The 2009 aid convoy to Palestine that got the IFCO in trouble. Photo via Flickr user gloucester2gaza
On Tuesday, the New York-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) put out a press release announcing the charity was “under attack” from the IRS, which is on the verge of revoking its tax-exempt status in part over aid it sent to Palestine.
Founded in 1967 by progressive Christians—its website quotes both Jesus Christ and Che Guevara—IFCO’s mission is to “advance the struggles of oppressed people for justice and self-determination” and fight against “human and civil rights injustices” on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. For the past two decades, that mission has included “US-Cuba Friendshipments” carrying humanitarian aid to the island nation. Though in defiance of 50 years of US sanctions, the group was never reprimanded.
In 2009 IFCO raised more than $1.2 million to provide aid through the group Viva Palestina to the people of Gaza, the Palestinian territory that is under Israeli embargo and home to thousands of “acutely malnourished children,” according to UNICEF. That was where the trouble began. That December, representatives Brad Sherman (a Democrat from California) and Sue Myrick (a Republican from North Carolina) wrote to the IRS and requested auditors take a look at IFCO’s ties to terror, suggesting the group “may be raising funds for Hamas.”
Though Hamas won the last round of Palestinian elections in 2006—an election the Bush administration encouraged—it is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department and the US government considers any aid to the group to be “material support” for terrorism.
IFCO denies that any of its aid went to Hamas. “In fact, the project was not designed to nor did it in fact support any terrorist group but was designed to provide ambulances and medical supplies to the people living in Gaza,” the group wrote in an appeal to the IRS.
In a report dated October 22, 2013, IRS auditors do not claim to know for sure whether any of the aid IFCO sent to Gaza was intended for Hamas, but they do cite that as one of the reasons to revoke the group’s tax-exempt status. The report states that “there were several articles and at least one comprehensive report (the Investigative Project on Terrorism—‘IPT’) posted on the internet. These postings appear to support the alleged connection between Viva Palestina and Hamas.”
While a “comprehensive report” produced by something called the “Investigative Project on Terrorism” might sound impressive in an eighth grade book report, the official-sounding group’s founder, Steve Emerson, has a reputation for making claims that would have earned him an F from any decent eighth grade teacher. Emerson is a “terrorism expert” whose lack of Arabic language skills and real expertise is made up for by unjustified self-confidence and appearances on Fox News; he’s probably most famous for claiming that the Oklahoma City Bombing was carried out by jihadists and that a Saudi terrorist was responsible for the Boston Marathon Bombings. The citing of his work—which the Zionist Organization of America takes credit for providing to the US lawmakers who drew the IRS’s attention to IFCO—does not provoke confidence in the auditors’ conclusions.
Some aid included in the Viva Palestina caravan to Gaza did end up in the hands of Hamas. George Galloway, the British politician who founded Viva Palestina and who is a walking, talking caricature of a leftist, didn’t help matters when he made a spectacle of explicitly dedicating some of the caravan’s aid to Hamas itself.
IFCO did not immediately respond to my request for comment. However, in its letter to the IRS the group maintained that none of its funds “were supplied to Hamas or to any entity controlled or operated by Hamas.” Also, medical supplies aren’t exactly WMDs. Many activists, including former president Jimmy Carter, think that the US government’s definition of “material support” for terrorism is so broad it risks criminalizing legitimate work to address poverty and promote peace.
For its part, IFCO is pledging to keep on doing what it’s been doing, telling the IRS it “believes that there is a sound theological basis for the [aid] caravans,” no matter what any government says. “This scripture-based analysis treats… people as deserving of love, respect and aid in spite of purported secular limitations.”
Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, the New Inquiry, and Salon.