NGOs must be challenged — but responsibly

By Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, March 20, 2008

Even by their normal anti-Israel standards, leading organisations such as Amnesty, Oxfam and Christian Aid were exceptionally scathing in their March 6 report, The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion.

They illustrated the civilian catastrophe resulting, they claim, from Israel’s “illegal” actions of “blockade”, “reprisals” and “collective punishment” by devoting nearly two pages to the tragic case of a patient dying of thyroid cancer. “Munir has not been able to access chemotherapy for months as he cannot get a permit to cross into Israel or Jordan,” they said. And “lifesaving treatments such as chemotherapy are not provided in Gaza”.

Yet, the more information comes out, the more questionable the publication becomes. As last week’s JC pointed out, Munir Mahmoud was no longer awaiting permission to leave Gaza when the report was issued. At the time of publication, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) already knew this. Christian Aid admits it didn’t check Munir’s progress after interviewing him last December. So it was only after my queries that they inquired again and learned he had left Gaza for treatment on January 17, returning on February 6. When questioned about the report’s balance, Christian Aid replied that its aim was not balance but “advocacy”.

The story does not end there. According to his lawyer, Munir had been given permission to leave Gaza for Amman by September 20, 2007 — nearly six months before the NGOs’ publication — provided he crossed Israel by secure Israeli transport. This cost £800. Palestinian, international and Israeli authorities and aid agencies all failed to provide the money. That caused the main delay in Munir’s essential treatment.

More generally, the NGO report is wrong in stating that chemotherapy is unavailable in Gaza. It is available but not for complex cases. Finally, the UN reports that the Israeli authorities authorised 7,457 Gazans to leave for medical treatment in the 13 months to January 2008. According to the NGOs, exit from Gaza is “all but impossible”.

Some readers may see this exposure of serious misreporting as a small blow on Israel’s behalf in the propaganda war. That is not my intention. Despite the irresponsibility and exaggeration of the recent publication, Israeli behaviour concerning treatment of some seriously wounded and sick Gazans — including Munir — leaves much to be desired. Some appalling cases have been reported in major Israeli newspapers.

It would be understandable if the Israelis were to doubt all complaints coming from Amnesty and other prejudiced NGOs. But these organisations are occasionally correct. In 1982, I received from Oxfam and passed to a leading Anglo-Jewish figure a warning about impending dangers to Palestinians in camps in Beirut. That was two or three days before the massacres in Sabra and Shatila.

Moreover, some Jewish bodies created to attack Western NGOs share many of their faults. NGO Monitor, an organisation headed by a professor at Bar Ilan University, was set up by a pro-Netanyahu think tank in Jerusalem. Though some of its criticisms of Oxfam, Amnesty, etc, are valid, NGO Monitor is as guilty as its target organisations in presenting unsubstantiated conclusions and promoting a political agenda under guise of discussing humanitarian issues. It has engaged in an unrelenting public campaign against Jewish bodies such as the New Israel Fund. While professing to foster the “accountability” — especially the financial accountability — of NGOs, NGO Monitor has repeatedly refused to reveal its own accounts and donor list.

It is important to take the main NGOs to task when — as they frequently do — they issue biased and incorrect findings. But the rebuttals must themselves be presented responsibly. It does not help Israel to minimise the human suffering that arises from this tragic conflict and, on occasion, from its own behaviour. The main priority should not be “advocacy” but concrete assistance. We need to help Munir, not make propaganda.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky is President of the International Political Science Association’s research committee on political finance

Last updated: 3:26pm, March 2 2009