Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Mar. 24, 2017, 1:13pm

A new version of an old story made international headlines this week. On Tuesday, a Palestinian resident from Gaza was put on trial by Israeli authorities for allegedly siphoning off resources and funds of a Gaza-based charity. In a new iteration of a familiar plot that never loses steam or relevance, Hamas was the elected beneficiary of the misappropriation of humanitarian aid. And while Hamas obstinately denies all claims, Shin Bet officials continue to forcefully reassert their skepticism for humanitarian organizations operating in the Gaza strip and reportedly “aiding and abetting Hamas”. This would not be the first time Shin Bet is wrong, as recent reports have confirmed on a similar case, but neither would be the first time there is substance to their claims.

Muhammad Murtaja was serving as the director of the Gaza branch of a Turkish charity working under Turkey’s Prime Ministry, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), when Israeli security forces arrested him on February 12 at the Erez checkpoint between Gaza and Israel. TIKA claimed that he was travelling to Turkey to receive vocational training from his employer, yet the Shin Bet advanced a different version. As Shin Bet officials eventually argued in a public statement, Murtaja, who allegedly underwent military training for Hamas, was directed to Turkey in an effort to obtain maps and photos from a Turkish satellite that would have helped Hamas in the process of building and positioning rockets.

Not only did Murtaja plot against state security, Shin Bet said, he purportedly diverted conspicuous funds from TIKA’s coffers destined to humanitarian projects in Gaza to Hamas from 2014 on. But there is more to it. According to Israeli authorities, the investigation shed light on a broader illicit scheme pivoting on Murtaja, who reportedly helped to transfer material and financial support received from another Turkish NGO, IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, directly to Hamas. IHH’s reputation as a global organization committed to providing humanitarian relief across the globe since the 1990s is knowingly tainted by its alleged ties to Hamas, first surfaced in 2009 and officially sanctioned by Israel’s terrorist designation in 2010. IHH’s resources channeled by Murtaja - Shin Bet claimed - furthered Hamas’ project to build a training facility and acquire the necessary military equipment for Hamas naval forces.

Through its regular, yet strategically timed announcements of new smuggling attempts into the Gaza strip or findings of wrongdoing on behalf of aid workers, Shin Bet has made no mystery of its agenda. Israeli authorities have often pointed the finger at charitable organizations that advance the political interests of their sponsors under the banner of humanitarian activities in the Gaza strip. Qatar and Turkey, both historic supporters of Hamas, offer a classic example of multi-million dollar aid packages coming to Gaza with ulterior motives – ranging from generally supporting Hamas’ cause to expanding their geopolitical influence in the Palestinian territories.

The timing of Murtaja’s saga clearly indicates the Shin Bet’s intention to keep the pressure high. In fact, Murtaja was put on trial on the same day the result of an Australian government probe clearing a Gaza-based charity previously accused of funneling millions of dollars to Hamas was made public. In August 2016, Israeli officials had alleged that Mohammed el-Halabi, the Manager of Operations of World Vision in Gaza, had diverted funds designated for civilian and humanitarian projects for terrorist financing purposes. On March 21, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stated that “the review uncovered nothing to suggest any diversion of government funds,” which the Australian government had profusely disbursed over the past years in support of World Vision’s work in Palestine.

Yet there may be some truth to Israel’s claims. Countless smuggling attempts of explosives and weapons directed to the Gaza strip were intercepted at the Refah and the Nitsana border crossings over the years. Moreover, neither Qatar nor Turkey is new to manipulating humanitarian enterprises for illicit purposes. In April 2012, Leipzig’s Federal Administrative Court ruled that IHH had heavily contributed to fund Hamas’ terrorist operations by directing “a significant amount of collected money over a long period of time to the Islamic Society and the Salam Society for Relief and Development”, two organizations active in the Gaza strip which are “part of the overall structure of Hamas”.  

This time, Shin Bet officials rushed to clarify that their investigation into Murtaja’s alleged misappropriation of funds did not entail involvement or support from the Turkish government, of which TIKA is an emanation. To the contrary, Murtaja had allegedly deceived the organization and acted on his own, certainly unbeknownst to the Turkish government. Probably in light of the recent reconciliation between the two countries, Israeli authorities even briefed the Turkish ambassador to Israel before unsealing the indictment. Meanwhile Murtaja will face a new hearing on March 30, while his lawyer continues to firmly deny all accusations.

As the Israeli investigation unfolds, Murtaja’s case may be at the mercy of a political game that transcends individuals or may ultimately confirm Hamas’ pervasive ability to infiltrate international charities while going undetected for years. Should the TIKA allegations trigger even a temporary halting of donations, as in the World Vision case, Gazans will continue to pay the highest price as long as humanitarian assistance comes with strings attached.

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