Opinion: Erik Lysén
Act Church of Sweden calls for government to back-track on freezing of aid to Palestine
Many of us were shocked by the horrendous attacks carried out by Hamas on Israeli villages and kibbutzim close to the Gaza strip, on October 7, 2023. There is no justification for these attacks. Wilfully targeting civilians and taking hostages, including elderly and children, should be investigated as war crimes.
In the weeks following the atrocities, Israel has constantly been shelling the extremely densely populated and poverty ridden Gaza strip, taking a heavy toll on civilian lives, reminding us that the right to defend against terror attacks comes with a responsibility to adhere to the principles of distinction and proportionality in the response.
In the light of these events, the Swedish government has taken a decision to immediately freeze all long-term development assistance to Palestine and resumption of this aid to Palestinian civil society organisations is only possible on the condition that they publicly take a stand against Hamas and other terrorist groups. As a political reflex this might be understandable, but we fear that this is not only a severe blow to organisations working on a wide range of human rights issues – it is also counterproductive for Swedish and international efforts to undermine Hamas and other extremist movements in the region.
Simply put, freezing Swedish development assistance to Palestinian civil society, plays right into the hands of Hamas, who besides being a constant terrorist threat to Israeli civilians is also a violent and highly repressive Islamist ruling political power for the people of Gaza. It is in Hamas’ interest to cease operations for Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations, since they are the champions of a non-violent, peaceful approach to holding decision makers to account, from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestinian armed groups to the Israeli military authorities in the occupied territories. In contrast, the violent and religious-extremist agenda of Hamas builds on radicalising and intensifying the conflict. In fact, the very rationale behind Swedish development aid to Palestine is to support rights-based work, democratisation, and empowering civil society to work for rights, peace, and justice in an extremely challenging context. Freezing aid is also freezing these ambitions.
We strongly believe that development aid should be subject to in-depth reviews and quality assessments, and it is important to understand that this is the standard procedure. Good quality development assistance is based on a set of principles. Such principles are already part of the agreements between Sida and Swedish civil society actors operating in Palestine. Swedish development assistance to Palestinian civil society organisations is based on the principles of non-discrimination, equality, participation, inclusion, as well as transparency and accountability. This underpins the partnerships Act Church of Sweden and other Swedish development organisations have with local organisations in Palestine, and against which all of them are monitored and evaluated. We have absolutely no indication that our civil society partners in the region are in breach of these fundamental values and principles. On the contrary, their work and outreach make sure that human rights for all Palestinians and Israelis are defended, including the economic and social empowerment and rights of women in villages and local communities.
In addition, Swedish development organisations, as required by Sida, have counter terrorism clauses included in their agreements, with the purpose of preventing funds from ending up in the hands of any terrorist organisation, person or activity as defined by the EU’s restrictive list. These clauses are not only applicable to Palestine but to all regions in the world. Sida has now been instructed by the Swedish government to require all organisations with partnerships in Palestine to report on the measures taken to guarantee that no funding goes to Hamas or other terrorist groups. Our answer is simple: we already consistently and continually do this. Adherence to these principles is part and parcel of our monitoring and reporting under existing agreements. If ever these principles are breached, support would be stopped. However, imposing a general freeze on funding, on this basis, constitutes a form of collective punishment of the partner organisations.
It is standard procedure to condition development aid on the above-mentioned principles, but it would be a breach of these very principles to make the resumption of aid conditional on individuals and organisations publicly denouncing Hamas. It might seem an easy and obvious step to take, but to ask organisations to repudiate Hamas receiving development assistance is to put these organisations and their employees at risk. Hamas is a terror organisation and has networks and contacts not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. To publicly take a stand against Hamas could endanger them and their families. Asking us and partners to register opinions under these conditions risks doing harm. This would violate the fundamental principle of Do No Harm, which has underpinned Swedish development assistance over the past 25 years and is upheld in the OECD-DAC recommendation on enabling civil society in development co-operation and humanitarian assistance.
It is reasonable to argue that some Palestinian organisations could have been much more outspoken in condemning the Hamas attacks, and in expressing empathy for the Israeli families who lost their loved ones. Mass murder and targeted killing of civilians can never be excused.
At the same time, we need to understand the deeper context of the Israeli military occupation, making life almost unbearable in the West Bank, with unabated expansion of Israeli settlements and impunity for settler violence against local Palestinian villages. Palestinians live in this reality daily and feel that the United States and Europe are silent about these injustices. Our partner churches and organisations have warned us on many occasions that the occupation itself and the hopelessness it generates will only lead to more radicalisation, extremism, and violence. As stated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), a sister church and a partner in development cooperation:
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land continues, with all our Palestinian and Israeli neighbors, to mourn the continued violence, destruction, and loss of life in our beloved land. (…) For all of its existence, the ELCJHL has held a clear and consistent position: we are a Palestinian church living under occupation. The daily reality of our people is shaped by violence and harassment, forced displacement, and lack of human rights. We believe the occupation must be ended, because the Palestinian people deserve the right to live in dignity, safety, and freedom in our own land. Our position has always been that we are pro-justice and pro-peace for all Palestinians and Israelis.
Given that the funding freeze and ongoing review is now a reality, we can only hope that facts and reason will prevail once the review is completed. Will Sweden continue to support those forces within Palestinian society that actively promote co-existence, just peace, and respect for human rights on all sides? Or will Sweden cut funds dramatically thereby clearing the way for Hamas and other extremist groups to grow stronger and remain a mortal threat to Israel’s existence. We urge the Swedish government to back-track on its decision to freeze development aid to Palestinian organisations and return to its decades-long commitment to international law, and respect for human rights on occupied Palestinian territories. We also believe that the Swedish government, together with other member states of the EU, must step up its political diplomacy for a long-term, peaceful, and just solution to this deeply tragic conflict.
Erik Lysén, Director, Act Church of Sweden