Israel steps up pressure on international aid agencies

Recent arrest by Israel of Palestinian TIKA employee is hardly without precedent

Israel steps up pressure on international aid agencies

World Bulletin / News Desk

Israeli pressure on NGOs that provide humanitarian relief to the blockaded Gaza Strip has mounted steadily over the last two years.

The latest target of this pressure is Mohamed Murtaja, the Palestinian representative in Gaza of Turkish aid agency TIKA.

Murtaja was arrested at the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel on Feb. 12 while traveling to Turkey to receive professional training. 

Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency accuses Murtaja of being involved in the production and storage of weapons for Hamas and diverting funds intended for impoverished Gazans to pay Hamas fighters. 

For more than 19 days after his arrest, Murtaja -- who has worked for TIKA in the Gaza Strip since 2012 -- was not allowed to speak to his lawyer. 

Murtaja’s case is hardly unprecedented. Over the last year, employees of a handful of international aid agencies have been accused by Israel of supporting Hamas. 

Wahid Abdullah al-Bursh, an engineer with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was arrested by Israel early this year amid allegations that he had diverted UNDP aid allocations to Hamas’ military wing.

Al-Bursh has since been slapped with an eight-month jail term by the Israeli authorities. 

And last year, Mohamed al-Halabi, the Gaza director of global charity World Vision, was also arrested at the Erez crossing after being similarly accused of diverting millions of dollars in charity funds to Hamas. 

The aid agencies, for their part, deny Israel’s claims, saying they are merely providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, which in recent years has been subject to several Israeli military onslaughts, in addition to a decade-long sea, air and land blockade. 

In a Wednesday statement, the Australian government -- which had donated money to World Vision -- said it had found no evidence that funds had been illicitly diverted. 

-Denial of visas

Along with stepping up pressure on aid agencies, the Israeli authorities have also begun denying rights activists entry into Gaza with increasing frequency. 

Israel recently denied requests for a work visa for one Human Rights Watch (HRW) employee amid accusations the group was "biased against Israel" and promoted "Palestinian propaganda". 

According to a statement from the New York-based rights watchdog, Israel denied a request for a work visa for Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director. 

Lain Levine, deputy executive director of programs at HRW, expressed his concern over Israel’s seeming violation of democratic norms.

“It is disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda,” Levine said in statement. 

What’s more, earlier this month, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) passed a law barring activists who support a boycott of goods made on Israeli settlements from entering the country. 

The law allows Israel's Interior Ministry to refuse visas to individuals linked to the international Boycott/Divest/Sanction (BDS) campaign or who have openly called for a boycott of Israel. 

-Palestinians under pressure

Palestinian and local organizations have also been subject to Israeli pressure amid accusations that they are spying on Israel for other countries. 

Some Israeli officials have gone so far as to accuse Israeli rights groups -- including Peace Now and B'Tselem -- of "treason". 

According to data provided by an Israeli legal center, Israel has also recently ratcheted up pressure on Gaza residents trying to leave the coastal enclave. 

In a recent statement, the Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement noted “a troubling deterioration in the already dire access situation in Gaza”.

“February saw the lowest number of exits [by Palestinians] through the Erez crossing since the end of Operation Protective Edge [Israel’s 2014 military onslaught on Gaza],” the center asserted. 

It noted that only 7,301 Palestinians had managed to traverse the crossing in February -- a 40 percent drop on the same month one year earlier. 

According to the center, Palestinian merchants had borne the brunt of the recent decrease.

“In February, only 3,287 Palestinian traders managed to leave Gaza through the Erez crossing, representing a 60-percent drop from February 2016,” it stated. 

Since 2007, the Hamas-run Gaza Strip has groaned under a crippling Israeli/Egyptian blockade that has deprived its roughly 2 million inhabitants of basic commodities, including food, fuel, medicine and building supplies. 

According to a 2015 World Bank report, the decade-long blockade has cut Gaza’s gross domestic product in half and led to one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. 

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described the blockade -- first imposed after Hamas swept 2006 Palestinian legislative polls -- as "collective punishment".

Güncelleme Tarihi: 23 Mart 2017, 20:54