The recent investigation of Muslim Aid Australia for its connections to Interpal, an organisation associated with Hamas, exposes the political limitations of Australia’s anti-terrorism financing regime. It also raises important questions about the efficacy of listing Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
Interpal is a British humanitarian organisation but it is not banned in that country. In August 2003 the United States banned Interpal arguing it and affiliated charities were conduits for financing Hamas, the Islamic political group that controls the Gaza Strip. On that basis Australia followed suit and banned Interpal three months later.
Very little information is publicly available to corroborate the US claims. According to the US Treasury Department, Interpal "is the fundraising coordinator of HAMAS," and, "includes supervising activities of charities, developing new charities in targeted areas, instructing how funds should be transferred from one charity to another, and even determining public relations policy."
Interpal’s real crime may be that it works with an organisation strongly opposed by the US Government. Making humanitarian organisations guilty by association with Hamas will not harm the political party – whether or not that is desirable. It will only serve to further cripple one of the poorest populations in the Middle East.
If Muslim Aid Australia is banned because of its association with Interpal it will set a dangerous precedent for other Australian charities working in conflict zones like Gaza. Humanitarian agencies often have to work through organisations like Hamas in order to assist the poorest and most vulnerable people. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, humanitarian assistance within the small coastal territory has been entirely dependant on coordination with Hamas authorities.
Aid agencies have always had to coordinate their activities in Gaza with the Israeli army and that remains the case. The dirty little open secret is that Israeli army commanders routinely coordinate day-to-day affairs, such as the entry and exit of fuel convoys, with their Hamas counterparts.
The Gaza Strip is presently experiencing a serious humanitarian crisis due to an Israeli blockade that has been in force since the Hamas takeover. Around 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Access to energy and water has been heavily reduced while food prices have soared.
"I am unable to meet my family’s needs," a man in Gaza told me two weeks ago. "Whenever I go to the market, I cannot find what I want, and if I find it, I cannot offer the prices."
A ceasefire negotiated between Hamas and Israel two weeks ago may alleviate the situation to an extent. Israel is now permitting some conveys of food and fuel into Gaza. But after such a long period of economic strangulation and political instability Gaza will remain impoverished for some time. Now more than ever there is a role for humanitarian agencies to play in Gaza. That will inevitably involve working with Hamas.
All of this highlights the limitations of listing Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Hamas has its roots in social welfare programs. Even now Hamas runs extensive welfare programs in the Occupied Territories such as free medical assistance and education programs. Many Hamas programs have ground to a halt in the West Bank, however, because its members face arrest or death from the Israeli Army.
Only two months ago former US President Jimmy Carter called for the international community to normalise relations with Hamas. The declaration coincided with Carter meeting Hamas leaders in Syria, a move that helped precipitate the current ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Even hardened enemies like Israel and Hamas have the capacity to negotiate and, in the process, legitimate each other’s existence.
These events send a clear signal. If Israel can work with Hamas, why can’t Australian charities?
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