A group of American citizens is suing the US Treasury because they say the agency is allowing billions of dollars of tax-exempt charitable donations to flow to the Israeli army and support the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, DC, on 21 December, alleges that around 150 US nonprofit organizations send about $1 billion a year “to fund the forcible expulsion of all non-Jews” and expand settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Martin McMahon, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, told The Electronic Intifada that he believes the organizations are violating eight federal criminal statutes and up to six Treasury regulations.
The lawsuit seeks a court order to compel the Treasury to investigate the alleged criminal activities, revoke the tax-exempt status of the organizations and recover hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes.
One of the three plaintiffs is Palestinian American author Susan Abulhawa. “I want a court, somewhere, somehow, to hold accountable those who have financed my pain of dispossession and exile; to hold accountable the financiers of Israel’s wholesale theft of another people’s historic, material, spiritual and emotional presence in the world,” Abulhawa says in a statement included in the complaint.
The exact amount that US charities send to settlements is unknown because tax regulations were amended in 2008 so that organizations no longer have to specify what country is receiving funds, only a general geographic region.
The US Internal Revenue Service has granted these organizations tax-exempt status, which allows US taxpayers to deduct donations they make to them from their taxable income. The organizations also do not have to pay taxes on the income they receive.
By law, tax-exempt status is granted only to organizations that engage in “charitable” activities.
These include the relief of poverty, the advancement of science, education and religion, lessening the burdens on government, “eliminating prejudice and discrimination” and “defending human and civil rights secured by law.”
The lawsuit accuses the Treasury, of which the Internal Revenue Service is a part, of “turning a blind eye” to the “rampant criminal activity” that US tax-exempt organizations are promoting overseas by funneling charitable contributions to Israeli settlements.
Noting that the US government declared that the settlements were illegal under international law as far back as 1980, the lawsuit claims that the colonization effort would have been abandoned decades ago were it were it not for the subsidies from the US.
“For 30 years at least, the US taxpayer has been funding and/or subsidizing criminal activity overseas, i.e., murder, arson, malicious property destruction, assault and battery and ethnic cleansing,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit names businessmen Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz, as well as Christians United for Israel founder John Hagee, as examples of donors who have sent millions of dollars in charitable funds to support settlements.
According to the complaint, their objective is the “wholesale ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population and explosive settlement growth to accommodate the needs of the ever-growing settler population.”
“They don’t want to just fund settlements but they want the American taxpayers to subsidize their political agenda,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Martin McMahon told The Electronic Intifada.
The lawsuit claims that the organizations have helped demolish or confiscate 49,000 Palestinian homes over the last 30 years and forcibly expel 400,000 to 500,000 Palestinians since 1967.
The lawsuit says that the Israeli army received $60 million in a single month from the tax-exempt US charity Friends of the IDF.
Tax-exempt donations have been used to purchase military gear, including night-vision goggles, sniper scopes and guard dogs for Israeli settlers as well as to set up “sniper schools.”
Friends of the IDF holds fundraisers all over the United States, often with the endorsement of celebrities including singer Barbra Streisand, Seinfeld star Jason Alexander and film actor Antonio Banderas, or politicians such as US Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois.
Other tax-exempt entities identified in the complaint are the Jewish National Fund, the Falic Family Foundation, American Friends of Ariel, Gush Etzion Foundation, American Friends of Har Homa and the Hebron Fund – many organizations reflect the names of the settlements they finance.
The complaint also alleges that US tax-exempt organizations are funding the ongoing dispossession of Bedouins in the Naqab (Negev) region in the south of present-day Israel.
Several corporations hired by the tax-exempt organizations are also named in the lawsuit. They include multinational prison and security firm G4S, information technology company Hewlett Packard, real estate seller Re/MAX and settlement builder Africa Israel Investments.
The role of US charities in funding the illegal Israeli colonization of Palestinian land has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. In 2013, a group of Palestinians tried to sue several US charities funding settlement activity under anti-terrorism laws, but the complaint was thrown out.
In early 2015, the group resubmitted a petition against five US-based organizations.
McMahon said the plaintiffs in this case chose to sue the US Treasury because the agency has clear standards in place to enforce.
He said that before pursuing litigation he wrote letters to the Treasury, asking them to investigate the organizations in question. His firm is working without fees on the lawsuit and is looking for more plaintiffs.
Since filing the complaint last month, he says more than 50 people have contacted him with an interest to join.
The US Treasury, which has not commented on the litigation, has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.
The State Department affirmed in an email to Al Jazeera that the administration of President Barack Obama, “like every administration before it since 1967, views settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace.”
The plaintiffs want the US government’s actions to match its words.
Editors Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the lawsuit alleges that charitable contributions were used to buy military gear for the Israeli army. In fact, the lawsuit alleges that the funds were used to buy military gear for settlers. It has been corrected accordingly.
- US Department of the Treasury
- Israeli settlements
- Martin McMahon
- Susan Abulhawa
- tax exempt donations for settlements
- Internal Revenue Service
- Sheldon Adelson
- Irving Moskowitz
- Friends of the IDF
- Barbra Streisand
- Antonio Banderas
- Jason Alexander
- Mark Kirk
- Jewish National Fund
- Africa Israel