Are the Boycotters of Israel Violating International Law?

The world is now aware of the bias and bigotry of Oxfam International in objecting to Scarlett Johansson’s decision to become a spokesperson for the Israeli company SodaStream because of the company’s factory in an Israeli settlement town.  Oxfam considers Israeli settlements illegal and thus in violation of international law.  In addition to its support of a boycott of trade with Israeli settlements, Oxfam has not adhered to a policy of neutrality in the Middle East.  It has issued statements calling on Israel to end its supposed restrictions – i.e., checkpoints and roadblocks – on free movement of people and goods in the West Bank.

An important question now is whether Oxfam International can claim to come to the Middle East table with its moral righteousness intact.  Certainly its declared neutrality in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians can be challenged by knowledge of the activity of some of its affiliates.  One example of partisan activity is that the Dutch-branch Oxfam Novib and Oxfam GB are reported to have given $500,000 to the Coalition of Women for Peace, which is a fervent advocate of boycott of Israel.

The world may now be aware, through a report of the Shurat HaDin (Israel Law Center) that Oxfam is itself indirectly involved with terrorist groups that have been declared illegal according to both international law and the laws of the U.S., the U.K., the European Union, and Canada.  As a result, Oxfam, which has deceived itself in believing that it is taking a moral position to boycott trade with Israel, may be liable to criminal and civil prosecution.

The problem for Oxfam relates to its involvement with two Palestinian organizations that have had, and probably still have, close connections with the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).  Oxfam has provided financial and other assistance to those two bodies – the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees (UAWC) in Gaza and the Union of Health Workers Committees (UHWC).

The UHWC, founded in 1985, provides medical services to poor Palestinians.  The UAWC, founded in 1986, deals with land ownership and agricultural issues in the areas disputed between Israel and the Palestinians.  

No doubt these two groups do render some useful service to Palestinians.  The problem is that they admit they were founded and are staffed to a considerable degree by members of the PFLP, though they now deny any present connection.  Though the degree of interaction between the organizations and the PFLP is not altogether clear, at least publicly, the connections through people are evident.  

Dr. Ahmad Maslamani, who died in 2008, was a member of the Central Council of the PFLP, a so-called “national warrior” (AKA “terrorist”), and was also co-founder and the general director of UHWC.  Bashir al Kheiri (Bashir Khairy), who for a number of years was chairman of the Board of Directors of UAWC, was also the head of the PFLP’s political bureau in Ramallah.  He was involved in the Supersol supermarket bombing in Jerusalem on February 21, 1969.  Jamil Ismail is the vice president of UAWC and is a member of PFLP and the head of its political office in Gaza.  A number of other directors of UAWC, including its treasurer, are known to be members of PFLP.

The role of the PFLP in international terrorism is very familiar.  Founded in 1967 by George Habash, it defined itself as a Marxist-Leninist and Arab nationalist organization.  Its activities for 45 years have been negative, opposing any negotiated settlement with Israel and engaging in spectacular terrorist acts. These have included aircraft-hijacking, suicide-bombings, and assassination.

Among the best-known acts are the following : the murders by individuals recruited by the PFLP at Lod (now Ben Gurion) airport in Israel of 26 people, and another 80 injured on May 30 1972; the collaboration in the hijacking of the Air France plane en route from Paris to Athens in 1976 that landed in Entebbe, Uganda where the hostages were rescued by an Israeli commando raid; the assassination of Israeli Minister for Tourism Rehavam Zeevi on October 21, 2000; and the murder on March 11, 2011 of a family of five, including a three-month-old baby, in the settlement town of Itamar, Israel.  The most notorious figure related to PFLP was the murderer Carlos the Jackal, who joined it in 1970 and organized attacks on Western targets and also on OPEC headquarters in Vienna.  His explanation was that “we kill for a cause, the liberation of Palestine.”

There are two issues: the relation between the two Palestinian organizations and the PFLP and the link of Oxfam with them.  The first involves the problem of distinguishing between the military wing of a terrorist organization, such as the PFLP, and its front organizations that provide social and medical service.  The second is the degree to which Oxfam provides assistance and works closely with the two organizations.

On the first issue, the UHWC and the UAWC are linked with the PFLP in a number of ways, in overlapping leadership, funding, and assets.  

There is no suggestion that Oxfam has committed any improper or immoral action, but its involvement with the two Palestinian groups can be considered illegal on the basis of an important U.S. Supreme Court decision.  The Court in the June 2010 case Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project ruled in a 6-3 decision about the prohibition on providing material support to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations.  The U.S. Patriot Act, section 805, of October 2001 prohibits material support, including expert advice and assistance, for terrorists.

The Court , in similar language to that of the Patriot Act, held that material support included “service” or “expert advice or assistance.”  Any assistance given to the terrorist group could help to make the group appear “legitimate” and would free resources of the group for terrorist activities.  This would include support in the form of intangibles such as human rights training.  The thrust of the Court’s decision is relevant to Oxfam.  It held that material support that is meant to promote peaceable, lawful conduct, which undoubtedly Oxfam intends, can be diverted to advance terrorism in multiple ways.  For terrorist organizations, funds raised for humanitarian activities cannot easily be separated from those used for carrying out terrorist attacks.

The U.S. has designated the PFLP as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” as does the U.K., which is Oxfam’s country of origin.  By providing funds and material to the Palestinian groups, Oxfam can reasonably be faced with charges of violation of international law.  This is on a somewhat more serious level than the carbonated drinks of SodaStream about which Oxfam is so incensed.

Oxfam can justifiably be proud of its help in the relief of hunger in less developed countries.  It can claim to have helped UAWC in aid to Palestinian small-scale farmers and herders, and helped UHWC to improve health services for people in Gaza.  It genuinely believes that it does not work with organizations that use or promote terror.  But by supplying financial aid and other material support to the two Palestinian organizations that have clear links to terrorist organizations, Oxfam is misguided in this belief.  It may now be open to criminal charges for violations of international law for supporters, if indirectly, terrorist groups.  It may also be more careful in labeling settlements as “illegal.”

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.