In theory, humanitarian aid organizations operating in areas of conflict, such as Syria, Afghanistan, or Gaza, provide goods and services to populations in need, and do not add to the suffering by becoming part of the conflict.
But for a number of Western aid NGOs (and most are Western), the temptation to join in the fray, to advocate for the groups that they see as victims, is irresistible. Accepting the myths and narratives of their “clients,” officials of aid organizations, much like those claiming human rights agendas, take sides, adding to the hate and suffering.
In Gaza, powerful aid groups have become international advocates for Hamas, while portraying Israelis as immoral ogres. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is a particularly powerful example, as reflected in their activities during the violent confrontations under the banner of the “Great March of Return.”
The NRC has a major political investment in the conflict, directing a number of campaigns targeting Israel and far removed from its ostensible objective of helping those “affected by, or threatened with, displacement.” In 2016, they spent $12.5 million on political projects including “legal advocacy” and “lobbying for policy change,” both through thousands of interventions in the Israeli justice system, and in ensuring “political interventions by the UN and Third Party States.”
As it has done repeatedly, NRC was quick to condemn Israel for the ongoing confrontations, through press statements, interviews, and social media posts. There is no criticism of Hamas for waging war against Israel instead of improving the lives of the people of Gaza, or for exploiting civilians, particularly children, as human shields.
The campaign intensified when a Palestinian wearing a PRESS vest was allegedly killed by an IDF bullet (the circumstances are under investigation). Immediately adopting the Palestinian narrative, Karl Schembri, NRC’s media coordinator for the Middle East, joined by NRC head Jan Egeland, insistently and almost religiously pushed claims that Yassar Murtaja was an innocent journalist, deliberately targeted by the IDF.
According to Israel, however, Murtaja was an officer in the Hamas terror framework. It is certainly plausible that Murtaja, who operated photographic drones, classified by Israel as prohibited military equipment, was collecting intelligence on IDF troop deployment across the border. With Hamas holding the bodies of two soldiers killed in 2014, and the memory of the Gilad Shalit kidnapping, the IDF was not taking risks.
Although lacking any evidence or ability to determine which version is correct, the powerful NRC political machine insisted that Murtaja was not a Hamas operative. They vociferously attacked anyone who claimed otherwise as working to “unashamedly and irresponsibly propagate the blatant lies and defamation. It’s as easy as killing a Palestinian.” Such language revealed the depth of NRC’s identification with the dominant myths and narratives in Gaza.
There is another level to NRC’s posthumous celebration of Murtaja. Officials noted that Murtaja had been contracted to work for NRC in Gaza, allegedly for a “short assignment” involving filming via the “respected Ain Media Company.” What NRC meant by “respected” is unclear, given the fact that Gaza is a totalitarian stronghold, and no “media company,” particularly one operating highly sophisticated photographic equipment, could exist without consent from Hamas. (On Facebook, NRC shared drone footage shot by Murtaja at the border.)
The links between NRC and Murtaja, and the Israeli claim that he was a Hamas operative, raise key questions about the activities of aid groups where terror organizations are in control. Who in NRC decided to hire him, and what procedures were followed? How do these groups vet local employees, to ensure that they are not part of the terror infrastructure? (A number of officials employed by agencies such as World Vision and the UN have been charged with diverting large quantities of aid for attack tunnels and other terror projects.) Did NRC consult with any intelligence agencies, including Israel, before hiring him?
In response to my request for clarification, the NRC avoided these core issues. Instead, they cryptically declared that the NGO “does not operate drones in Gaza” and that Murtaja “received a grant from the US government and has been vetted according to their requirements.” But USAID stated that the grant process was at a preliminary stage, and did not comment on the question of security vetting — whatever the Americans did is irrelevant and only became known to NRC after Murtaja’s death. And while demanding an investigation of the IDF, NRC has shown no interest in cooperating with an investigation of its own actions.
The damage done by NRC, and the wider NGO network in demonizing Israel, and echoed by diplomats, UN officials, and the media, is immense, and Israel struggles to respond effectively. The duly elected and appointed representatives of the nation, including the Knesset, have the obligation to confront NRC substantively, and not ideologically. Given NRC’s quasi-official role (funding for involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian theater is provided by the governments of Norway, the UK and the EU), the next step is to engage the officials in these states.
It is perhaps comforting to believe that NGOs proclaiming moral objectives can correct their mistakes on their own, but this is extremely unlikely. Through their involvement in power, politics and prejudice, groups such as NRC have lost their way.