LONDON: The Guardian reported on Thursday that a UK-based Christian aid organization called a $78.3 million legal battle with a pro-Israeli advocacy group “lawfare” designed to damage the finances and reputational damage of charities working with Palestinians.
A complaint was filed in 2017 by the Zionist Advocacy Center of New York, which claimed that the “virulently anti-Israel” NGO had fraudulently obtained funding from the United States government.
After more than five years, in September, US courts finally dismissed the case.
Christian Aid’s chief executive officer, Patrick Watt, told The Guardian that the organization lost £700,000 defending itself against claims that it provided “material support” to terrorists.
The organization kept quiet about the case while it was ongoing, but decided to speak out now to highlight the difficulties NGOs face in Palestinian territory from a legal standpoint.
Watt told the paper, “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 is what he believes the larger strategy of “lawfare” is ultimately geared toward.
“This is a case that never should have been brought,” Christian Aid said after the ruling was overturned.
Prior to this, the Zionist Advocacy Center had filed similar complaints under the US False Claims Act against Norwegian People’s Aid, Oxfam, and the Carter Center, an NGO founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife. While the other two cases were dismissed, the first was settled out of court with the US government for just over $2 million, with TZAC receiving more than $300,000.
I doubt that our opponents actually thought they could win by filing suit against us. “I think it was brought against us to throw sand in the wheels of our advocacy and to make working (in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory) very expensive,” Watt said.
The Foundation for Middle East Peace’s president, Lara Friedman, expressed concern that the lawsuits would have a “chilling effect” on the international NGO community.
Telling organizations “if you stick a toe in this Palestine work, it could take down everything you’re doing worldwide,” she told the Guardian.
It has the potential to be used as an instrument of damage to your reputation. It may end up diverting resources from other projects.
“Even the winners get dragged through the mud in the end,” she said.
Are you willing to put your global good work on the line by taking on a project in Gaza? They’re taking a chance that you’re not, and I think they’re right.
Watt, however, argued that the lawsuit only increased Christian Aid’s resolve to remain active in the area.
“If anything, it has only reinforced our commitment to working on these issues in that part of the world,” he said.
Executive Director of TZAC David Abrams denied that the case against Christian Aid was similar to the organization’s previous legal battles.
“I only initiate legal proceedings when it appears to me that organizations have crossed the line into actionable conduct,” Abrams told the Guardian.
Additionally, the United States government has agreed with me twice (once against Norwegian People’s Aid) and recovered millions of dollars.
Therefore, “I reject any accusation that I am engaged in a harassment campaign or pursuing so-called Slapp litigation” (strategic lawsuits against public participation).
In a 2018 Facebook post, Abrams made clear the political underpinnings of his legal strategy, saying: The courtroom, like the battlefield, is an integral part of modern warfare.
Speaking to Turkish television in 2019, he added, “I’m completely an advocate for Israel and I’ve never made any secret of that fact.”