On October 22, 2021, the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MoD) designated six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations on the basis of allegations that they were operated by and for the benefit of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Al-Haq, Addameer, Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), and Bisan. A seventh alleged PFLP-linked organization – Health Workers Committee (HWC) – was designated in January 2020.
The move was immediately condemned by many international NGOs and legal academics. Much of the commentary however omitted material facts relating to the case, and instead presented a narrative of Israel persecuting innocent Palestinian NGOs and human rights defenders for their work.
On October 24, Eliav Lieblich and Adam Shinar published such a post on Just Security titled “Counterterrorism Off the Rails: Israel’s Declaration of Palestinian Human Rights Groups as ‘Terrorist’ Organizations.” The piece critiques Israel’s 2016 Counterterror law and claims to provide political context to the NGO designations, leading the authors to conclude that they must be “firmly reject[ed]” by the international community including the United States. However, the article downplays or ignores several facts that are not only necessary to consider in order to evaluate the specific case at issue fully, but also when examining the merits of the Israeli legislation more broadly.
Background on the PFLP
First, the authors seem to downplay the PFLP’s nature, describing the organization as a “small far-left group.” However, far from being small or simply a far-left group, the PFLP is one of the more notorious of the Palestinian terrorist organizations operating during the past 50 years, as well as being the second largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Founded in 1967, the PFLP was well-known for spectacular airline hijackings in the 1960s and 70s, shootings, bombings, and hostage attacks in both Israel and Europe. Much of the global modern airport security apparatus we experience today was adopted in large part in response to PFLP operations.
More recently, the organization carried out suicide bombings and assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi at the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem in 2001. The group took responsibility for the 2011 massacre of the Fogel family asleep in their home (including the beheading of a baby), attacked a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof in 2014, and killed a policeman and wounded several civilians in a 2017 attack in the Old City. The group has been an active perpetrator of rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli population centers, including during the May 2021 conflict. Because of these activities, the PFLP is designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU, the US, and Canada.
It is not a secret, though not mentioned by Lieblich and Shinar, that the PFLP established a network of NGOs (some of which are among the seven designated NGOs) ostensibly to carry out humanitarian and human rights work, but that also serve to solidify political support for the terror group, serve as means to recruit new members, and provide a steady funding conduit. These NGOs also employ (or appoint to decision making roles) senior PFLP officials, activists, and even former perpetrators of terror attacks. Research conducted by NGO Monitor has identified at least 70 such individuals at more than a dozen organizations. From 2011 through 2021, the EU and European governments provided more than $200million in funding to projects involving these groups.
Counterterror Financing Laws
The authors complain that “it simply cannot be accepted that well-known and widely respected Palestinian human rights groups be designated as ‘terrorist organizations’ by executive fiat and on the basis of classified intelligence”, evidencing a naiveté that being well-known or widely respected precludes involvement in criminal activity, while implying that Israeli regulations are somehow unique.
Neither is the case. Any organization, in particular those with access to power and funding, can be vulnerable to corruption, instrumentalization, and exploitation. In recent years, well-known and widely respected NGO Oxfam has been rocked by a sexual abuse scandal. In 2016, USAID suspended more than $200 million in humanitarian aid contracts for fear the funding was being diverted to ISIS.
In 2014, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the inter-governmental money laundering and terror financing watchdog, specifically warned against the special risks posed by non-profit organizations in the terror financing context, and issued recommendations to governments. These recommendations advised States to apply “focused and proportional measures” to protect NGOs from “terrorist financing abuse”, including “terrorist organizations posing as legitimate entities”; “exploiting legitimate entities as conduits for terrorist financing”; and “concealing or obscuring the clandestine diversion of funds”. All these abuses have been documented in the Palestinian NGO sector. Indeed, it should not come as a shock that many of the PFLP figures employed by the NGOs at issue were serving in financial roles or in positions involving budgetary control.
Similarly, it is not unusual for terror-linked entities to be designated by executive order and based on classified information. For instance, under the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000, the UK government may direct – by executive order – the proscription of an organization. In addition, if a proscribed organization is operating under a different name than one listed, but for all practical purposes is the same organization as the one listed, the Secretary of State shall treat it the same as the listed organization. Under the Terrorism Asset-Freezing Act 2010 (which gives effect to UN Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) as well as Regulation (EC) 2580/2001), the Treasury is granted broad powers to act against terrorist financing and can direct financial institutions to take action where there is concern regarding money laundering and terrorist financing. Under section 10, the Treasury may provide that certain information in connection with a designation be kept confidential.
In the United States, the Department of State can identify a target and compile an “administrative record” containing both public and classified information to support designation. The Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General and Treasury Secretary, will then notify selected members of Congress in a classified communication, who have seven days to challenge the designation. If there is not action to block the designation, notice of it is published in the Federal Register. There is no requirement that such information be made subject to a public process though, like in Israel, “such information may be disclosed to a court ex parte and in camera for purposes of judicial review.”
Given this context, it is neither unreasonable, nor disproportionate, that Israeli counterterror measures would target an NGO as a whole while not making the basis for the decision fully public. Israel’s actions are also not out of step with that of the United States, Canada, and European countries that have taken similar measures against NGOs suspected of terrorist affiliations.
August 2019 Murder of Rina Shnerb
Also absent, unjustifiably so, from Lieblich and Shinar’s analysis is mention of the 2019 PFLP bombing attack that precipitated the designations. The authors claim that the Israeli government sought to silence the six NGOs for their involvement at the ICC and the levying of apartheid allegations against Israel, while ignoring the host of law-enforcement actions and counterterror financing investigations in both Israel and Europe specifically prompted by the attack.
On August 23, 2019, the PFLP detonated a bomb at a popular swimming hole in the West Bank, murdering 17-year old Israeli Rina Shnerb and injuring her father and brother. In late September/early October 2019, three PFLP members were arrested for the attack. All three were employed in senior financial roles at two PFLP-affiliated NGOs (UAWC and HWC), now designated. In December 2019, the Israeli security services announced the arrests of a 50-person PFLP West Bank terror network, also allegedly involved in the bombing. A number of additional NGO officials were detained in this sweep. The PFLP did not deny its responsibility for the attack nor the affiliation of the main perpetrator (one of the arrested NGO officials). An August 30, 2020 statement by the PFLP referred to him as a “prisoner and commander,” and “one of the heroes of the Bubeen operation” (the August 2019 bombing). The trial of the three alleged murderers is currently ongoing, after experiencing delays due to the pandemic.
Israeli and European Terror Financing Investigations
As part of their on-going investigations into the bombing, in May 2021, Israeli security officials issued a statement claiming they had found evidence that European funding for supposedly humanitarian projects in the West Bank and Gaza was diverted to the PFLP. PFLP-linked NGOs had allegedly implemented a scheme that included “reporting fictitious projects, presenting false documents, forgery and inflating invoices and receipts… forging bank documents and bank seals,” and a variety of other methods. This was done, according to Israeli authorities, in order to provide money for “the families of PFLP ‘martyrs’, salaries of PFLP members, recruitment of new members, [and] advancing terror activity,” amongst other purposes. Following these disclosures, several raids on PFLP-linked NGOs occurred between May and September 2021. Information recovered from these raids is purportedly the basis for the new designations.
Concurrent with the Israeli investigations, following the Shnerb murder, the European Union and several European states have been debating issues surrounding the allegations concerning the PFLP and “affiliated” NGOs, including the legality of their funding, and have implemented new regulations and launched their own investigations. For instance, in 2019, the EU introduced a new requirement to its NGO funding contracts that “Grant beneficiaries and contractors must ensure that there is no detection of subcontractors, natural persons, including participants to workshops and/or trainings and recipients of financial support to third parties, in the lists of EU restrictive measures” (General conditions, Annex G.2, Annex II, Article 1.5 bis). In the Palestinian context, the list of EU restrictive measures includes measures taken against Hamas, Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP.
According to various reports, at a December 2019 meeting, a number of European officials responded sympathetically to NGO complaints regarding the new funding stipulation. In turn, this reaction prompted concern from within the European Parliament that the EU was disregarding counter-terror measures with regards to Palestinian NGOs. This prompted a statement at a May 19, 2020 meeting of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) by the Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, that he had instructed the heads of EU delegations to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza to “look deep” in to the allegations that some EU funds go to terror-linked or -supporting NGOs, declaring that such funding “will not be tolerated.”
Similarly, on June 1, 2020, EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret insisted in a media interview that the EU “does not support organizations linked to the Popular Front. If there is evidence of improper use of EU funds, we will investigate it.”
As a direct result of these developments, the European Parliament declared, in an April 2021 vote on its annual budgetary report, that EU funds cannot be allocated or linked to any cause or form of terrorism and/or religious and political radicalization. In addition, for the first time, the Parliament called on the European Commission to ensure that EU funds to disqualified grantees are proactively recovered, and recipients involved in terrorism are excluded from any future EU funding.
And in August 2021the EU Anti-Fraud Service (OLAF) opened a preliminary terror financing investigation into European Commission support for PFLP-linked Palestinian organizations. Investigations are also on-going in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain.
The authors conclude their piece with: “the reasons are too murky, the interests too conflicting, and the stakes are far too high for this extreme action to pass as tolerable. In general, no legal system worthy of its name should provide for the designation of human rights groups as ‘terrorist organizations’ by decree.” Despite neither murky reasons nor conflicting interests, this emotional plea begs questions: How are human rights groups defined? Merely by self-appellation? As noted in the UN definition, to be deemed a human rights defender, one must act “peacefully.” One “cannot deny some human rights and yet claim to be a human rights defender because he or she is an advocate for others.” How then, can a group that is founded by, chooses to appoint to its board, or employ members of a terrorist group – a group that intentionally targets civilians – be deemed a human rights NGO? What does it say about certain sectors of the international community that these affiliations are ignored? Why should a group, simply because it claims it is working for “human rights” be immune from criminal law or counterterror regulations?
One can and should fully debate the merits of Israel’s 2016 Counterterror Law. But obfuscating the record as the authors have done in their post is no way to do so.
The author wishes to thank Joshua Kern of 9 Bedford Row for his comments on this post in draft. Just Security was offered this post on October 25, 2021, but declined to publish.