The Guardian / March 2, 2023
The charity was taken to court for its work in the Palestinian territories by the US body, whose director justifies litigation against NGOs that ‘cross the line’.
A leading NGO has broken its silence on a bruising legal battle with a pro-Israeli advocacy group, describing it as an act of “lawfare” aimed at inflicting financial and reputational damage on organizations that do charitable work with Palestinians.
Christian Aid, the UK-based charity, was forced to spend about £700,000 defending itself against accusations that it had provided “material support” to terrorists, chief executive Patrick Watt has said.
The complaint, filed in 2017 by the New York-based Zionist Advocacy Center (TZAC), dragged on for more than five years before being thrown out by the US courts in September.
The humanitarian aid organization, which remained tight-lipped about the case while it was going on, has decided to speak out now in a bid to shine a light on what it says are the legal battles facing NGOs that, like Christian Aid, operate in the Palestinian territories.
Watt told the Guardian: “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 attempt to delegitimize that work, which I think this overarching strategy of ‘lawfare’ is ultimately geared towards doing.”
The $78.3m (£65.m) case brought against Christian Aid by David Abrams, the executive director of TZAC, centred on allegations that the “virulently anti-Israel” NGO had obtained US government funding through fraudulent means.
Christian Aid vigorously denied the allegations, as well as Abrams’ characterization of its supposed “anti-Israel” stance, and said in response to the dismissal that it “[reflected] what we have known all along: this is a case that never should have been brought”. It has no hope of recouping any of the money spent on its defence.
In recent years TZAC has brought similar complaints under the US false claims act against Norwegian People’s Aid, Oxfam and the Carter Center, the NGO set up by the former president Jimmy Carter and his wife. While the first was settled out of court with the US government for just over $2m, with more than $300,000 awarded to TZAC, the other two were dismissed.
Watt said: “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 on IOPT [Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory] very expensive.”
Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), said she believed the aim of TZAC’s lawsuits was 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 said.
“It could end up being a reputational weapon against you. It could end up taking time and money away from everything else. And potentially if one of these cases comes up and somehow you’ve screwed up under US law because US law’s pretty complicated … it could shut you down. 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.”
Watt, however, said the lawsuit had made Christian Aid more determined to remain 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.
Friedman has compared aspects of Abrams’ lawsuits to Slapps – strategic lawsuits against public participation – usually deployed by the rich and powerful to harass, silence or intimidate. While Slapp suits were usually brought by billionaire oligarchs or companies and TZAC was very small, she added, the complaints appeared “a form of legal intimidation”.
“Even people that win end up getting dragged through the mud with them,” added Friedman.
Abrams rejects this comparison, writing in an email: “Only when it appears to me that organizations have crossed the line into actionable conduct do I start legal proceedings. Moreover, on two occasions so far [including against Norwegian People’s Aid], the United States 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.
“Finally, I note that it is entirely feasible to do relief work in the Middle East while at the same time strictly avoiding getting improperly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. I respectfully urge all foreign NGOs who operate in the area to chart such a path.”
Abrams is open about the political motivation of his legal strategy, declaring in a 2018 Facebook post: “The modern battlefield includes the courtroom.” He told Turkish television in 2019: “I’m completely an advocate for Israel and I’ve never made any secret of that fact.”
Lizzy Davies writes about global development for The Guardian