It was supposed to be a routine run to the bank. As the Executive Director of the Aida Youth Center (AYC), Anas Abu Srour frequents the Bethlehem branch of the Arab Bank, overseeing transfers and transactions for the organization.
At the beginning of January, Abu Srour stopped by the bank to pick up the new check books he had ordered two weeks prior, as he had done countless times before.
But when he arrived, he was told that his application had been denied, and any further questions should be referred to the compliance department at the bank.
After a few days of following up with the bank, he received a call that left him utterly confused.
“They told me that I had to close the account of the youth center and move banks as soon as possible,” he told Mondoweiss from his office in the Aida Refugee Camp.
When he asked why the account was being closed, Abu Srour said he was told it was an “internal policy” decision. “They refused to elaborate more than that,” he said.
The incident with the AYC came just a few days after a class action lawsuit was filed against the Jordan-based Arab Bank by the families of Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks.
The plaintiffs, numbering over a thousand Israelis, are suing the bank for NIS 20 billion ($5.8 billion) in compensation, claiming the bank “knowingly supported and financed terror groups that carried out attacks that claimed hundreds of lives,” the Times of Israel reported in December.
The suit claims that the Arab Bank played an integral role in the attacks, knowingly funding individual Palestinian attackers as well as organized groups.
Abu Srour said he immediately suspected his youth organization was being arbitrarily targeted in relation to the Israeli lawsuit filed against the bank.
“It seems that the bank doesn’t want to risk being subjected to more lawsuits in the event that any Palestinians with Arab Bank accounts were to commit what is labeled as a ‘terror attack’ against Israelis,” he said.
What Abu Srour cannot understand is why a local youth organization that provides after-school music and arts programs to disadvantaged children, was getting caught in the mix.
Pattern of behavior
Mondoweiss learned that the incident with the AYC was not an isolated event, and that in recent months the Arab Bank has reportedly been closing the accounts, or refusing to open new accounts, for other community-based organizations, former Palestinian prisoners, and the families of Palestinians killed by Israelis.
Mondoweiss reached out to several community-based organizations across the Bethlehem area that were reportedly subjected to similar measures taken against the AYC.
One youth sports organization, that asked to remain unnamed, said that they recently attempted to open an account with the Arab Bank, but found the process to be “unusually difficult.”
After weeks of back and forth, the organization decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, and went with another bank instead. The group said while they were never given a formal answer on why it was so difficult to open an account, they “didn’t rule out” the possibility that it was politically motivated.
In another case, 30-year-old Ahmad Salah from the al-Khader village, was recently notified that his application to open up an account with the Arab Bank was denied.
Salah, a former prisoner, wanted to switch from his current bank to the Arab Bank, which has a branch that is closer to his home.
“When I returned two weeks after applying to check on my status, the employee checked my file, and he suddenly became shy, as if he was ashamed,” Salah told Mondoweiss.
The employee asked Salah to take a seat, and his manager would come to explain the situation to him. When the manager arrived, Salah was shocked to hear his answer.
“The manager came and told me ‘we can’t open an account for you because you were in Israeli prison,” Salah recounted. “I asked, ‘what does this have to do with anything?’ This is a Palestinian bank, not an Israeli bank.”
Salah alleges that the manager told him the bank was “having a lot of issues in court with the Israelis,” and due to pressures from the Israeli government, couldn’t “take the risk” of opening an account for someone with his profile.
“I was in total disbelief,” he said, still visibly frustrated by the incident. “I never thought that being arrested by the occupation, simply for fighting for my rights as a Palestinian, would affect something so simple as trying to open a bank account. It’s very disappointing.”
A controversial internal policy
The current lawsuit being filed against the Arab Bank is based on a similar suit filed in 2004 by American citizens who were victims of Palestinian attacks. The bank reached a confidential settlement with the plaintiffs at the time.
The apparent success of that lawsuit, alleging that the bank facilitated the attacks by opening private bank accounts for the families of Palestinian attackers through which they received money from donors, laid the foundation for the current suit.
According to a former staff member at the Arab Bank, who held a managerial position at West Bank branch of the bank, the company has been employing a series of efforts to prevent itself from becoming susceptible to such lawsuits.
The staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, told Mondoweiss that one of the policies the bank employed was curbing its acceptance of “risk-prone” groups and individuals. In other words: former political prisoners and their families and the families of Palestinians killed by Israel.
He alleged that for years, the bank has been using a filtering software called “SafeWatch”, marketed by its parent company EastNets, as an “Anti-Money Laundering & Counter Terrorist Financing” tool.
“Any time an individual would apply to open an account with the bank, we would run their information through this software,” he told Mondoweiss.
“If their name brought up any sort of political record, they would immediately be considered for disqualification, pending further investigation into their background,” he said. “If you were in prison, or your dad or brother were killed by Israel for example, you would be flagged.”
He said he had not seen the software used with civil society or community-based organizations, but he “would not be surprised” if this is now the case, due to the bank’s fears that such organizations could be tied to “terror activity” by the Israeli or American government — as has been done in the past.
“At the end of the day, the bank is going to do all that it can to not lose its money,” he told Mondoweiss. “Even if it comes at the expense of the Palestinian citizens.”
Mondoweiss reached out several times to the main branch of the Arab Bank in Ramallah. After several requests for comment on pattern of closing the accounts of community organizations and refusing to open accounts for ex-prisoners, the bank refused to give a statement on the matter.