Gerald Steinberg, founder and president of NGO Monitor and professor at Bar Ilan University, spoke to an August 8th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the role played by humanitarian aid organizations play – especially those that are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – in the diversion of charitable funds to terror organizations.
He illustrated his point by noting that just a couple of days before he experienced "a little bit of an air raid warning siren" when the Gaza-based terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) launched rockets toward Jerusalem, from which he spoke. "More important," he said, is that PIJ shot over 1,000 rockets at Israel, leading him to ask "where did all these come from?" Many, he noted, were made by terror groups in a network of concrete tunnels – "massive constructions underground" – in Gaza. Aid organizations' billions of dollars that are "ostensibly" for humanitarian purposes are "diverted," while a significant amount of construction material is stolen.
The humanitarian aid comes from a variety of organizations, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an organization that Steinberg said has "perpetuate[d] the conflict" since 1949 by aiding Palestinian "refugees that almost no longer exist." He said another UN agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), runs a "propaganda" operation in Gaza. Significant amounts of funding from NGOs such as Oxfam, which has a $1.5 billion annual budget, "disappear" in Gaza.
Steinberg said there is a major problem when hundreds of millions of dollars "[cross] the border" into a "small area that's controlled entirely by terrorists," since aid agencies cannot monitor the funding. In Gaza, locals who are either pressured by, or connected directly to, the terror organizations help divert the money. Similar problems exist in other terrorist-controlled regions such as Syria, where "hundreds of millions" of dollars from aid organizations have been pilfered since the conflict began there in 2011. "Untracked" funds meant to aid suffering populations are stolen by the Syrian army and funneled to the "corrupt Assad regime."
World Vision, a key funder in the aid industry, is a global organization that collects money in North America, Europe, the U.K., and Australia and provides funding for Gaza. In June 2016, Israeli Security Services arrested Muhammed al Halabi, head of World Vision operations in Gaza, for diverting "$50 million over ten years" from the Australian government. Later that year, an Israeli court handed down an indictment detailing how the diverted monies funded naval equipment used for "building commando capabilities" and paid Hamas leaders' salaries, all with funds intended for Gaza's poor.
Australia World Vision tried to delay the court with "procedural issues," but Steinberg's organization researched the NGO's public documents and found "three separate sets of accounts" with differing budgetary amounts for World Vision's operations in Gaza. The organization's claims of ignorance, and their denial that they provided the sums Israel found, were disproven by a set of documents registered to World Vision Israel. "The amounts that differed between what they had taken in and what they had spent totaled about $50 million," he said – the same amount specified in Al Halibi's indictment.
Steinberg said Australia World Vision continued to deny any guilt and accused Israel of propaganda, evidence be damned. He said the aid organization was either "not being straightforward" or "didn't know what they were doing." The problem with these charitable organizations, he emphasized, is that they prioritize "virtue signaling" over scrutiny. When Steinberg met organizational officials who claimed to have toured farming areas in Gaza to inspect their money was being applied, he asked "did you bother to ask them what was being done underground?" They answered no, claiming those were "issues where we didn't know about [the issue] or we didn't ask questions, or they didn't answer the question."
The Australian government was unable to find answers because there was no "public audit" of Australia World Vision. Despite this, the government stopped funding the organization for the past few years, and Steinberg said it may never resume. He believes the aid officials were aware of the deception but "just didn't want to know." While there may be "ideological" support for the Palestinian cause among the aid officials, but "this was clearly a case of 'see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.'" He added that international aid organizations working in terror-run areas have a "moral responsibility" to do their "due diligence." If monies cannot be tracked, unverified funds should not be provided unless independent monitors can certify that aid is reaching those the charities "claim they're trying to assist."
The United Agricultural Workers Committees (UAWC), a Palestinian NGO in Gaza, receives "tens of millions of euros and dollars a year," primarily from European governments, in a "patron/client" relationship. NGO Monitor researched UAWC officials and exposed those who "simultaneously" held high positions in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
NGO Monitor discovered the connection between the Dutch government and UAWC officials after a PFLP terror attack in 2019 killed Rina Shnerb, an Israeli teen who was also Dutch. Israel arrested the PFLP terrorists who, as UAWC officers, secured the organization's funding. Investigations revealed the Dutch government had provided $13 million to the UAWC, despite that government's denial that it was aware of any connections between organizations they funded and terror organizations. Steinberg said that UAWC officials "were terrorists at night and ... charitable NGO officials during the day," and that the Dutch government "should have known this" years before because "the information was there."
The PFLP built an extensive NGO network of seventy organizations to "gain recognition" and accrue European Union (EU) funding. Steinberg calls the patron/client dynamic "subcontracting" because of the co-dependent relationship between the aid organizations and their recipients who built "personal networks" over the years. He said officials are vested in denial because of the difficulty in admitting they have wasted massive amounts of funding provided by the government and the public.
Despite the "public evidence" and UAWC's designation by the Israeli government as a "PFLP terror front" in October 2021, European governments are still funding UAWC. After Shnerb's murder, the Dutch government admitted its culpability in funding the PFLP front organization and suspended its financial support. In response, an intense lobbying and pressure campaign was launched in the Netherlands to restore aid to UAWC that was, according to UAWC's government allies, "not to be diverted by the Israeli propaganda."
Steinberg said there is a "halo effect" among many journalists who put the aid organizations on a pedestal and are reluctant to question the "NGO community." In a "clear example of anti-Israel ideology," the Brussels online newspaper EUobserver, "doesn't want to run any articles at all that might" criticize such funding by the European Union, even though Israel has exposed the links between these NGOs and terror funding.
There is also a "reluctance" among governments that fund NGOs supporting Palestinian groups to conduct due diligence. The Canadian government, for example, raises no objections to the "lack of transparency" once it gives money to the UN, which funds Oxfam. Although the Canadian government denies any post-grant responsibility, Steinberg said funding can be tracked via the UN's "open database."
Steinberg said government agencies in Europe and the U.S. cooperate with the Israeli government, but short of instituting tracking of funds through "sophisticated digital, electronic means," which is still a new technology, the diversion of funds continues. He added that NGO Monitor has had a positive influence on parliament ministers of donor countries, many of whom now rely on a variety of sources, including NGO Monitor reports, to raise questions and demand government accountability. The NGO Monitor website includes a list of approximately 250 major NGOs, "not just in ... humanitarian aid, but [those] also claiming to do human rights, almost all of which are funded by various governments." This database details the funding of each NGO, thereby providing knowledge that allows donors to do their own due diligence to ensure their donations reach legitimate recipients.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.