Over the past ten years, the EU has channeled tens of millions of euros to at least one-hundred Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs). EU funds for NGOs are provided through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), and the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) as well as other EU structures that channel money to a selected group of NGOs. While rarely discussed by officials, MEP, or journalists, many of these NGO and civil society recipients are involved in strident political advocacy in the Middle East as well as on the international scene, and play an active role in the on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As result of the EU’s funding to these NGOs, the civil societies in Israel and the Palestinian Authority have become highly important and visible expressions of EU policy related to the conflict and the ongoing peace efforts.

In a wider sense, as part of the “soft power” approach to diplomacy and international relations, the large-scale EU funding for political advocacy NGOs, operating both within and outside the EU’s boundaries, is growing in relevance and importance. But there is little analysis of the impact, if any, of this funding, and the degree to which the declared objectives are being achieved. Questions such as how and why the money is being distributed become more and more central as an increasing number of politicized NGOs in the region benefit from EU funding. While the declared soft-power goals of the EU funding are altruistic, a number of problems emerge when the details of the process and the outcome are examined.

Therefore, large-scale EU support for NGOs that are active in the Arab-Israeli conflict provides an important case-study highlighting the problematic nature of this approach to foreign policy.

EU funding frameworks for NGOs

The EU provides large sums of funds for programs such as the umbrella organizations of EIDHR and ENPI. Their funding, which is an important element of soft-power policy, is decided upon by the EC and approved by the EP. Sub-programs such as the Partnership for Peace (PfP) and the Anna Lindh Foundation are both part of ENPI.

The NGO recipients cover a wide spectrum of activities, and indeed, some of the programs funded under the latest PfP grants are, in many ways, models that the EU should be following to promote peace and cooperation. These include projects such as “Save a Child’s Heart” and “Playing for Peace – Strengthening Community Relations through Football,” run by grantee organizations that do not engage in political advocacy. Rather, they fulfill the stated goals of the PfP framework, and are outstanding examples of the positive impact of EU assistance on the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But as shown in detail below, many other NGOs are acting in ways that are inconsistent with the EU’s vision for the Middle East, including peace, democracy and human rights. While the recipient organizations, which are based in the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and in a number of Western European countries, claim to promote these values, comprehensive examination shows that the NGO agendas are often far removed from the EU’s policies. At the same time, the official EC statements and documents on this important issue focus almost exclusively on what the NGOs claim about themselves, while there are no statements or documents evaluating the actual use of the funds provided by the EC to these organizations. This is a substantial deficiency in the use of European soft-power, and significantly damages the chances of achieving the EU’s objectives in this very complex region.

Political advocacy NGOs and European soft-power: Rhetoric vs. reality

The analysis of the soft-power impact of political advocacy NGOs that are funded by the EU is based on three interrelated dimensions: 1) comparison of the objectives listed by the EU, on the one hand, and the actual projects as implemented, on the other hand; 2) the degree of transparency (or its absence) in the funding process leading to the selection of the projects, and 3) the availability of systematic and credible framework for evaluating the funded projects.

Comparing the objectives stated by the EU with NGO political advocacy on the ground

In the absence of an EU mechanism for evaluating NGO activities and impacts, NGO Monitor has undertaken systematic research in this area during the past eight years. The results demonstrate that, in practice, much of the EU funding in this area does not advance the declared objectives of peace-promoting. In other words, the soft power that is exercised in this way is counterproductive.

There is no publicly available evidence demonstrating that the programs chosen for funding have contributed to a stable and lasting two-state solution. Instead, there are numerous examples of recipients that fuel the conflict: Their programs increase the already formidable barriers between the two peoples, pushing them further away from the will to compromise and reach mutual acceptance between Israelis and Palestinians.

The funding, which is a form of direct European interference with Israeli democracy, also creates friction between Europe and Israel, and empowers divisive groups and individuals. This is evident from the leaked minutes from a 1999 meeting of the ad-hoc selection committee for People to People. One of the grants was described as a way to “bring Russian immigrants in Israel into the Peace camp.”

These results reflect the fact that many of the EU-funded NGOs are political advocacy organizations that play a key role in demonization campaigns against Israel. NGO campaigns involve “lawfare” as well as boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS), which promote international isolation of Israel, in contrast to dialogue and preparing the ground for the parties to negotiate for a lasting peace.

Destructive “soft power” activities can be traced to the NGO Forum of the 2001 UN Durban Conference. There, officials from 1,500 NGOs adopted the strategy of “complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state … the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.” This strategy has increased since 2001 and is clearly stated in many publications and speeches. Its goal is to end Jewish national self-determination, using the façade of human rights.

The gravity of the rhetoric employed by the NGOs is an important factor in this impact. Publications of political advocacy NGOs systematically deny the legitimacy of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, instead claiming this is tantamount to racism. Yet, the working definition of anti-Semitism adopted in 2005 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (then: EUMC) states that: “Examples of the ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the State of Israel (…): Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” While Israeli critics have called attention to this aspect of European funded NGO activities, this issue has not been considered by EU officials.

Another example of how EU-funding is used in actuality can be seen in the case of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). PCHR receives significant EIDHR funding, and has also received money indirectly from the EC as a partner of Oxfam NOVIB. In 2008, PCHR held a coordinating conference in Cairo on “Extra-judicial Executions and Prosecution of Israelis Suspected of Committing War Crimes.” The proceedings were broadcast on Al Jazeera television, with a large banner in the background, “Impunity and the Prosecution of Israeli War Criminals,” and an acknowledgment to the EU and Oxfam NOVIB. One session was devoted to case strategy regarding PCHR’s criminal suit in Spain against seven Israeli officials. Another session presented ways to have Israelis prosecuted at the International Criminal Court. Thus, control over the use of European soft-power has been taken over for goals that are incompatible with EU objectives.

Similarly, three Israeli NGO funded by the EU — Mada al-Carmel, (Women Against Violence, and the Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health– organized an event on November 24, 2009 headlined “My Land, Space, Body and Sexuality: Palestinians in the Shadow of the Wall.” Publicity included a poster portraying an Israeli soldier reaching suggestively toward a Palestinian woman, with the caption: “Her husband needs a permit to touch her. The occupation penetrates her life everyday!” In this poster the NGO falsely suggests that Israeli soldiers sexually assault Palestinian women, and combined with the image, this reflects another dimension of incitement.

A concluding example, among many, is seen in the aggressive political lobbying by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN). With a budget of 2 million euros, EMHRN provides a platform for and promotes the views of 60 member NGOs, which include highly politicized Palestinian NGOs such as PCHR, Al Mezan, and Al Haq, as well as Israeli opposition NGOs Adalah, B’Tselem, and PCATI. At an EMHRN training seminar in 2007, participants discussed why the EU has not yet imposed sanctions on Israel. The consensus was that “sanctions would most likely only be effective if the US were to join in.”

EU-funded NGOs publicly involved in demonizing rhetoric and blanket denunciations of Israel include, but are not limited to, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR, based in Gaza), Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ), the Coalition of Women for Peace, Adalah, Arab Human Rights Association (HRA), Mada al-Carmel, and Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). All of them are recipients of large EC-grants. Thus, while EU officials claim to be providing these NGOs with funds to promote peace, co-existence and a two-state solution, these groups consistently work against these very goals.

Lack of transparency in the EU funding process for political advocacy NGO projects

For unknown reasons, basic information on selection and evaluation in connection with the funding process for large grants provided to these political NGOs is not published. This EU secrecy is in violation of the due process and transparency principles of good governance. Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 obligates the EU to disclose the ways in which money is allocated.

Despite numerous requests, no EU official has offered legitimate reasons for such extreme secrecy with respect to funding for civil society organizations. If the extensive EU funding provided to Israeli and Palestinian NGOs is justifiable, then the process and protocols should be published. The continued refusal of the EU to release the documents relevant to the decision-making process in this area raises suspicions regarding the process and motivations behind EU funding for NGOs.

The clandestine decision processes in EU-offices regarding funds awarded to political advocacy NGOs also contributes to the dangerous politicization of human rights, and the results are clearly counterproductive. The EU has an obligation to its own constituents, and to the Israelis and Palestinians whose lives are impacted by these policies, to conduct a fully transparent, impartial, and professional inquiry into and re-evaluation of funding policies and processes for the NGOs entrusted with EU money.

In response to NGO Monitor’s repeated requests for disclosure, a number of EC officials responsible for selecting the NGO recipients have claimed that they only fund projects, not organizations. Yet this is not a convincing claim, since money is fungible, especially in organizations which themselves often lack transparency and accountability, such as NGOs.

For example, a number of controversial Israeli NGOs – Ir Amim, which focuses on the very sensitive issue of Jerusalem; Breaking the Silence; HaMoked; the Public Committee Against Torture (PCATI); Gisha; Bimkom; and others –receive over half and in some cases, 70 or 80 percent of their funding from the EU and its member states. The responsibility of the funders for the most of the activities of these NGOs, including salaries, travel expenses, and other core costs, is undeniable.

In addition, the funding secrecy means that it is impossible to determine whether due process was followed in favoring the grant application of particular NGOs, whether due to ideological, geographical, or personal factors. The total secrecy raises questions about the individuals involved in selecting the NGOs for EU grants? Are these evaluators connected, directly or indirectly, to the NGO recipients, or their political and ideological biases? The pattern of funding over the past decade, in terms of the small number of repeat recipients suggests possible violations of due process.

The need for a systematic and credible framework for evaluating the funded projects

For more than ten years, EU funding for Israeli and Palestinian political advocacy NGOs has provided tens of millions of euros, via the EIDHR and ENPI and their sub-programs. The impact of these programs is unclear, but it is clear that the wider mutual distrust and hostility between Israelis and Palestinians remains and, in some ways, has increased.

The importance of systematic and independent evaluation of NGO funding is illustrated in cases such as the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ) and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). Both are partisan advocacy groups that claim to promote values such as peace and democracy. ARIJ, a powerful Palestinian group, receives a large portion of its budget from European governments, including 15 percent from the EU, through grants from PfP for a project headlined “Monitoring actions and transformations in the Palestinian Territory to develop policies and strategies for conflict management” (€874,000 from 2004-2011, and an unknown amount from 2000-2004). But on its own website, ARIJ uses the language of conflict, referring to "Monitoring Israeli Colonizing Activities." Project documents use highly charged rhetoric such as "colonies", "transfer", and "land grab". Since no independent evaluations of ARIJ’s impact have been published by the EU, the results of this massive funding, and its contribution to advancing peace and tolerance, are far from clear.

Similarly, ICAHD, which received PfP funding for many years, and is now part of the EIDHR budget, is also known for use a conflictual agenda and accompanying rhetoric. In a publication on “daily atrocities and tragedies suffered by Palestinians and Bedouin under Israeli Occupation”, for distribution to the Israeli public, ICAHD staff referred to “ethnic cleansing”, “state terrorism”, “land theft” and a “massacre.” ICAHD’s website promotes a “campaign against apartheid”, and since 2005, ICAHD has called for a campaign of boycotts, sanctions and divestments.

Without detailed analysis of the impact of these EU-funded NGO projects, which have continued over many years, and involve millions of euros, it is difficult to assess the results with any precision. However, the agendas and language used by two prominent recipients, which are symptomatic of the majority of the political advocacy groups funded by the EU in this conflict zone, indicates that the probability that these NGOs have contributed to peace is minimal.

Analysis and recommendations

In this very important example of the EU’s “soft power” strategy, exercised through the funding of political advocacy NGOs in order to promote the EU’s goals in the Arab-Israeli peace efforts, the results are far from encouraging. In many of the examples noted above, the impacts of EU-funded NGO campaigns and activities fuel the conflict, and are highly counterproductive.

As demonstrated, the absence of professional and systematic evaluation for the EU’s NGO grants, combined with the lack of transparency regarding the annual allocation decisions, reflect a highly dysfunctional policy-making process. Rather than promoting peace based on mutual acceptance and compromise, universal human rights, and democracy, the evidence shows that, the EU’s soft-power intervention in one of the world’s most volatile regional conflicts empowers extreme elements and their political agendas.

This article demonstrates the urgency of establishing a transparent system of accountability and evaluation procedures for the projects funded by the EC via the EIDHR, ENPI, and other EU agencies. This assessment must include information about the decision-making processes as well as a publicized and neutral evaluation of each significant grant-project and the NGO recipient.
While this case focuses on EU funding for NGOs active on Arab-Israeli issues, the problems of political impacts, transparency, evaluation, and accountability are also important for EU funding provided to groups active in other conflict regions. Further research on this dimension of EU involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and elsewhere would provide a wider understanding of soft-power impacts via NGO funding.