On August 4, 2016, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) revealed that Mohammed El-Halabi, the manager of operations in Gaza of the international humanitarian NGO World Vision, funneled 60% of World Vision’s Gaza budget to the terrorist group Hamas. The Israeli indictment and media reported that these funds were used in the construction of Hamas tunnels, military installations, and other terrorist activities.
In response, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, President of NGO Monitor noted, “To avoid enabling murderous Hamas attacks, and compounding the suffering of people in Gaza, aid groups need to apply surveillance and intelligence technologies, particularly regarding employees and their activities.”
NGO Monitor identified World Vision as susceptible to aid diversion in its 2015 book, Filling in the Blanks, concluding that there is “little doubt as to World Vision’s willingness to negotiate and coordinate with armed groups. This raises questions as to whether the group would prevent components of its aid from being misappropriated by terrorist organizations, if it felt that taking a stand would jeopardize the organization’s ability to continue its operations in a given area.”
The failure to properly prevent the siphoning of funds stems in part from a lack of will on the part of humanitarian organizations. Many international NGOs reject attempts to incorporate security concerns into funding guidelines, decrying them as politically motivated. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has argued that legislation designed to prevent hijacking of aid by terrorist organizations should not apply to humanitarian groups, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has stated that “counter-terrorism measures remain the primary obstacle to humanitarian action within Gaza.”
Humanitarian NGOs operate in conflict zones around the world, risking the diversion of aid by terrorist groups. The recent decision by USAID to suspend its humanitarian assistance to Syria due to this issue, as well as the multiple UN reports on commandeering of aid by terrorist organizations in Somalia, underscore this point.
Prof. Gerald Steinberg adds that, “World Vision’s failures in Gaza highlight the problems of a multi-billion dollar NGO industry that remains largely unregulated and unexamined. While World Vision is currently the focus of attention following the arrest of El-Halabi and the scale of the allegations, this should be a cautionary moment for many other international aid organizations that have similar operations in Gaza, such as Oxfam, Care, Christian Aid, and UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.”
As NGO Monitor has warned repeatedly, humanitarian efforts in warzones are inherently susceptible to extortion and theft by violent actors, including terrorist organizations. In particular, Hamas has a history of raiding aid warehouses and convoys as well as developing tax schemes designed to skim money off of international largesse. UN Gaza aid mechanisms similarly suffer from corruption, compromising the integrity of imported materials. Any consideration of humanitarian projects in Gaza must, therefore, include vigorous, concrete, and effective policies that address the risk of aid diversion, both on the part of the implementing organization and on the part of the funder.