Palestinians have voiced suspicion over a purportedly humanitarian project launching soon in Gaza. The project combines an attractive package of medical practice and tourism for volunteers. Friend Ships, a US Evangelical non-governmental organization founded in 1983, is building a field tent hospital in Gaza close to the Erez Crossing.
The project has been approved by Hamas and Israel. According to the NGO’s website, volunteers will work four days a week. The remaining three days are being marketed as an opportunity to tour Israel. This perk is not merely a bonus for volunteers, Evangelical tourism to Israel is one of the fastest-growing industries.
Evangelical Christians in the US are largely pro-Israel. Friend Ships retains its pro-Israel bias, as evidenced in its endeavor on the border with Syria where the Louisiana-based NGO has collaborated with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to deliver humanitarian aid. Its founder, Don Tipton, expressed his support for Israel in 2006 as “a divine commandment.”
“We love and admire Israel—we tell our congressman and senators this, and we stand behind (President Bush). We won’t let anything happen to Israel.”
Evangelicals have been described as “more Zionist than any Israelis I know.” ~ Yigal Ben Zikry
Evangelicals have been described as “more Zionist than any Israelis I know” by Yigal Ben Zikry, spokesman for the port of Ashdod in 2006.
Friend Ships may be seeking to depoliticize its humanitarian aid in Gaza. However, the NGO’s ties to Israel, including its reliance upon biblical tourism which benefits Israel in terms of economy and international support, is a political strategy. Now, for the first time, as Gaza is being exploited as the launchpad for visiting Israel, Palestinians have cause for concern. The field hospital is perceived as a strategy for infiltrating Gaza—a concern which Hamas has dismissed.
Yet, at a time when the US under President Donald Trump has brought Palestinians, in particular Palestinians in Gaza and refugees, to the brink of a humanitarian disaster by withdrawing much needed funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in 2018, a mere dismissal of collective concerns is not enough.
The main issue is the exploitation of humanitarian aid in Gaza as a cover for pro-Israel activities.
The field hospital formed part of the brokered agreements between Egypt, Qatar, and the UN. It has, however, caused consternation among various Palestinian political actors and activists. The main issue is the exploitation of humanitarian aid in Gaza as a cover for pro-Israel activities.
Friend Ships, after all, openly speaks of Israel’s purported democracy. Hamas started out as an anti-colonial resistance movement and was ostracized politically after winning the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Hamas also opposed the Oslo Accords and refused to adhere to the conditions set out by the Middle East Quartet in the 1991 Madrid Conference in return for political engagement.
The first political discrepancy is that Hamas is giving the Palestinian Authority (PA) a unique opportunity to accuse the movement of pandering to the US. In the words of PA Health Minister Mai Alkaila, “It will be an American-Israeli military base put forward on the land of the Gaza Strip.”
Yet the PA also played a role in Gaza’s healthcare crisis when it enforced sanctions upon the enclave with the aim of forcing Hamas to cede control. Earlier this year, the PA also halted the supply of medicines to Gaza.
Aside from the humanitarian aspect, which the PA is now all too keenly exploiting, the setting up of the field hospital in Gaza is tainting Hamas with the international collaboration criticism mostly reserved for the PA. To this effect, organizers of the Great Return March have also reportedly “distanced themselves from the project” while Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti urged “caution.”
However, there is still no cohesion between the PA and other entities opposing the healthcare project in Gaza. The reason is that the PA is subjugating Gaza Palestinians to humanitarian aid while it focuses on its state-building illusions, in line with the international community’s demands.
Within Gaza, official comments have shifted between emphasizing the need to alleviate humanitarian suffering and insistence that the hospital would not be allowed to operate if it serves as a US-Israeli base.
Within Gaza, official comments have shifted between emphasizing the need to alleviate humanitarian suffering and insistence that the hospital would not be allowed to operate if it serves as a US-Israeli base. Former Health Minister in Gaza Dr Basem Naim stated his opposition to “our people’s suffering to market Israel or attracting employees at our people’s expense.”
Journalist Saleh Naami, on the other hand, questioned the furor over the hospital when USAID had, until early this year, been involved in implementing humanitarian projects in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. In her academic treatise Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza, Sara Roy expounds upon how Hamas accepted aid from various international bodies, many of which are also complicit in maintaining Israel’s colonization of Palestine.
Yet this defense of humanitarian aid and the fact that such aid is always tarnished by its connection to human rights violations is not enough to justify the presence of a pro-Israel charity with links to the IDF in Gaza. Throughout the decades, there has been a normalization of Palestinians accepting aid from the same institutions which prioritize Israeli colonization and its security narrative. As a result, Palestinians are stuck in a cycle of perpetual Israeli violence ameliorated by temporary alleviation through humanitarian necessities.
Friend Ships is exploiting Gaza not merely by relying on Palestinian dependence on humanitarian aid. Gaza has been under an illegal Israeli-imposed land, air, and sea blockade since 2007. Freedom of movement for Palestinians has been eradicated. Yet the pro-Israel charity sees no conflict in using what has been termed the world’s largest open-air prison as a base to promote Israeli tourism among its volunteer aid workers.
Neither has the charity listed the discrepancy between Israel’s purportedly democratic façade and its undemocratic actions against Palestinians in Gaza. To put it briefly, Israel’s human rights violations in Gaza serve Friend Ships well, given that it is marketing itself as both a humanitarian aid provider and marketing appendage for the settler-colonial state. In doing so, Friend Ships is contributing to normalizing the perpetual imprisonment of Palestinians in the Gaza strip, while utilizing their humanitarian predicament—a direct result of Israel’s violence—to further its aims.
With the establishment of the field hospital in Gaza, Hamas will find it difficult to justify the presence of a pro-Israel charity being part of the much-needed healthcare system in Gaza.
Politically, Hamas has been the most vociferous of all Palestinian factions in denouncing the blockade and its consequences. With the establishment of the field hospital in Gaza, Hamas will find it difficult to justify the presence of a pro-Israel charity—hence supportive of Israel’s actions against Palestinians—being part of the much-needed healthcare system in Gaza. Were there really no other negotiable options available which would have allowed Palestinians more autonomy over their society’s needs, without a possible political infiltration in Gaza?
Equally important, Hamas must now communicate any possible changes in its politics. This is not about objection to much-needed healthcare, but rather the principles which have sustained Gaza and for which Palestinians have suffered interminably. Palestinians deserve better than additional blurring of the lines between their political rights and humanitarian needs. If a pro-Israel charity in the midst of Palestinians is the only option available, it is safe to say that politics and humanitarian aid have reached a new low.