Various international NGOs working in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) have questioned a demand by the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip to audit their books, saying the move could jeorpardize vital operations.
“We have nothing to hide but obviously there are concerns about what other information they may want to look at or have access to, including beneficiary lists and contact details for staff, which are normally kept in HR folders,” said one aid agency employee who requested anonymity.
According to aid workers, the motives behind the audit are unclear, particularly as the suspension of several major agencies in Gaza would place greater humanitarian responsibility on the shoulders of the Hamas authorities.
Some suspect the demand could be a pre-emptive move by Hamas to begin collecting income tax from agency staff in Gaza. Currently, under a presidential decree from Ramallah, Gaza humanitarian staff do not pay income tax.
Aid workers also say agreeing to the request would break the “no contact” policy held by some NGOs funded by governments, including the US, that list Hamas as a “terrorist” organization.
Should a compromise fail to be reached by 25 July, when the audit of many offices is scheduled to take place, at least 18 aid agencies are preparing to suspend their activities in the Gaza Strip, cutting off more than US$135million per year in aid, well-placed sources told IRIN.
At least 80 international agencies operate in Gaza, but due to the sensitivity of the situation, few will publicly disclose whether they have agreed to the audit or not.
“There is a crisis in just about every [aspect of] life in Gaza because of the blockade, and the role played by NGOs in easing that crisis is vital,” Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), told IRIN. “They are a life-line to certain sectors of society in Gaza and it is incredibly important they’re allowed to function and remain properly funded.”
Over 90 percent of social services in oPt are managed by non-governmental actors, according to a study by the European Union. But they face a number of challenges including an unclear relation with political actors, insecurity, [their ability to] focus on service delivery, and the lack of a common voice for Palestinian civil society and of its recognition.
OPt was the second highest recipient of international humanitarian aid (after Sudan) from 2000-2009 and “humanitarian aid to Palestine/oPt increased dramatically from US$863 million in 2008 to US$1.3 billion in 2009,” according to the aid watchdog Development Initiatives' Global Humanitarian Assistance Programme report.