How pro-Israel saboteurs are derailing lifesaving Gaza fundraisers

Illustration - In-depth - Gaza fundraisers
10 min read
17 April, 2024

An exponential number of Palestine-related crowdfunding campaigns have sprung up over recent months following Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed over 33,000 people and left over a million close to starvation.

Today, it is estimated that there are thousands of active fundraisers across popular platforms like GoFundMe, Chuffed, and GoGetFunding.

“I ran out of choices. Please help me evacuate my family from Gaza to Egypt,” wrote one Gazan fundraiser on X last month. “I’m hoping to travel to Egypt as soon as I have the amount needed to facilitate their exit directly. Please share and donate as much as you can.”

While some campaigns have called for donations towards food and medical supplies for friends or family in Gaza, the majority have focused on raising enough money to pay for an evacuation, with campaigns asking for an average of $38,000.

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The cost of leaving Gaza for Egypt via the Rafah has skyrocketed since the beginning of the war. Egyptian brokers once charged a few hundred dollars per person for a permit. Now it ranges between $4,500 to $10,000 per adult and $2,000 to $5,000 per child. For many, raising such sums of money would be impossible without external assistance, especially crowdfunding.

In early March, in response to the huge numbers of Gazans seeking help via crowdfunding, GoFundMe posted a notice on their site explaining how to get the best results from such a campaign and avoid any delays. The notice also followed an in-depth exposé in February showcasing how pro-Gaza fundraisers on GoFundMe were being frozen by “heavy-handed moderation”, to put it lightly.

Other barriers have arisen too, with The New Arab finding an increase in disruptions against Gaza fundraisers due to a combination of pro-Israel saboteurs and/or heavy-handed moderation from PayPal, according to two case studies and a plethora of anecdotal evidence on social media.

"An exponential number of Palestine-related crowdfunding campaigns have sprung up over recent months following Israel's war on Gaza"

Freezing PayPal accounts

The more high-profile of the aforementioned cases involves Dr Taleed El-Sabawi, a prominent Gazan-American law professor, who launched a Chuffed fundraiser in late January entitled: Donate [and] Help Feed 64 of our Family Members in Gaza. The campaign’s description explains how the price of food in Gaza has skyrocketed, with some goods costing 30 times what they did four months ago.

“Our family in North Gaza is eating animal fodder since food is being auctioned off to the highest bidder,” writes El-Sabawi’s fundraiser. “In Rafah, the cost of providing 64 people with 1 meal a day of canned foods is approximately $6,272 a week. [Meanwhile, my family is living] in tents built in between graves or in single rooms with 20 people inside. One [relative] recently gave birth herself, cutting her own umbilical cord and tying it with a string”.

The fundraiser states, very clearly, that all monies raised will be used to purchase food and essential goods (diapers, sanitary items, and medication).

And yet, several weeks into the campaign, El-Sabawi found her donations abruptly frozen via PayPal, one of the main payment systems through which to make donations to her Chuffed fundraiser.

“It was chilling. Suddenly I couldn’t access around $600 in donations in my PayPal,” explains El-Sabawi. “Worse still, I was then paying some household bills on my bank card, and I noticed that $1,500 had been deducted from my personal bank account by PayPal. They literally clawed back $1,500 in donations that I had transferred from my PayPal the week before, and which had since been sent to Gaza.”

Thousands of active fundraisers are calling for donations for food and medical supplies, or to pay for evacuations from the Gaza Strip, which has been left in ruins by Israel's war. [Getty]

In a cryptic, automated email, El-Sabawi was told that her PayPal account was being frozen due to “customers [being] dissatisfied with activity from this business”. Following this, El-Sabawi attempted to reach customer services dozens of times but was once again met with an automated response at every turn. As a result, a friend of El-Sabawi called PayPal customer service on her behalf and, after getting through to a human, added El-Sabawi to the call.

Paypal then told El-Sabawi that no individual payment to her fundraiser had been disputed (in seeming contradiction to PayPal’s above email), but that the activity had been deemed “high risk”. El-Sabawi then asked PayPal what criteria it used to make such assessments and was told on the call that these decisions were made “in a back office [with] no specific and public criteria” that could be shared, beyond the fact that, “high risk” transactions are those classed by PayPal to carry a high chance of customers requesting a refund within six months.

Following this live call with customer service, El-Sabawi submitted a strongly worded letter to PayPal explaining how, as a US attorney and professor of law, she posed a very low risk, thereby asking PayPal to immediately reinstate her account and explain why it had been frozen, lest she file a lawsuit, or a complaint with federal regulatory agencies, for discrimination.

Additionally, El-Sabawi submitted a link to an open letter signed by over 600 signatories in support of both the legitimacy of her fundraiser and to call for PayPal to immediately provide her access to her funds. PayPal unfroze her account a few days later.

"There is a long history of pro-Israel political groups funding anything from college students posting social media that promotes Israel, to trolls disrupting anyone who advocates against Israeli state violence"

“Let’s be honest, the only reason they responded to that letter quickly is because I had tremendous public support and I’m an attorney and a professor. How many others affected like me have not had that advantage, and have just been ignored, their accounts frozen indefinitely, waiting for months to access money they desperately need?” asks El-Sabawi.

“Beyond the distress and wasted time of having to deal with this, as my family in Gaza struggle to survive, what was most infuriating is that PayPal never really clarified why they suspended my account,” she adds.

While El-Sabawi thinks that it is entirely possible that PayPal’s internal team froze her account due to some internal risk assessment disproportionately affecting Palestinians, El-Sabawi has also been targeted heavily by pro-Israel social media trolls who have been constant in their near-daily harassment.

“It is also possible that pro-Israel trolls targeted my account and mass reported for suspicious activity, because my account was frozen the same day I was being trolled by accounts making racist and dehumanising comments,” explains El-Sabawi.

“What I learned after doing some research is that mass reporting accounts for suspicious activities is not unheard of. The offenders pretend like they were going to go donate and then select the PayPal checkout option on the fundraiser, at which point they are redirected to a page that provides them with my email address tied to my PayPal account. Then, they visit this page here and just mass report the PayPal account for suspicious activities.”

Adding to this picture, El-Sabawi contends that the pro-Israel trolls organise themselves through Telegram and WhatsApp groups that target Palestinian fundraisers.

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A history of abuse

It is entirely plausible that what El-Sabawi experienced was indeed an organised smear campaign led by online anti-Palestinian groups, as there is plenty of precedence for this, says Sophia Goodfriend, a researcher at Duke University who specialises in Israel’s digital surveillance programmes.

“In fact, it goes hand in hand with the protests we’ve seen by the radical right-wing Israelis blocking humanitarian aid trucks to Gaza,” she tells The New Arab.

Groups like these, whether online or off, are organised by informal grassroots networks and/or funded by the state. There is a long history of pro-Israel political groups funding anything from college students posting social media that promotes Israel, to trolls disrupting anyone who advocates against Israeli state violence, says Goodfriend.

“I’m talking here about a really concentrated political funding structure that supports this, such as the Israeli government’s Cyber Unit and Foreign Office, both of which are known to provide material and capital to groups that assist in that work. So it’s not outside the realm of possibility that those departments are involved.”

Protesters take to the streets of London calling for a ceasefire in Gaza [TNA Exclusive]
There have been widespread global protests against Israel's war on Gaza. [Getty]

On the other hand, it is also entirely plausible that El-Sabawi’s ordeal was caused by PayPal’s internal risk-assessment team, as there is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that Western financial institutions are disproportionately freezing transactions to Palestine due to concerns about breaching financial regulations, specifically anti-terror financing laws, which could result in large fines.

In terms of PayPal specifically, this is particularly plausible since the company has been accused of discrimination against Palestinians for many years now, not least due to the fact that it has never launched its services across Palestine while operating continuously across Israel.

“If that’s happening, then it’s also pertinent to ask why PayPal doesn't have similar risk-assessment mechanisms in place to prevent money from getting to militant right-wing Israeli settlers who are now being blacklisted by Western governments,” contends Goodfriend.

“And we know that many of those settlers get plenty of aid from American NGOs and individual donors,” she added. When asked about this, PayPal said it could not comment. 

"Beyond the distress and wasted time of having to deal with this, as my family in Gaza struggle to survive, what was most infuriating is that PayPal never really clarified why they suspended my account"

Israeli trolls or Israeli donors?

In a completely separate case of sabotage and disruption, The New Arab spoke with three campaigners who set up a GoGetFunding fundraiser for one individual (called Adam) in Gaza. The campaign, entitled Help our Friend in Gaza, is still aiming to raise $15,000 to help Adam evacuate to Egypt.

Just a week after launching their page, the fundraisers received a spree of donations from Israeli locations, alongside a bunch of anonymous donations. “It was a crazy increase of money, like maybe 130 donations between $10 and $100, in the space of a few hours,” says Shannon, one of the organisers.

“At first we thought these were kind gestures and good news. But a day later I found that the vast majority of these were then abruptly cancelled over a short period of time, which was really disheartening.”

The donations had been sent to Shannon’s Stripe account, the other main channel for international payments on most fundraising platforms, alongside PayPal. Shannon immediately contacted Stripe and asked them to block all payments coming from Israel. “It was a sad decision to make, as there were definitely some very genuine donations coming from Israel.”

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Shannon thinks that her page was attacked by pro-Israel trolls who were trying to get her Stripe account frozen by reporting their transactions. “Just the thought of a bunch of Telegram and WhatsApp groups sharing my humanitarian fundraiser with the aim of systematically shutting it down is sick. Or maybe they were just trying to mess with us and our emotions as, for many fundraising platforms, the donations are only released to the campaigners once their goal is achieved. So, it’s possible they wanted to toy with our hopes,” says Shannon.

Goodfriend says that it is hard to know what exactly happened to Shannon’s campaign. “But what I can say is that Gaza fundraisers are shared in Jewish-Israeli left-wing circles all the time, and that people do donate. So, if these donations were in good faith, the only reason I can imagine them being cancelled is if the donors suddenly got freaked out that they might get tracked and in trouble for donating to a Palestinian cause, or if they were suddenly told that the money might be going to Hamas. There’s a lot of fear around that in Israel.”

The researcher also conjectures that the donations could have been flagged and independently cancelled by Israeli banks (if some of the donors were using Israel-based financial institutions to make their donations).

This picture remains murky. But what does filter through as crystal clear in both Shannon and El-Sabawi’s cases, is that humanitarian aid to Gaza is facing blockades of every kind from Western institutions and far-right Israeli groups. Meanwhile, Palestinians are killed, wounded, and starved in their tens of thousands.

In a call with a PayPal spokesperson, PayPal said: "We don't have separate rules in terms of dealing with accounts fundraising for Gaza. Our normal processes and risk controls apply. We don't treat them differently. We have been operating for several decades, so we've got sophisticated procedures to make sure we stay compliant with all our regulatory obligations, including anti-money laundering. But we are not swayed by any agenda". 

The spokesperson said that they could not comment on what criteria PayPal uses in terms of assessing whether an account falls afoul of anti-money laundering (AML) and anti-terror financing regulations.

"We don't set these rules and we take very seriously our legal obligations with regards to sanctions, anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing regulation". 

Sebastian Shehadi is a freelance journalist and a contributing writer at the New Statesman.

Follow him on Twitter: @seblebanon