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For some aid workers, internal Gaza tensions unearth long-overdue debates

‘I want to believe that this is a watershed moment.’

Members of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, carry placards during a protest to demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, at Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon, on December 04, 2023. Sandro Basili/ABACAPRESS.COM
MSF workers carry placards during a protest to demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, at Martyrs' Square in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on 4 December 2023.

Two months into Israel’s assault on Gaza, staff at international humanitarian NGOs and agencies say they’re facing unprecedented levels of internal division.

An increasingly vocal swathe of aid professionals is urging humanitarian organisations to step out from behind the long-held tones of measured neutrality and express moral outrage at Israel's destruction of civilian lives and infrastructure.

In interviews with The New Humanitarian, staff at three international NGOs described explosive meetings, petitions to senior leadership, feelings of betrayal, and what one aid worker described as “moral injury”.

The tense internal discourse points to some of the most uncomfortable divisions that plague the humanitarian industry: the disconnect between aid workers from the Global South, where most humanitarian activity takes place, and the sector’s disproportionately Western decision-makers.

“To people who come from the Middle East, [this crisis feels different] because it's the first time that we see very vividly the double standards of the West and of international organisations,” said an aid worker employed by the International Rescue Committee. The aid worker asked not to be named for fear of formal retribution. Others who spoke to The New Humanitarian also asked to remain anonymous out of concern that their career could be negatively impacted.

“Every single person I have talked to in this field who comes from the Middle East, is having this feeling,” the aid worker said. “And this is why I feel that this crisis will have a long-term impact on us as practitioners, on us as Middle Easterners, and on our relationship with the Western world.”

For the six aid workers who spoke with The New Humanitarian, the anger is partly focused on what they see as their employers’ weak reaction to Israel’s massive military assault on Gaza, which has killed at least 18,000 people since 7 October, according to the ministry of health in Gaza.

“There’s outrage and disappointment,” said a member of the INGO Staff Alliance for Palestine, a pop-up coalition of aid workers – employed by a handful of major international NGOs – who came together in the early days of Israel’s assault on Gaza.

“We have a few colleagues who have either resigned or put forward their resignation. And on the other hand, we have colleagues who are like, ‘We cannot leave this space; we also need to claim our position in this space’.” The alliance member is also on staff at a major INGO, but they asked that their organisation not be named out of concern that it would compromise their anonymity.

A statement from the alliance, urging INGOs to demand a ceasefire and call for an end to what it describes as Israel’s “ethnic cleansing, military occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid”, has been endorsed by staff from more than 70 NGOs and UN agencies, according to the alliance member.

“This crisis will have a long-term impact on us as practitioners, on us as Middle Easterners, and on our relationship with the Western world.”

Aid worker employed by the International Rescue Committee

The pain cuts in multiple ways. In a recent letter to the UN Security Council, Médecins Sans Frontières described the siege of Gaza as “collective punishment” and “a war crime”. Internally, some staff say MSF has been too passive; others take the opposite view.

A statement posted internally on an MSF-wide discussion platform and shared with The New Humanitarian voiced concern that the organisation’s public stance could fuel anti-semitism.

“The message about this conflict that we share with the world is one-sided, divisive, and inflammatory,” the statement reads. “It paints Israel as the sole offender in this conflict, unprovoked and heartless. This message feeds directly into the narrative that has fuelled hatred against Israeli[s] and Jews in the US and around the world.”

Instances of both anti-semitism and Islamophobia have reportedly spiked since the outbreak of the current crisis. 

Public ripples

The most public backlash has been at the World Food Programme, where some staff have called for executive director Cindy McCain’s resignation after she attended a security forum in mid-November where an award was given to “the people of Israel”.

Internal frustrations have also boiled over into the public sphere at agencies like UNICEF and the US Agency for International Development, USAID.

Just as heated are the debates erupting within international NGOs. These organisations, most of which cite commitments to conventional humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality, still have more flexibility in issuing public condemnations and taking politically sensitive positions than UN agencies or the aid and development arms of major governments.

Many INGO staffers speaking out say they are offended by the restrained language choices their employers’ have made in public communications.

"[Initially,] we did not call for a ceasefire, and this is when I couldn't take it anymore,” said the IRC aid worker. “I started asking questions about why we are not calling for a ceasefire and why we are using very weak language.”

The IRC, which in early communications called for a temporary pause in fighting to enable humanitarian aid, has now called for a complete ceasefire. But the employee said they felt this was only because “the international mood has shifted”.

Other INGO workers, including those at MSF, said they were exasperated by their employers’ insistence on describing Palestinian deaths in the passive voice – rather than embracing active language that names Israel as the perpetrator.

“This conflict is very divisive in normal times – let alone in this crisis – and that animates very strong debates across all societies, including within MSF,” said an MSF spokesperson.

Naming Israel as the perpetrator in some of the organisation's [recent] public communications comes down to "having access to information and the ability to corroborate it”, he added.

“It did not start with the war on Gaza. Our organisations know better. It is a bit shocking to see that some organisations are even reluctant to say ‘end of occupation’.”

Member of the INGO Staff Alliance for Palestine

In an email, an IRC spokesperson said: “This crisis has been especially heavy on colleagues, many of whom have been directly impacted, and who are deeply committed to IRC’s mission. We aim to foster an environment that encourages dialogue.”

Both spokespeople declined to be identified by name. The MSF spokesperson cited a short turnaround time for responding to The New Humanitarian’s questions, which were first posed on 3 December and responded to a day later. The IRC spokesperson said the response was approved only as “an IRC statement from [a] spokesperson”.

A ‘watershed’ moment?

Aid workers critical of their organisations say they’re also dismayed by what they see as a failure to contextualise the crisis: The root causes of today’s siege can be traced far beyond the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel.

That attack, which Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people and saw more than 200 taken hostage, is often portrayed in public statements as sparking today’s crisis, say the aid workers.

“Our organisations have been working in Palestine for years,” said the member of the INGO Staff Alliance for Palestine.

“It did not start with the war on Gaza. Our organisations know better. It is a bit shocking to see that some organisations are even reluctant to say ‘end of occupation’.”

A petition currently making the rounds within MSF describes Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide”, and calls on the organisation to work towards ending “the Israeli occupation and apartheid exerted over Palestinians”.

An MSF employee told The New Humanitarian that he had “never seen this level of polarisation” within the organisation.

And yet he saw potential for the internal strife to yield meaningful change. While he was critical of MSF’s early public response, the employee said there was also a shift underway.

“I want to believe that this is a watershed moment [for MSF],” said the employee, who is a doctor from Pakistan who works on global health policy.

He described a “critical mass” of people trying to push MSF’s public stance to be “more representative of the Global South”.

“We’re having much more nuanced debates around what it means to be neutral and what it means to be impartial,” he said. “And it’s unfortunate that it took this level of brutality to open these debates, but I think these are very important debates going forward into the future.”

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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