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UK charity under pressure over donations to Israeli settlements

A UK charity is facing regulatory scrutiny and political pressure following revelations that it is acting as a conduit for donations to illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank.

UK Toremet receives donations on behalf of vetted ‘recipient agencies’, making it “easier to gift money to charities outside the UK byfacilitating a UK tax receipt and Gift Aid qualification.” It has distributed more than £1 million to organisations in the UK, Israel, and elsewhere.

In September 2015, I revealed how UK Toremet’s list of approved recipients included several groups operating in, or for the benefit of, Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), colonies which are illegal under international law.

Recipient agencies who receive donations via UK Toremet include a religious school in the heart of Hebron, a foundation established “for the benefit of the residents of [West Bank settlement] Efrat”, and the Gush Etzion Foundation, which supports settlements south of Jerusalem.

Answering a question in the House of Lords last October, the Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office said the Charity Commission had written to UK Toremet’s trustees and would be “meeting them to review the governance, policies, procedures and operational activity of the charity.”

Last week, a Charity Commission spokesperson confirmed to me that the Commission “has an open case and is engaging with the charity.” (UK Toremet CEO and founder Jonny Cline did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.)

Meanwhile, several dozen Members of Parliament have signed a new Early Day Motion (EDM) that “expresses serious concerns regarding donations to UK charities that are alleged to be funding construction projects at Neve Daniel”, an Israeli settlement west of Bethlehem.

Though not mentioned by name, the EDM has been confirmed as referring to UK Toremet. The construction project in question is a new campus for a West Bank-based religious school, Makor Chaim, being built on 32 dunams of land adjacent to Neve Daniel.

According to the school’s website, building permits were issued by Israeli authorities in the summer of 2015, after the land was “clear[ed]… of contesting Arab claims.” The site, the school adds, “will serve as the beachhead for a whole new expansion, tripling the size of Neve Daniel.” A Facebook page dedicated to the new campus shows that bulldozers recently begun work on the site.

The school website states that “if a UK based donor wants a UK eligible tax deductible receipt”, then the money should be sent via UK Toremet (the charity also lists Makor Chaim as a recipient agency).

The EDM’s primary sponsor is SNP MP Tommy Sheppard. Other sponsors are Labour MP Paula Sherriff, SDLP MP Mark Durkan, Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams, Conservative MP Peter Bottomley, and Stephen Kinnock, PPS to the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills. Since it was tabled less than two weeks ago, the EDM has attracted the support of 39 cross-party MPs.

The EDM notes that “existing UK case law demonstrates that activities carried out abroad are not charitable if contrary to public policy” and “affirms that charity funds should under no circumstances be directed towards the development or maintenance of Israeli settlements in the OPTs.” The text also “calls on the Government to liaise with the Charities Commission to investigate this matter.”

The British government already actively discourages UK citizens from pursuing “economic and financial activities in the settlements”, based on the “legal and economic risks”, as well as the “potential reputational implications” and “possible abuses of the rights of individuals.”

As well as constituting a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel’s settlements policy is also “inherently discriminatory”, in the words of Amnesty International. A Human Rights Watch report earlier this year described settlements as “part and parcel of Israeli policies that dispossess, discriminate against, and abuse the human rights of Palestinians.”

To date, the Charity Commission has refused to clamp down on charitable giving to Israeli settlements in the OPT. Perhaps the questions being asked about UK Toremet may force the Commission to finally take some action, and end a situation whereby money from the British taxpayer, through the Gift Aid system, is funding projects in illegal Israeli colonies.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.Schermata 2016 07 02 alle 22.21.27