Palestinian NGOs: Human rights workers or agents of terror?

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: The controversial case of the six Palestinian NGOs that Israel has targeted.

PEOPLE WALK in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City yesterday. Are Israel’s moves supressing Palestinian civil society? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PEOPLE WALK in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City yesterday. Are Israel’s moves supressing Palestinian civil society?
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The decision by the Defense Ministry to designate six Palestinian NGOs as arms of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist organization quickly developed into an international storm, with the US, the UN and the EU raising objections and questioning the validity of the move. 

On Monday, European Union Representative to the Palestinians Sven Kühn Von Burgsdorff visited the six Palestinian NGOs Defense Minister Benny Gantz had targeted. On Wednesday, representatives of 25 Israeli nongovernmental groups paid a solidarity visit to the Al-Haq office in Ramallah to voice their opposition to the designation.

Two divergent narratives emerged in the wake of the decision. In one reality resides Gantz, the Defense Ministry and pro-Israel NGOs, subscribed to the reality that long-ignored terrorist activity cynically cloaked in the guise of human rights has finally been unmasked.

The other narrative considers the six NGOs to be human rights organizations and considers the designation to be a draconian attack on Palestinian civil society. 

On one side, you have Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg, president and founder of NGO Monitor, who says: “There’s no justification for not considering or ignoring or overlooking the terrorist connections. These are not trivial. People – Israelis – have been killed.”

Gerald M. Steinberg (credit: Courtesy)Gerald M. Steinberg (credit: Courtesy)

On the other side, there’s Samer Sinijlawi, chairman of the Jerusalem Development Fund and Fatah activist from Jerusalem, who says: “It’s just a blind war against all voices that are criticizing the occupation and the abuse of the human rights of the Palestinians.” 

Which reality is true? Is Israel trying to suppress Palestinian civil society, or is it a legitimate grievance against terrorist organizations? After reviewing the importance of the NGOs and their terrorism connections, where one falls seems to be a matter of priorities.

PFLP affiliation

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is a Marxist military group recognized as a terrorist group by most of the Western world. 

Israel claims that Addameer, Al-Haq, Bisan Center, Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P), Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC) are part of a PFLP terrorist network that recruits, provides legitimacy to operatives, and serves as a leadership wing for the PFLP. They’ve been accused of funneling funding to terrorism through forgery, laundering, and the awarding of stipends to the families of terrorists. 

The government hasn’t provided much information to prove its allegations. But little has been done to dispute them other than to note the groups’ statuses as human rights NGOs. This leaves everyone else to make sense of the diverging realities. The NGOs have rejected the claims, but groups like NGO Monitor assert that there is enough open source documentation to prove that the only thing under attack is terrorism.

Al-Haq

Established in 1979 and based in Ramallah, Al-Haq is an award-winning NGO with connections with dozens of international human right bodes, which describes itself as a human rights NGO that “documents violations of the individual and collective rights of Palestinians.” 

Al-Haq was the first NGO that drew Steinberg’s suspicion of PFLP connections, “and in many ways is the most significant, of the ones that were recently designated as terrorist organizations,” he said.

“Al-Haq is headed by Shawan Jabarin, who sat in Israeli jail for a while, was convicted of being an activist member of the PFLP,” said Steinberg. “The court ruled that he is a human rights worker by day and a terrorist official by night.”

According to NGO Monitor, in 2018, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express shut down online donations to Al-Haq due to PFLP ties.

Al-Haq asserted in a statement that the “baseless allegations” seek “to delegitimize, oppress, silence” Palestinian NGOs. It argued that the decision is not based on security concerns, but comes due to “the opening of an International Criminal Court investigation.”

Sinijlawi finds it suspicious that “these organizations are leading the procedure in the ICC, where Gantz himself is the main target because he has been the chief of staff in 2014.”

DCI-P

Founded in 1991, DCI-P is a Palestinian child rights organization that provides legal support to Palestinian minors in the Israeli and military court systems.

“We reject the recent designation as another unjust action by Israeli authorities to criminalize and eliminate our lawful human rights and child protection work,” said Khaled Quzmar, general director of Defense for Children International – Palestine. “When years of delegitimization and disinformation campaigns against us have failed to silence our work, Israeli authorities now choose to escalate repressive tactics by labeling civil society organizations as terrorists.”

“We’ve identified five or six different people at different levels of the organization that had been active in the PFLP,” said Steinberg. “One in particular was the coordinator of DCI-P’s Community Mobilization Unit, Hashem Abu Maria.”

Abu Maria was killed in a clash with the IDF in 2014 and, according to NGO Monitor, was called “a leader” by PFLP.

The designation is not the first time that DCI-P has faced charges of terrorism. Citibank and Arab Bank PLC reportedly ceased providing services to DCI-P over PFLP links in 2018.

Addameer

The Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, established in 1991, works and advocates for Palestinians in Israeli prisons, “offers free legal aid to political prisoners,” and runs social campaigns.

“They defend mostly PFLP, the people who are accused in the Israeli legal process,” Steinberg noted. 

“The designations represent an unprecedented & ominous attempt by the Israeli occupying authorities to silence and criminalize Palestinian CSOs that challenge Israel’s prolonged military occupation,” Addameer tweeted.

According to Steinberg, Addameer “have a number of staff members who are connected to PFLP. The founder, (Abdul-Latif Ghait) was a member and activist. The former vice chairman... Khalida Jarrar... she is defined as the head of the PFLP operations in the West Bank.” NGO Monitor claims to have identified at least five other PFLP members in Addameer’s ranks.

Bisan Center

The Bisan Center for Research and Development specializes in socioeconomic rights and community engagement. 

“It should be noted that Bisan Center for Research and Development is an independent, nonpartisan center that is not affiliated with any political entity,” Bisan said in a statement on its Facebook page.

“This announcement [of the terrorist designation] comes after concerted efforts in the Israeli occupation’s attempts in a defamation campaign led by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” it continued.

“The most recent [Bisan] executive director... was sentenced for 12 months for recruiting activists,” said Steinberg. 

Ataraf Rimawi, identified by NGO Monitor as Bisan’s previous executive director, was noted in a court ruling as a “PFLP member” who “posed a security threat.” 

UPWC

The UPWC is “a progressive mass feminist organization that was established in 1980,” according to its website.

“And they have five individuals that we’ve identified on the payroll as PFLP people,” said Steinberg. “One of the founders of the PFLP... was the president of the UPWC. So again, the connection there is pretty strong between [the UPWC and] the PFLP.”

Israel is not the first to identify UPWC as a PFLP arm. In 2015, Fatah identified the UPWC as a PFLP affiliate, as did USAID in 1993.

UAWC

Among the largest agricultural institutions in Palestinian society, UAWC was established in 1986 to promote Palestinian agricultural development.

“They run agricultural projects in Gaza and in the West Bank,” said Steinberg. “And that’s their excuse. That’s the justification for the large amounts of funding. They get millions from many different European countries.”

“UAWC rejects and condemns Israel’s unsubstantiated allegations directed at UAWC and the other NGOs, which are politically motivated. It is telling that the Israeli government refuses to release any ‘evidence’ substantiating these allegations,” the NGO told The Jerusalem Post.

“We have identified seven [PFLP-affiliated] individuals that have various positions [in UAWC],” said Steinberg. “A number of them have been sentenced in Israel, and, of course, Samir Arbid is standing trial; he was their accountant.”

Arbid and Razak Farraj, another UAWC member, were arrested for their roles in the 2019 terrorist attack that killed Rina Schnerb.

“There are hundreds of employees who have worked and continue to work at UAWC and thousands of volunteers,” said a UAWC representative. “UAWC, like any other organization, is not responsible for any individual action of any former and current employees.”

“We should not forget that Arbid and Farraj have been exposed to horrifying torture to pressure them to give confessions,” said the representative.

As with UPWC, Fatah and USAID documented that UAWC is a PFLP affiliate. NGO Monitor has further noted that due to Arbid’s and Farraj’s affiliations, the Netherlands suspended funding to the organization. 

The UAWC representative asserted that the funding was suspended only because of “NGO Monitor’s large incitement campaigns against UAWC.” 

The representative dismissed the USAID designation, saying that the USAID “report [in which UAWC was designated a PFLP affiliate] was published before the arrival of the Palestinian Authority, and it is a report that talks about the beginnings of UAWC and its work, which was all voluntary.”

A few bad eggs?

The main evidence for proponents of the designation doesn’t come from the government, but from NGO investigations showing overlap of PFLP members within civil society. 

Sinijlawi argues that there are a few flaws in perceiving NGOs as terrorist organizations based on a few individuals.

The NGO could be unaware it has terrorists in its ranks. “I don’t think that, by law, any NGO needs to get a security clearance for any person to get employed. If somebody submits the CV and he’s qualified for a job, he gets it.”

Even if the NGOs were aware, while some countries do not differentiate between military and political wings, these NGOs may have.

“There could be a military wing inside the Popular Front, but it does not mean that every student activist... is involved in a certain type of violence or military action.”

While some of the NGOs may have had violent actors, “it does not mean that this organization is totally involved into terrorism,” said Sinijlawi. “To blame the whole people because of someone related directly or indirectly to these NGOs... it’s a trick that anybody will buy.”

“It’s not just that they’re members... it’s high-level staff,” said Steinberg, dismissing that it’s a few bad eggs – “in some cases, the heads of the organization, the people who control the money.”

Besides the pattern of NGO employees being PFLP operatives, Steinberg noted, PFLP/NGO activists often hold multiple positions in different NGOs, including in umbrella organizations.

“There’s a broader framework called PNGO, Palestinian NGO umbrella Organization. These organizations are all members of the PNGO, and the head of the PNGO generally has been a PFLP official.”

NGO or terrorism?

“What does anybody mean by Palestinian ‘civil society,’ particularly when these organizations are very clearly part of a network which is not just terrorists, but it’s also part of the PLO structure?” Steinberg asks. “What makes these organizations civil society?”

The NGOs “are very important for Palestinians,” said Sinijlawi. The designation is tantamount to “shutting down the democratic dynamics inside Palestinian society.”

On its part, PFLP has not disputed its connection to the NGOs. 

PFLP political bureau’s Kayed al-Ghoul has said that Palestinians are “proud of the affiliation of any of their sons with any national faction that resists the occupation, including the” PFLP.

The negative reaction to the terrorism designations shows how important these organizations are to Palestinians and their allies. 

Years of terrorist activity in the midst of Palestinian NGOs shows that when it comes to terrorists in their ranks, the prevailing sentiment in the response from the international community, Palestinian activists, and international bodies is that you need to break a few bad eggs to make an omelet. The two realities may not be so irreconcilable. The NGOs and the terrorist groups are interconnected, and while Palestinian civil society may be under attack – that may also be legitimate.•