Palestinian NGO Terror Links: Assessing the Implications of Israel’s Designations
To make sense of the furious reaction to the Israeli government’s designation of six Palestinian NGOs (non-governmental organisations) as prohibited terrorist fronts, it is necessary to understand the political and ideological context. Behind the ‘non-governmental’ label (or ostensibly independent civil society), the network is an integral part of Palestinian strategy, and for at least twenty years, has received core funding from foreign governments (primarily Western European, including the EU) in return for influence and information. Under cover of civil society, the NGOs cooperate with their European sponsors, promoting soft-power warfare targeting Israel, including the apartheid and war crimes campaigns.
Therefore, the Israeli designation constitutes a major threat for actors invested in the NGOs and their political campaigns. Despite expressions of surprise and claims by American and European officials that they were not informed in advance, the decision should have been expected based on earlier actions and existing public information. (The designation process is specified by law, and is not the result of a spurious individual decision based on political or other personal motives, as sometimes portrayed. The allegations and evidence must be approved by a number of officials, including the attorney general, before it is signed by the Minister of Defence.)
More than ten years ago, as part of our systematic research, based on open source material, my colleagues at NGO Monitor and I began to discern a pattern pointing to an organised network linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP). As the available materials increased, including Facebook posts in Arabic, as well as YouTube videos, many more details emerged. As of October 2021, we identified 74 PFLP officials who simultaneously held and continue to hold significant positions in 13 NGOs. Six of the organisations were named by the MOD on 22 October, and a seventh – Health Workers Committees (HWC) – was designated initially in 2015 and again in 2020.
The roles of these NGO officials in the PFLP vary, and in some cases, include leading terror attacks, obtaining (or diverting) funds, recruiting and training. Two were arrested for involvement in the 2019 terror attack that murdered 17 year-old Rina Shnerb and wounded her brother and father during a hike. Samer Arbid was indicted on 21 counts, including commanding the cell, and Abdul Razeq Farraj was indicted for authorising the terror attack and for recruiting members of the PFLP. Both held high-level financial positions in the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees (UAWC), as did Ubai Aboudi, who was sentenced in June 2020 to 12-months for recruiting PFLP activists. Staff and board members linked to the PFLP, including a number with military ranks (ie ‘commanders’) and convictions for terror involvement, are affiliated with the other NGOs named by the Minister of Defence (Al Haq, Defence for Children International Palestine, Addameer, Bisan and United Palestinian Womens Committees – UPWC). Khalida Jarrar, who was Addameer’s former vice-chairperson, also reportedly headed the PFLP’s operations in the West Bank. She was sentenced to two years and was released in September 2021.
In contrast, the intense efforts to whitewash the NGO terror connections seek to paint the PFLP involvement as minor or irrelevant. Some claim that the organisation has evolved from the terror group founded by George Habash and a leader in airline hijackings during the 1970s, into a benign Palestinian political organisation. This line ignores the 2019 Shnerb killing as well as other attacks.
Beyond providing a cover for terror operations, the NGO affiliations provide for salaries, while additional amounts are alleged by Israel to have been diverted for terror equipment and operations. Shatha Odeh, Director General of HWC and chair of PNGO, was among a group arrested for allegedly diverting aid to the PFLP, including ‘reporting fictitious projects, presenting false documents, forgery and inflating invoices and receipts … forging bank documents and bank seals,’ and other methods.
In addition, it should be noted that the PFLP opposes any recognition of Israel and the Oslo framework – they are hard-core Palestinian rejectionists (further highlighting the contradictions inherent in the embrace of the NGO network by European governments that claim to support a two-state formula).
Of the seven terror-designated Palestinian NGOs, Al Haq is the oldest, best known and most politically influential. The organisation focuses its considerable resources (provided by European governments – particularly the EU, Norway and Denmark) on demonising Israel in the UN, International Criminal Court, and elsewhere through the apartheid and war crimes labels. Al Haq is headed by Shawan Jabarin, whose known links to the PFLP include a conviction for recruiting and arranging training. In 2008, Israel’s Supreme Court referred to him as a Jekyll and Hyde – a human rights activist by day and a ‘senior activist‘ in the PFLP by night. In more recent Arabic social media posts, Jabarin is identified as a PFLP official, and in May 2018, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express shut down online credit card donations to Al-Haq, citing PFLP ties. Jabarin is on Human Rights Watch’s Middle East board, and Secretary General of the Paris-based (FIDH) International Federation of Human Rights. At the Geneva meetings of the UN Human Rights Council, Al-Haq is a regular presence, conferring with European diplomats and UN officials working on the texts of anti-Israel resolutions and statements.
At least ten staff and board members of DCIP (Defense for Children International – Palestine) have been identified as PFLP officials, including Jabarin. A senior DCIP staff member and simultaneously, a PFLP leader, Hashem Abu Maria, was killed during a violent confrontation with the IDF in 2014. The PFLP’s memorial statement praised his work for DCI-P: ‘he was in the ranks of the national liberation struggle and the PFLP from an early age.’ A video of a PFLP memorial event featured a speech by DCI-P’s then General Director, Rifat Odeh Kassis. Far from seeking to prevent child abuse in Palestinian society, DCIP runs propaganda campaigns seeking to impose sanctions on the IDF through inclusion in the UN Secretary General’s list of groups violating the Convention on Children in Armed Conflict. Their funders have included the EU, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Spain.
Each of the other Palestinian ‘civil society’ organisations designated by the MOD as terror fronts, including the Health Workers Committees, are similarly connected to the PFLP. These are not isolated cases or a few ‘bad apples’ as some diplomats, journalists and NGO activists have tried to claim. (Many of the social media responses from the NGO community ignored or simply denied the terror links.) The systematic connections between the NGO network and PFLP go beyond payment of salaries, and are alleged to extend to diversion of major funding for terror.
For the PFLP leaders, the budgets, activities, alliances and international status of the NGO network provide a number of significant benefits. European governments provide at least €20 million annually to these organisations, under the facades of support for human rights and economic development. And leveraging the legitimacy conferred by these relationships, a steady stream of joint letters, petitions, press releases, and publications with their Israeli and other NGO allies are mainstreamed via diplomats, academics, and friendly media platforms.
For their European sponsors, the NGO clients are vital sources of information and the means of amplifying otherwise weak influence on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Perhaps for this reason, clear evidence regarding the terror links has been ignored for many years. Whether the European sponsors, UN officials, and journalists were blinded by ideology and dismissed the evidence, or were aware but not concerned by the terror connections, is unclear. Through a maze of overlapping government frameworks, and through top secret processes, European taxpayer funds are channelled every year to the same favoured Palestinian organisations, thinly disguised through ‘calls for proposals’ and other formalistic procedures
When confronted with the evidence, including in meetings and correspondence with me and NGO Monitor, as well as parliamentary inquiries, European officials repeat pre-packaged responses that avoid responsibility or engagement (‘we don’t fund NGOs, we fund projects’; ‘we have examined the claims and did not find them substantive’). The extensive links between European patrons and their NGO clients, developed over many years, are strong and not readily frayed.
Recently, however, as more details were presented, investigations were begun by the European Union’s anti-corruption unit (OLAF) and the Dutch government, while a cursory review by the Belgian minister was designed to end debate and criticism. Nevertheless, many officials repeat the NGO talking points claiming that the ‘information of terror links is not conclusive.’ Without due diligence and clear criteria for designating NGO grantees as terror fronts, they are avoiding the issues.
Given the high stakes for all the players, the Israeli designation of the seven Palestinian NGOs as PFLP fronts, and the implications for the wider NGO industry, has understandably triggered an all-out and often hysterical campaign to keep the terror links buried. The slogans, echoed by their NGO allies and a number of European diplomats and politicians, include the accusation that the Israeli government (and research institutes like NGO Monitor) are ‘shrinking the space for civil society’ – attempting to shore-up the fading facade.