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War on Gaza: Why I resigned from my European crisis-response role

I can no longer work on a donor's crisis response in one country, while they enable a crisis in another
The tents of Palestinians displaced by Israel’s bombardment are pictured in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 18 December 2023 (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
The tents of Palestinians displaced by Israel’s bombardment are pictured in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 18 December 2023 (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Over the past few years, I have worked in the humanitarian and developmental sector as a lead analyst in a team of external consultants advising European donor governments on their crisis response in conflict zones. I recently handed in my resignation due to the EU’s continued refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

I can no longer work on a donor’s crisis response in one country, while they enable a crisis in another. With an imminent disastrous offensive on Rafah in the offing, there is an urgency for members of NGOs with donor partnerships to take immediate action.

Rarely in modern history have explicit war crimes been given backing by supposed democracies. But in attempting to provide a pretence of deniability to a disinterested ally, whose intention to commit war crimes and collective punishment has been explicitly and repeatedly declared, leading western governments - including the EU, which cited Israel’s right to self-defence without condemning its policy of indiscriminate bombardment of Palestinians - have proven almost more defensive of Israel than Tel Aviv has itself.

In any other context, such statements would be assessed as the type of rhetoric that typically accompanies genocide. 

Israel is not being “singled out”, as its western backers accuse its opponents of doing. Rather, there are clear commonalities in the nature of violence deployed by the “Arab winter” regimes and Israel in Gaza - and both have been enabled by international powers under the justification of the “war on terror”. 

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While the support for Israel’s actions are far more unabashed in nature, this complicity was nonetheless also perhaps seen most evidently in Syria, where a ”Distancing to Protect” (D2P) model proved highly effective in concealing an extensive record of complicity in another possible genocide.

Just a decade after misleading the world about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq to justify an externally imposed regime change, here the US government went in the opposite direction. Washington falsely proclaimed that the Syrian regime was disposing of its WMDs, precisely to avoid the thorny issue of regime change, noting that at the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprising in Syria in 2011, the US and Syria were engaged in an extensive normalisation process, part of which included Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations.  

When evidence of continued WMD use in Syria emerged, it was not only obfuscated and potentially concealed by the Obama Administration, but US military support was quietly provided to help the Syrian regime capture areas where chemical weapons had allegedly been used not long before.  

Meanwhile, the main US ground allies in the war against the Islamic State supported the Syrian regime in key campaigns, while western powers, including the US and UK, reportedly shared intelligence with Damascus (as well as meeting officials). Ultimately, US policy enabled the Syrian government to deploy its airforce internally for possibly longer than any other actor in the history of civil war.

Undeclared war

The aftermath of the Arab winter paved the way for western powers, led by the US, to pursue a series of normalisation deals at the weakest moment for Palestinians and the Arab world. This took place on the wreckage of entire countries and popular spirits, exploiting a message of counter-revolutionary deterrence; it is no coincidence that the UAE and Bahrain normalised relations simultaneously with the Assad regime and Israel. 

This policy was not only cynical, but was reckless - to both Arabs and Jews.

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Yet in truth, this gaslighting-infused disregard is part of a wider posture of undeclared war. The purpose of undeclared wars is, in part, to provide powerful states with the ability to act with impunity and be safe from retribution. Such wars are immoral, whether conducted by state or non-state actors.

Many people reject the attempts by our region’s deformed regimes to violate the rights of their citizenries by pointing at Israel, just as they reject Israel’s historical and ongoing violations of Palestinians’ rights to freedom, security and liberty. Unfortunately, in both of these tasks, we face not only the resistance of those regimes, but that of their international and western backers, who stack up the odds by helping to sustain them.

If this is not the moment for action by those who can afford it, then there is no moment for it ... The NGO sector cannot be paralysed by timidity and fear of donor punishment

Stopping my work on crisis response in a region that is dear to me was not one I took lightly. In effect, those of us, especially from the region, who work in such positions are presented with stark terms: Accept the decimation of one part of your community in one country, to be able to work on crisis response for another part of your community in another nation. 

How to respond to this proposition can be difficult, especially in areas where the outcome can potentially result in interruptions to programming that benefits vulnerable demographics. But while it can also take strength and courage to swallow misgivings with donors in the interests of the greater good, I believe that there are certain moments in history when events reach a threshold. 

If this is not the moment for action by those who can afford it, then there is no moment for it. At this historical time, the NGO sector cannot be paralysed by timidity and fear of donor punishment.

On a personal level, it has become difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts at institutional engagement have reached the end of the road. The undeclared war is escalating to this day, with even the slow and incremental advances brought by two decades of engagement from the dark days of the early “war on terror” being threatened by a return to a post-9/11 posture. 

We cannot allow western “guilt-washing” to take place through the slaughter of Palestinians facing extermination in Gaza, or through a crackdown on the civil liberties of Arab and Muslim diaspora communities. There can be no more squaring of the circle, and it can no longer be business as usual. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Omar Sabbour is an Egyptian analyst who served as a team lead of external consultants advising donors on their crisis response in conflict zones. He tweets at @OmarSabbour and operates his own blog, The Eternal Spring. A longer version of the piece can be found there.
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