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Venmo accused of restricting payments to Palestinian relief funds

Users of the mobile payment platform were notified that their transactions were being restricted when using the words 'Palestinian' or 'Palestine'
Users have previously complained that Venmo will flag or restrict the most harmless of transactions
Users have previously complained that Venmo will flag or restrict the most harmless of transactions (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Mobile payment service Venmo has been restricting donations for Palestinian causes - particularly if the payments have any combination of the words "Palestinian" or "Palestine" alongside the phrase "relief fund", fundraisers have told Middle East Eye.

Bana Habash, a university student in Tallahassee, Florida, told MEE that she had been working with a friend on raising funds for relief efforts in the occupied Palestinian territories due to Israeli air strikes on the besieged Gaza Strip.

Habash said she raised more than $700 in just under half a day but noticed some donations were being restricted and placed under review by Venmo.

"People that were sending funds to the PCRF, which is the Palestinian Children Relief Fund, or just used the Palestinian flag - were fine," Habash said.

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"But when the word Palestinian was mentioned, the transactions were flagged and we received emails from Venmo asking us to provide a detailed response as to what these donations are going to be used for."

Habash said she believed it was the combination of the words "Palestine" and "fund" that had triggered the review. As of Thursday, the transactions are still pending.

Venmo, which is owned by PayPal, enables quick and simple transfers between friends and family, but is also used for fundraising efforts.

Earlier this week, a Twitter user posted a screenshot on the social media platform which showed that Venmo restricted a $50 payment labelled as "Emergency Palestinian Relief Fund".

According to an email exchange seen by MEE, after restricting the payment Venmo specifically raised questions about the use of the term "Palestinian relief fund".

Users have previously complained that Venmo will flag or restrict the most harmless of transactions, with Gawker reporting that one transaction was reportedly flagged because the user's name was Ahmed. 

OFAC over-compliance

Venmo acknowledged the issue on Thursday and said some transactions trigger regulatory flags and that it works to ensure any delays are short.

"Venmo takes its regulatory and compliance obligations seriously, including adherence to US economic and trade sanctions administered by the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)," the payment app said in a statement emailed to MEE.

"We strive to balance these obligations with the urgency of our users desire to send humanitarian aid. We understand the importance of these transactions and apologize for any delay that may occur as we work to quickly process payments in compliance with applicable law."

Venmo said that once it determines "the payment does not violate OFAC regulations", it clears it and allows the transaction to be processed, and this was true in the case of one user who said the transaction he noted eventually was processed.

The company said it could not go into further details.

On OFAC's website, the term "Palestinian relief fund" also comes up when searching for Interpal, a London-based Palestinian aid charity that was designated a terrorist organisation by Washington in 2003.

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This followed charges that the group supported Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement designated by the US and EU as a terrorist group.

Despite the designation and claim by the US, Interpal, founded 25 years ago, is described on the Charity Commission's website as “one of the leading British charities focusing on providing relief and development aid to Palestinians” in the West Bank, Gaza, and in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Interpal also helps fund the UN Relief and Works Agency, which offers support to Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.

William Lafi Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington University, told MEE that he also tried to make payments using the term "Palestinian relief funds", only to have his payments restricted pending a review.

"It seems like they just did sort of a data dump in a way of everything that's on OFAC's list, and then those phrases or series of words in proximity to each other probably gets flagged for review."

Venmo is not the only American tech company facing criticism over its response to the carnage in Gaza. 

On Tuesday, a group of 250 Jewish and allied Google employees asked the company to end its ties with Israeli military and "institutions that support Israeli violations of Palestinian rights".

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