown on UN Aid Organization Part of an Assault on Democracy

Attacks against domestic political opposition and international aid organizations are both symptoms of the same disease.

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard
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Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to grasp that Israel's democracy is under attack. The reality around us is rife with undeniable evidence.

There has been a wave of legislation designed to confine public discourse and limit political freedom of action (such as the "Naqba law," the law banning support of boycotts and proposals for loyalty laws). The government has incited against human rights organizations, presenting them as traitorous, anti-Israel subversives and fellow travelers with terror.

There has been an effort to derail funding received by such organizations (both through legislation and direct appeals to donors). There have been efforts to deter protesters at Sheikh Jarrah, al-Arakib and Rothschild Boulevard (such as mass arrests on false pretenses, summonses to protest organizers to come for "discussions" held with the police or Shin Bet security agency, police violence and the enforcement of draconian restrictions against the protesters).

We might also add to this list a mass publication newspaper which did not hesitate to publish an altered suicide letter written by a demonstrators, expunging from it the lines that cast blame on a the leader the newspaper serves and supports as a mouthpiece.

Faced with such a record of evidence, even Dr. Watson would draw the obvious conclusion: a plot has been hatched to dismantle Israel's democracy, and erect in its stead a kind of nominal, "Putinist" democracy in which dissenters have no option other than to give up the ghost and join the majority's bandwagon.

This surfeit of data has recently included one new, classic symptom of democratic collapse: a campaign of government intimidation directed against international humanitarian aid organizations.

Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, sent a letter to the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs demanding that the status of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied territories be "regularized" (Haaretz, July 15).

OCHA coordinates activities undertaken by dozens of international humanitarian organizations and relief agencies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These organizations feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless, help create employment opportunities and, more than anything, rebuild the destruction left behind by Israel each time it launches one of its military operations.

In recent years, OCHA's work has focused on humanitarian matters and the work of international organizations in East Jerusalem and the West Bank's Area "C," where Israel retains civil administrative powers. In both places, Israel pursues planning policies aimed at choking off Palestinian life and reducing its presence as much as possible so these areas can be used for Israeli purposes.

International aid organizations impede the fulfillment of this goal, since their basis of action is humanitarian need (such as providing tents, water and electricity), and they regularly supply what the Israel Defense Forces take away. Thus they make it possible for Palestinians to remain on their lands.

OCHA does not operate on the ground. It is a coordinating and reporting agency. Its work is considered exemplary, owing partly to its precise, comprehensive reports that are disseminated to the diplomatic community. Such success, accompanied by efforts undertaken by some of the aid organizations to effect deep change, change that would remove the crying need for humanitarian assistance or, put differently, that would alter the discriminatory, abusive policies of the Civil Administration is precisely what has upset Israeli officials such as Prosor.

At present, Israel's diplomatic finesse is determined by such refined gentlemen as Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (he who would lower the chair of the Turkish ambassador). In disgracefully obsequious fashion, the head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, has acceded to the settlers' dictates. Israel's response to the activities of aid organizations which, in lieu of the Civil Administration, fund basic needs of West Bank and Gaza Strip residents, is tantamount to a kick in the teeth.

Alongside Prosor's letter to the UN, in recent weeks various employees of foreign aid organizations have been summoned to meetings with the Civil Administration's coordination office. During these meetings, they have been required to relay details about their work. They have been told their activity is illegal and that they could be prosecuted. Many organizations have faced a regime of red tape after submitting requests for work visa for members of their staff.

When they tried to clarify why visas are withheld, they received complaints and threats, as though the continuation of their work was in doubt.

Underlying Israel's threats to the community of international aid organizations in the territories is the demand that they refrain from the conferral of assistance that helps local populations remain where they are, on their lands. There is a real risk that humanitarian aid workers will be expelled by the government of Israel. Should this happen, Israel would join Sudan, which acted similarly when its President Omar al-Bashir was accused of crimes against humanity.

That is a sobering scenario.

The same approach that seeks to reduce the scale of civil protest against the government's policy, the same approach of summoning activists for "discussions," of outlawing boycotts and of defunding dissenters, is the approach which seeks to control the work done by those who proffer humanitarian aid in the territories. The attacks against domestic political opposition and the assault on international aid organizations are both symptoms of the same disease.

The writer is an attorney specializing in international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

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