After a week of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, many people in the U.S. have turned to Venmo to raise money for Palestinian relief efforts. But a number of Venmo users have discovered that the payment app is delaying transactions that include the words “Palestine Relief fund.”
Venmo acknowledged the issue to Rest of World, and indicated that it was related to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which keeps track of countries and individuals under U.S. sanctions.
On Monday, Venmo notified a Palestinian user in the United States named Rami that a $50 payment he received from a friend labeled “Emergency Palestinian Relief Fund,” was being put under review, making the money temporarily unavailable until it could be examined by the app’s compliance team.
Rami, who asked to be identified only by his first name for privacy reasons, told Rest of World he was collecting money from friends in order to donate it to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, an organization “established in 1992 by concerned humanitarians in the USA to bring injured and sick children for free medical care they could not get locally,” according to the group’s website.
Rami received a follow-up email less than an hour later from a member of Venmo’s compliance team. The message, which was reviewed by Rest of World, asked Rami to explain the intended purpose of the money he had gotten. “I can only assume that your system automatically flagged this donation I collected as a potential case of material support for terrorism,” he replied, explaining the money was meant for charity.
The issue appears to narrowly impact payments that include the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian” in conjunction with terms like “emergency fund.” In tests conducted by Rest of World, transactions designated for “free palestine,” “Free Palestinian,” “Palestinian emergency,” and “Palestinian fund,” were all completed without any issue. The app only flagged transactions that were labeled “Palestinian emergency relief fund,” and “Emergency palestinian relief fund.”
Juliet Niczewicz, a spokesperson for Venmo, said in an email that the issue was “OFAC related and we’re looking into it.” Venmo and its parent company PayPal, as well as other U.S. financial institutions, are required to comply with regulations put in place by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which maintains a list of people and organizations impacted by U.S sanctions. The list includes dozens of entities and individuals in Gaza, the West Bank, and Palestine, most of which have been identified by the U.S. government as associated with or controlled by Hamas.
For years, users have complained that Venmo sometimes accidentally flags innocuous transactions — such as a meal at a Bangladeshi restaurant in New York City — for potentially violating U.S. sanctions. In the past, the app has also reportedly temporarily blocked payments for things like “Syria food,” and “Persian shinanaganz,” according to Newsweek.
Venmo is only supposed to be used by people physically located in the United States. Groups and individuals raising money for local Palestinian organizations often use the platform to pool donations, which is then sent via another money transfer service. PayPal, which is available in over 200 countries — including Israel — is not operational in Palestine.
Palestinian companies and organizations have repeatedly asked PayPal to make its service available to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but the company has so far declined. A report published in 2018 by the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, an non-profit advocacy organization, found that “this inequality in access to financial services,” makes it difficult for many Palestinians to participate in the global market.
Venmo is not the only tech company accused of mishandling the conflict in Gaza. Earlier this month, the digital rights group Access Now accused Twitter and Instagram of “systematically silencing users protesting and documenting the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes” in East Jerusalem. Instagram also reportedly removed posts and blocked hashtags about the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest mosques and the site of recent clashes between Israeli police forces and Palestinians. The app’s content moderation algorithms had falsely associated the mosque with terrorist organizations, according to Buzzfeed News.