Israel and the United States take turns following in each other’s footsteps in many unpleasant ways, ranging from the treatment of hunger-striking prisoners to the militarization of domestic police forces. Another recent example came to light Nov. 11, when Israeli special forces were caught deep inside the Gaza Strip, impersonating employees of a respected local NGO that assists the burgeoning number of Palestinians with disabilities in the wake of three military offensives and ongoing border protests.
The incident is remarkably similar to a 2011 covert operation conducted by the United States in Pakistan in which a local doctor posing as an international aid worker implemented a fake hepatitis vaccination program to try to get DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s family to pinpoint his location. U.S. Navy Seals later tracked and killed bin Laden—and public health initiatives such as vaccination drives haven’t been trusted since. The long-term ripple effects are likely to be significant, as they will be in Gaza.
According to reports in Israeli and other media, the Israeli special forces tried to disguise themselves by entering Gaza with forged ID cards that used information for legitimate residents. When their car was stopped at a routine checkpoint, they claimed to be returning patients to their homes and had a wheelchair in the back of their vehicle. They were exposed only when one of the Palestinian guards at the checkpoint identified their accents as “suspicious.” However, they were believed to have been in Gaza for weeks, reportedly renting an apartment from a Palestinian police officer who did not know with whom he was dealing. Investigators later found it stocked with medical equipment and wheelchairs.
The Israeli TV station Walla reported that the infiltrators even managed to enter the homes of several senior Hamas members, successfully planting listening devices. In the wake of that discovery, the residents whose identities were stolen have understandably been interrogated, Hamas announced that several people suspected of collaborating with Israel in the operation have been arrested (for which others have received death sentences in the past) and the NGO implicated in the operation now is under an intensive investigation.
As Yael Marom wrote in 972 magazine, impersonation of legitimate aid workers endangers the lives of everyone in the profession by eroding public trust. “If the details are true, this behavior could be considered a blatant violation of international humanitarian law, which says that it is forbidden to use symbols of humanitarian organizations for military activity,” he quotes attorney and human rights activist Eitay Mack as saying. The Israeli army has effectively justified the paranoia and suspicions Hamas and others often have of humanitarian groups, as well as of otherwise innocuous behavior by average people, such as taking photos. (The use of cameras outside of Gaza City, in any area closer to the periphery, now requires a permit. And can you blame Hamas?)
This is very much reminiscent of the Pakistani debacle, which had a very real, negative impact. A study published this month found that regions with high support for Islamic groups—likely those most influenced by the Taliban—vaccination rates dropped 9-13 percent after the CIA’s plot was exposed.
“Trust is critical for preventive medicine, such as vaccines,” says author Monica Martinez-Bravo of the Center for Monetary and Financial Studies (CEMFI) in Madrid, Spain. “It takes a very long time to build trust in medical institutions, but it takes very little to damage it.”
In addition, 18 international charities were kicked out of the country this month. Umair Hasan, spokesman for the Pakistan Humanitarian Foundation, has said the 15 targeted charities his organization represents help 11 million poor Pakistanis and contribute more than $130 million in assistance.
The majority of the targeted aid groups are U.S.-based, while the rest are from Britain and the European Union, according to a the Associated Press. Another 20 groups are at risk of being similarly expelled. And while various bureaucratic excuses have been cited, there is a widespread perception that the United States and European countries have secretly brought spies into Pakistan under the guise of aid workers—a consequence of the vaccination scam.
The crackdown “marks the latest chapter in an ongoing effort to push back against foreign NGOs in Pakistan,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programs at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “It’s hard to overstate the significance of the hunt for bin Laden and the impact it had on Pakistani perceptions of foreign NGOs.”
The same already is occurring in Gaza. “There’s danger to the status of international aid workers, that the local population will suspect them in the future, putting their lives in danger and their much-needed work in question,” Yael Stein, head of research at Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, told Al-Jazeera.
Human rights lawyer Mack notes the irony that “for years, the Israeli government has claimed that Hamas uses humanitarian disguises for terrorist activity,” even using that suspicion as an excuse for rejecting Palestinians seeking exit permits from the Gaza Strip for medical treatment. In May, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations told the Security Council that the Great Return March demonstrators are actually “terrorists disguised as civilians.” And here they are, doing the same themselves.
The United States and Israel: two peas in a pod. And ordinary citizens everywhere are paying the price.