Beirut, Lebanon – Western donors are cutting Arab civil society groups off financially for criticising Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, or failing to back them up when they do, according to human rights activists.
All humanitarian aid groups and civil societies that spoke to Al Jazeera said some Western donors had withdrawn financial support for Arab media outlets, human rights groups and think tanks. They also said that they have become disillusioned with many Western countries and foundations because of their support for Israel’s bombardment and siege of Gaza.
“The amount of anger and bitterness is not just limited to our people, but to us [as human rights advocates in the Arab region]. We don’t know how or if we can interact with some of these Western governments or partners ever again,” said Hossam Baghat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Israel’s assault on Gaza, a besieged enclave rights groups describe as an “open-air prison”, has killed more than 11,200 people since it began on October 7. It has prompted UN experts and hundreds of scholars to warn that the 2.3 million people living there are facing a grave risk of genocide.
Al Jazeera spoke to civil society groups from Egypt, the occupied Palestinian territory and Lebanon who have spoken out against Israeli atrocities in Gaza. All said their advocacy and reporting are increasingly at odds with European donors who are mostly staying silent on Israel’s relentless attacks on civilians, which may be in violation of international law.
Funding ‘cut off without warning’
Days after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on army outposts and surrounding villages in southern Israel on October 7, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden suspended bilateral development aid programmes in Gaza and the West Bank, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The pause amounts to $139m in lost funding and affects UN agencies, the Palestinian Authority governing the West Bank and a number of civil society organisations.
On October 11, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) also suspended millions of dollars worth of funding to six Palestinian and five Israeli civil society organisations.
Zaid Amali, the public discourse and programme director for MIFTAH, whose stated goal is to promote democracy and good governance in the occupied Palestinian territory, said they were given a very positive review after the Swiss FDFA assessed their activities in September.
But, after Hamas’s deadly attack, MIFTAH’s funding was cut without warning.
“We know that this decision may have come as a result of pressure from right-wing groups in Switzerland,” he said.
Al Jazeera contacted the Swiss FDFA to ask why funding for Palestinian and Israeli civil society groups, which HRW has described as respected organisations, had been paused.
“For these eleven NGOs, the FDFA had external indications that they had potentially violated the Code of Conduct and/or the FDFA’s anti-discrimination clause,” Lea Zurcher, the media spokesperson, replied in an email.
Another Palestinian civil organisation, which also lost funding from the FDFA, partly attributed the decision to intense “lobbying” from NGO Monitor, an Israeli NGO. A spokesperson for the organisation spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
NGO Monitor operates a database of Palestinian civil society groups which it claims are involved in “whitewashing violence and terrorism, demonisation and legal warfare, targeting Israeli officials and BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaigns, and promoting anti-Semitic propaganda.”
NGO Monitor took some credit for the FDFA’s decision on X (formerly Twitter) and has previously said its research was cited by Swiss parliamentarians calling for funding to be cut to Israeli human rights groups such as B’tselem which work for the welfare of Palestinians.
“There are a variety of non-government organisations like NGO Monitor with innocuous-sounding names that seek to marginalise voices critical of the Israeli government…but these organisations never criticise the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians,” said Omar Shakir, the Israel-Palestine director at HRW.
“These groups don’t operate alone,” Shakir added. “They tend to be funded [by] or coordinate with the Israeli government.”
Al Jazeera contacted NGO Monitor for comment, but it did not respond by the time of publication.
Western funding – ‘the journey will end’
European donors and partners have also refrained from expressing solidarity with Arab media outlets – when they usually would – after they were censored or smeared for their reporting on Israel-Palestine, two Arabic media organisations told Al Jazeera.
A journalist from one Arab media outlet, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to compromise funding for his organisation, said Western donors appeared happy to support independent media organisations only so far as they do not infringe on their own support for Israel.
“How the West will reconcile its endorsement of ‘independent media’ and ‘freedom of expression’ with criticisms levelled at its tacit or explicit endorsement of the death of [11,000] Palestinians…remains to be seen in full,” the source told Al Jazeera.
“But there are indications that some Western organisations have responded by prioritising their support for Israel over their commitment to regional press and civil society organisations,” he added.
The founder of another media outlet, which also relies heavily on Western donors, added that many partners – albeit not all – have continued to support independent journalism in the region, including his own outlet.
“We always knew that this reliance on Western funding is a trade-off, but as long as we are unrestricted editorially then it is worth doing. When or if that funding becomes more restricted, then the journey will end,” the source told Al Jazeera.
Position of UN agencies ‘defies logic’
Regional civil society organisations are also losing faith in UN institutions which either have not spoken out against Israeli atrocities in Gaza or have only done so after considerable delay, despite mounting evidence that such actions may amount to war crimes.
Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation (Skeyes), which advocates for press freedom across the Levant, said he was particularly disappointed in the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), which partners with his organisation but has been mostly silent on the issue of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and violence in the West Bank.
“They are silent. They have not taken action against independent media [that they support], but their silence isn’t something that’s really understandable right now,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mhanna added that he expects UN bodies to continue reiterating the stance of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who called for a ceasefire, raised the issue of Israel’s occupation as a root cause of violence and urged all sides to refrain from committing war crimes during a speech he gave on October 24. “We are not expecting them to take a completely pro-Palestine position, but what is happening right now defies any logic.”
On November 6, the heads of several UN bodies issued a joint statement along with global aid groups calling for a complete ceasefire. But Martin Griffiths, who leads the Office for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination (OCHA), later requested a “humanitarian pause”.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the UN, urged Griffiths and others to call for a full ceasefire.
Almali, from MIFTAH, said the silence from various institutions and Western countries that claim to support international law risks completely eroding the credibility of human rights work in Palestine, the wider Arab region and even the world. Other activists echoed the same sentiment.
He added that the global community had failed Palestinians long before October 7.
“They have failed us for 75 years,” he said, referencing the Nakba – or catastrophe – when 700,000 Palestinians were dispossessed from their land during the creation of Israel. “But right now, we’re really feeling it.”
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