Since the beginning of the violence in Syria in April 2011, Oxfam International and its branches have released only 3 statements and petitions condemning the ongoing violence in Syria, which has reportedly led to the deaths of at least 10,000 civilians. In comparison, Oxfam has condemned Syria’s immediate neighbor, Israel, in at least 9 statements over the last year-and-a-half, and made 10 condemnatory statements during the three week 2008-2009 Gaza War. Oxfam is also engaged in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, calling for sanctions and other interventions against the Israeli government, but has not called for concrete measures against the Syrian regime. This discrepancy reflects the NGO’s ingrained bias against and obsession with Israel, thereby departing from its humanitarian mission and becoming a political actor in the conflict.

Background

  • Oxfam is “an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 92 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.”
  • Oxfam’s statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict consistently erase all complexity and blame Israel exclusively for the situation. Oxfam has been extremely critical of Israeli actions in this context, especially regarding the three-week 2008-2009 Gaza War, during which Oxfam published 10 statements accusing Israel falsely of using “disproportionate force” or “illegal collective punishment.” Oxfam has also consistently campaigned against Israeli policy in Gaza before and after the war, accusing Israel of “collective punishment” and claiming Israeli culpability for an impending “humanitarian disaster,” while failing to mention Hamas war crimes and responsibility for hostilities.
  • In a July 2012 briefing paper, Oxfam recommended that NGOs should engage in behavior that would explicitly violate international law by “initiat[ing] and support[ing] development projects in the Jordan Valley and other parts of Area C...even if they have not been approved by the Israeli Civil Administration…” (emphasis in original). According to the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement (Oslo II), Israel has the sole responsibility for administering Area C.
  • Oxfam has also been active in BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns. In response to increased cooperation between the EU and Israel, Oxfam called (July 2012) on the EU to sanction Israel with “urgent and concrete measures to push for an immediate end to settlement construction and the unlawful demolition of Palestinian civilian infrastructure” Oxfam also called on the EU (March 2010) to sanction Israel regarding the blockade of Gaza claiming that the blockade constitutes “collective punishment, which is illegal under international law.”  In 2003, Oxfam-Belgium produced a poster of an “Israeli orange” dripping with blood to promote anti-Israel boycotts. The caption read: “Israeli fruits have a bitter taste...reject the occupation of Palestine, don't buy Israeli fruits and vegetables.”
  • In contrast, Oxfam has produced a very small number of statements on the unrest and murderous events in Syria since April 2011. In total, Oxfam International and its affiliates have only published three condemnations or actions on the violence in Syria, none of them calling for sanctions.

Comparing Oxfam on Syria and on Gaza

Since the outbreak of anti-regime protests in Syria, it is reported that at least 10,000 civilians have been killed and perhaps far more. During the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas (December 2008- January 2009) IDF data shows that 1,166 Palestinians died, most of them combatants affiliated with Hamas and other armed factions in Gaza. Unreliable NGO statistics place the number of dead at 1,387-1,417.

Prior to the outbreak of the Gaza war, a coordinated and ongoing NGO campaign targeted Israel’s Gaza policy with intense criticism. This campaign included accusations of “collective punishment” and Israeli culpability for an impending “humanitarian disaster,” while falsely claiming that Gaza is still “occupied” and calling for engagement with Hamas. Oxfam was one of the most influential and active NGOs involved with this campaign.

During the Gaza war itself, Oxfam published 10 press releases in under a month.  Oxfam’s statements throughout the war included distorted international legal claims, such as the accusation that Israel is guilty of “disproportionate violence” and “illegal collective punishment.” Oxfam also established a special “Gaza humanitarian crisis” webpage, which featured emotive, tendentious blog entries – with titles such as “Goodnight my love, see you in heaven” and “We are caged like animals, waiting to die” – from a resident of Gaza .

This is a marked difference from Oxfam’s actions towards the events in Syria. Oxfam International issued only one press release condemning “violence against protestors in Syria” (May 6, 2011). While this statement refers to “grave violations of [protesters’] human rights” and calls for “applying intensive diplomatic pressure on the government of Syria,” it does not call for sanctions. Oxfam has also used the fighting and atrocities in Syria as part of the NGO’s ongoing campaign for a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec, together with a number of other Canadian NGOs also issued a single “Statement on the conflict in Syria” (August 3, 2012), which “condemn[s] the violence in Syria and call[s] on all parties in the conflict to seek a peaceful resolution to their hostilities.” The only other Oxfam initiative is an Oxfam Great Britain (GB) petition that garnered 12,000 signatures and was submitted to the UN Secretary General. The petition voiced concern “about the safety and security of the people of Syria.” 

To date, no Oxfam branch has opened a “Syria humanitarian crisis” webpage (similar to the page created during the Gaza war), despite reports of over 10,000  dead and wounded, and reports that residents in the city of Aleppo “were running out of food and vital supplies.”  Oxfam has also refrained from calling on governments to cut ties with Syria or to impose sanctions on the Assad regime.

In a blog post (May 2, 2012) Oxfam GB’s director of campaigns and policy Phil Bloomer discusses the limited options that are open to Oxfam in the Syrian crisis, due to the fact that “Oxfam is not working in Syria.” He writes that Oxfam lacks “sufficient information from the ground in Syria to develop detailed policy suggestions,” and that Oxfam staff in Turkey and Jordan are “urgently prepar[ing] for the escalating crisis they expect.” Prior to the crisis Syria was a one-party dictatorship with one of the worst human rights records in the world, yet Bloomer does not explain why Oxfam failed to take measures to promote human rights there prior to the rebellion. Nor does he describe what, if any, measures Oxfam has taken since it began. In closing, he suggests that “NGOs like Oxfam must be part of that global tide of outrage, joining the call for an end to the killings” – a worthy ambition that Oxfam is not living up to.

During this same period, Oxfam published at least nine reports, statements, and calls for action condemning various aspects of Israeli policy. This included participating in a campaign together with other international NGOs condemning the closure of Gaza, claiming that this anti-terror measure is a violation of international law, and collective punishment (June 2012).   Oxfam also called on the EU to "move beyond statements" in its dealing with Israeli policy in area C (July 2012). In this context Oxfam claimed that the "International community, donors, and Palestinian and international NGOs should…initiate and support development projects in the Jordan Valley and other parts of Area C...and, backed by diplomatic and political support, move ahead with projects even if they have not been approved by the Israeli Civil Administration…" (emphasis in original). This recommendation calls for an explicit breach of the Oslo Accords that grant Israel responsibility for Area C, and Israel’s general obligation to administer the territories under its control and ensure public safety and order. These were continuations of previous campaigns on Gaza and Area C conducted in 2011, which also claimed that Israel is not acting in “accordance with International Law.”

Analysis

Oxfam’s low-key approach to the atrocities in Syria is striking, especially as compared to the intensity and prominence of Oxfam’s campaigns and reporting on Israeli policy, in general, and Gaza and particular.

This discrepancy reflects Oxfam’s departure from its humanitarian mission focused on poverty, and the NGO’s ingrained bias towards Israel, which is also manifest in Oxfam’s participation in BDS campaigns and calls for violating international agreements.