UK charity describes legal battle with pro-Israeli advocacy group as ‘lawfare’ against NGOs working in Palestine

UK charity describes legal battle with pro-Israeli advocacy group as ‘lawfare’ against NGOs working in Palestine
Palestinian children take part in a summer activities programme organised in 83 schools in the Gaza Strip by UNRWA. (File/AFP)
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Updated 02 March 2023

UK charity describes legal battle with pro-Israeli advocacy group as ‘lawfare’ against NGOs working in Palestine

UK charity describes legal battle with pro-Israeli advocacy group as ‘lawfare’ against NGOs working in Palestine
  • Christian Aid spent £700,000 defending itself against allegations of supporting terrorists before five-year case was dismissed by US courts
  • Case was intended to ‘throw sand in the wheels of our advocacy’ and make charitable work with Palestinians expensive, charity chief said

LONDON: UK-based Christian Aid has described a $78.3 million legal battle with a pro-Israeli advocacy group as “lawfare” aimed at causing financial and reputational damage to organizations that do charitable work with Palestinians, the Guardian reported on Thursday. 

The New York-based Zionist Advocacy Center filed a complaint in 2017 alleging that the “virulently anti-Israel” NGO obtained US government funding through fraudulent means. 

The case dragged on for over five years before being dismissed by US courts in September. 

Christian Aid CEO Patrick Watt told the Guardian that the charity was forced to spend around £700,000 defending itself against allegations that it provided “material support” to terrorists, with no hope of the money being reimbursed. 

The charity, which had remained silent about the case while it was continuing, decided to speak out in order to shed light on the legal challenges facing NGOs operating in Palestinian territories. 

“I am very keen to try to draw more attention to the tactics that are being deployed against organizations defending Palestinian rights, to try to make that work increasingly costly and difficult, but also to attempt to delegitimize that work, which I think this overarching strategy of ‘lawfare’ is ultimately geared toward doing,” Watt told the newspaper.

Christian Aid said that the dismissal reflected “what we have known all along: This is a case that never should have been brought.” 

The Zionist Advocacy Center has previously filed similar complaints under the US False Claims Act against Norwegian People’s Aid, Oxfam and the Carter Center, the NGO founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife. The first case was settled out of court with the US government for just over $2 million, with TZAC receiving more than $300,000, while the other two were dismissed. 

“I don’t believe this case was brought against us in the belief that it had legs. I think it was brought against us in an effort to throw sand in the wheels of our advocacy and to make working (in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory) very expensive,” Watt said.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said she believed the lawsuits are intended to send a “chilling effect” through the international NGO sector. 

“It’s letting organizations know that if you stick a toe in this Palestine work, it could take down everything you’re doing worldwide,” she told the Guardian. 

“It could end up being a reputational weapon against you. It could end up taking time and money away from everything else.

“Even people that win end up getting dragged through the mud,” she said. 

“So all the good work you do in the world, are you willing to risk it by doing a project in Gaza? And I think what they’re gambling is no, you’re not.”

However, Watt said the lawsuit had strengthened Christian Aid’s determination to stay involved in the region. 

“I would say if anything it has only reinforced our commitment to working on these issues in that part of the world,” he said.

TZAC Executive Director David Abrams rejected comparisons between the organization’s previous legal battles and its case against Christian Aid. 

“Only when it appears to me that organizations have crossed the line into actionable conduct do I start legal proceedings,” Abrams told the Guardian. 

“Moreover, on two occasions so far (including against Norwegian People’s Aid), the US government has agreed with me, resulting in millions of dollars in recoveries. 

“Thus, I reject any accusation that I am engaged in a harassment campaign or pursuing so-called ‘Slapp’ litigation (strategic lawsuits against public participation).”

Abrams has been public about the political motivations behind his legal strategy, writing on Facebook in 2018: “The modern battlefield includes the courtroom.”

He also told Turkish television in 2019: “I’m completely an advocate for Israel and I’ve never made any secret of that fact.”