Israel and the US State Department clashed over the weekend after the Justice and Defense ministries on Friday declared that several leading Palestinian NGOs were arms of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist organization.
The ministries each issued documents classifying 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), as branches of the PFLP, joining other NGOs who had previously also been designated as terrorist affiliates.
The US State Department criticized the announcement on Friday in the most explicit admonition from the Biden administration since the new Israeli government was formed in June.
“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance,” said a State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
He added that the US will “be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.”
Price also noted that the Israeli government did not give the US advance warning that the organizations would be named.
However, a senior Israeli defense ministry source, speaking on Saturday evening, said that US officials were given prior warning of Israel’s intention of making the announcement regarding the classification of the six Palestinian NGOs as branches of the PFLP and that Washington was provided with intelligence on the matter.
The source said that the six organizations operate “as an organized network” led by PFLP and have been involved in the execution of terror attacks.
The Shin Bet investigated the organizations between March and May this year and found that they raised and laundered money, as well as forged documents to assist the PFLP, recruited activists to join the group and witnessed several meetings of senior group members, including individuals convicted of terrorism, at the offices belonging to the six NGOs.
“These organizations who belong to the Popular Front are connected to each other and constitute the lifeblood of the organization, economically and organizationally,” the source said.
In Friday’s press release, the Defense Ministry charged that the NGOs serve the PFLP’s leadership and pursue its interests on a global scale.
In addition to diverting donations for terrorist activities, some of the funding is also alleged to have been given for stipends for the families of deceased Palestinian terrorists, as well as the promotion of terrorism and violent ideologies.
Earlier on Friday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said security agencies would “continue to act and intensify strikes against terrorism and the terrorist infrastructure everywhere, and by all means.”
“I call on the countries of the world and international organizations, to assist in this fight, and to avoid contact with companies and organizations that supply materials to terrorism.”
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz called on Gantz to present the evidence used to formulate the Defense Ministry’s decision, in a tweet on Saturday night.
כמדינה דמוקרטית, ריבונית וחזקה, ובסיטואציה של כיבוש - ישראל חייבת להיות מאוד, אבל מאוד זהירה בהטלת מגבלות על ארגוני חברה אזרחית פלסטיניים. יש לזה השלכות בתחום המדיני, יחסי חוץ, וכי חשוב - בתחום זכויות האדם. פניתי לשר הביטחון כדי שיציג לממשלה את הממצאים שהובילו להחלטה.— Nitzan Horowitz نيتسان هوروفيتس ניצן הורוביץ (@NitzanHorowitz) October 23, 2021
As a democratic, sovereign and powerful state, and in a situation of occupation – Israel must be very, but very careful in imposing restrictions on Palestinian civil society organizations,” wrote Horowitz. “This has important implications in the field of politics, foreign relations and in the field of human rights.”
The PFLP did not deny links to the six organizations.
Reacting to the decision, the PFLP said that it constitutes “a continuation of the aggression against the institutions of the Palestinian people and civil society organizations that carry out their role and duty towards the Palestinian people.”
Kayed al-Ghoul, a member of the PFLP political bureau, said in a statement that the Israeli measure “aims to tighten the siege on the Palestinian people and its institutions and prevent NGOs from providing services to the Palestinian people.”
The Palestinians are “proud of the affiliation of any of their sons with any national faction that resists the occupation, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” al-Ghoul said.
The Palestinian Authority on Friday condemned the move as an “unhinged assault on Palestinian civil society.”
The PA Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “this fallacious and libelous slander is a strategic assault on Palestinian civil society and the Palestinian people’s fundamental right to oppose Israel’s illegal occupation and expose its continuing crimes.”
International human rights bodies joined the US and Palestinian bodies in their criticism of the terrorism designations.
“Counter-terrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work,” said the UNHRC, adding that some of the reasons given appeared to be vague or irrelevant.
“These designations are the latest development in a long stigmatizing campaign against these and other organizations, damaging their ability to deliver on their crucial work.”
“This appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement,” Human Rights Watch, which reportedly works closely with many of the affected NGOs, said in a statement.
“How the international community responds will be a true test of its resolve to protect human rights defenders. We are proud to work with our Palestinian partners and have been doing so for decades. They represent the best of global civil society. We stand with them in challenging this outrageous decision.”
Israeli NGOs joined in the chorus of criticism, including former Meretz MK Zehava Galon’s NGO, Zulat, and the Mossawa Center.
“Jews have always stood at the forefront against human rights abusers everywhere in the world,” Galon said. “In Israel, it seems as if we have learned nothing, as that great heritage is being thrown into the trash.”
Other Israeli organizations, such as NGO Monitor, welcomed the decision. “Although the PFLP is a declared terrorist organization in the United States, Israel, Canada, and the European Union, many European governments have continued to invest in PFLP-linked NGOs for 20 years, severely exploiting their taxpayers’ money,” Professor Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor said Friday.
“These recurring cases point to a widespread phenomenon and it is time for Europeans to freeze grants and set up independent mechanisms for evaluating funding for NGOs.”
According to the Defense Ministry, the terrorism classification for six of the NGOs was brought through cooperation between the Shin Bet and the National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing and was instituted by the Defense and Justice ministries according to the 2016 Anti-Terror Law.
Terror operatives belonging to the NGO Union Of Agricultural Work Committees included Samir Arbid and Razak Praj, who were both arrested for their roles in the deadly Ein Bubin attack that killed 17-year-old Rina Schnerb in 2019. Ataraf Rimawi, who belongs to the Bisan Research and Advocacy Center was also involved in the Ein Bubin attack.
In May, the Shin Bet arrested four Palestinians for diverting European humanitarian aid through NGOs to the PFLP.
The PFLP, the second largest PLO faction after Fatah, is a Marxist armed organization founded in 1967 by George Habash, and is designated as a terror group by the US Department of State and the European Union.
Jerusalem Post Staff, Lahav Harkov and Reuters contributed to this report.