Following the eruption of violence taking place in Palestine and Israel since Oct. 7, the Charity & Security Network (C&SN) is deeply saddened by the considerable loss of civilian lives and emphasizes the importance of protecting the rights of civil society organizations to safely and effectively carry out their life-saving work. This includes humanitarian, peacebuilding, and human rights programs wherever they are needed. These programs have routinely been undermined in Palestine and Israel due to the combination of U.S. counter-terrorism laws and Israel’s lawfare attacks on civil society that work in Palestine or support Palestinian rights. 

With the recent outbreak of conflict in Palestine and Israel, it is imperative that the fundamental humanitarian needs of those suffering from the violence be addressed. This means allowing safe passage where possible for humanitarian supplies to be delivered to civilian populations. Given the comprehensive blockade of Gaza that is currently in place, it is imperative that clear allowances be made to ensure access for food, water, medicine, and other basic items.

Additionally, due in particular to the U.S. material support law that was expanded after 9/11, there is a strong hesitation among many NGOs to attempt to operate in Palestine due to the significant penalties that could be imposed. In short, a substantial chilling effect has been in place that dissuades all but the most dedicated NGOs and donors from conducting programs there. 

As a result, grassroots peacebuilding efforts led by trusted civil society organizations which would have brought together all conflict parties to attempt to address the root causes of the conflict have been outlawed. The current scope of “material support” effectively prohibits peacebuilding and other forms of engagement with designated terrorist organizations, as established by the 2010 Supreme Court Case: Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

“Research and experience show us time and again that the preconditions for effective peacebuilding are inclusive processes that involve all actors to a conflict. Counter-terrorism measures like the material support statute make it impossible to engage designated terrorist entities – making inclusive peacebuilding impossible. The tragic irony is that the U.S. legal framework on counter-terrorism often helps create the preconditions that foster terrorism rather than prevent it,” said Ashleigh Subramanian-Montgomery, the Associate Director of Policy & Advocacy at C&SN.

Furthermore, C&SN is greatly disheartened by the news that the European Commission, Denmark, Germany, and Austria are considering the option to suspend aid to Palestine in wake of the recent outbreak of violence. This is yet another example of how humanitarian aid aimed purely at civilian needs has become a victim of conflict. 

As is often the case, innocent civilians living in proximity to listed terrorist organizations are the ones who are most difficult to reach. Withdrawing aid from a region based on political pressure or counter-terrorism strategy will only accentuate the societal and economic grievances that lead to further violence. 

If the existence of these vague counter-terrorism measures were not enough, there are also politically-motivated groups that abuse these laws by accusing NGOs of violating them when attempting to implement humanitarian work. 

These “lawfare” attacks have greatly curtailed the ability of Palestinian civil society and those that wish to support it for years. Further, in late 2021, the government of Israel formally designated six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations under Israeli law. The action was met with skepticism by a broad swath of governments in Europe and in the UN – even the U.S. government, despite their strong allyship with Israel – found no evidence to support these designations. Nonetheless, the formal status is still in place, making it extremely difficult for these organizations to operate or fundraise, and exposing them to unlawful raids and closures by Israeli forces. The Foundation for Middle East Peace launched a lawfare tracking website where visitors can keep track of baseless legal attacks made on Palestinian civil society.

C&SN urges respect for legal obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) to be upheld at all times. This includes the protection of all civilians, healthcare workers and facilities, and those delivering humanitarian aid as we all work to stop the violence and seek a stable peace. The targeting of civilians, or attacks that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians are strictly prohibited under IHL. We call on all parties to do the utmost to ensure that essential humanitarian aid is allowed to be delivered unimpeded, to uphold IHL, and to protect peacebuilding programs and processes that involve civil society to be implemented and advanced without delay.