Monitoring NGOs in the Middle East: How it's done

An NGO, or nongovernmental organization that can provide valuable services around the world. In the Middle East, however, some have been linked to terror organizations.

 The Ghassan Kanafani Project's 2017 preschool graduation ceremony, including 'solidarity with our brave prisoners' and children dressed in military uniforms (photo credit: FACEBOOK SCREENSHOT)
The Ghassan Kanafani Project's 2017 preschool graduation ceremony, including 'solidarity with our brave prisoners' and children dressed in military uniforms

The term “NGO” is one of those difficult-to-decipher acronyms that frequently appears throughout the pages of The Jerusalem Post, leading some who encounter it to quickly flip the page to focus on items they deem of greater interest. Yet, given the current climate of worldwide antisemitism and increased anti-Israel sentiments, the term is quite significant and bears explanation.

An NGO, or nongovernmental organization, writes Prof. Ryan Irwin of the State University of New York at Albany, “refers to a group of like-minded individuals, unaffiliated with any government, who seek to affect public policy and/or provide services to a community.” NGOs can provide valuable services around the world in such areas as emergency relief, international health education, women’s rights, children’s rights, economic development, environmental advocacy, disaster preparation and more. In the Middle East, however, some have become involved in anti-Israel activity and have even been linked to terror organizations.

Olga Deutsch, vice president of Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, the independent research institute that publishes analysis on NGOs within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, explains that just last week, Israel officially designated six Palestinian human rights NGOs as terrorist groups working on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an EU and US-designated terror organization. NGO Monitor research has shown that since 2011 the European Union alone authorized grants of at least $45 million to NGOs linked to the PFLP.

“There are a number of Palestinian human rights and humanitarian NGOs,” says Deutsch. “There are Palestinian organizations that deal with women’s rights. There is a Palestinian NGO that deals with children and their rights and another that advocates for access to medical services. A handful of these organizations – eight or nine – are affiliated with the terror group PFLP, with PFLP figures engaged in financial and decision-making roles at these organizations.”

In August 2019, 17-year-old Rina Shnerb was killed by a roadside bomb while hiking near Dolev, a community located 20 minutes from Modi’in. Israeli security forces arrested members of a PFLP cell after her murder. Says Deutsch, “Five of the 50 people who were arrested were senior employees of these Palestinian human rights and humanitarian NGOs.” All these NGOs, she adds, received EU and other governmental funding. NGO Monitor was the first organization to report about the connection between these NGOs and the PFLP terror organization. “Thanks to our research, there was a very public campaign led by the members of the European Parliament who started demanding explanations,” says Deutsch. Over the past year and a half, notes Deutsch, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament discussed this issue.

 NGO Monitor Vice President Olga Deutsch (credit: NGO MONITOR)
NGO Monitor Vice President Olga Deutsch (credit: NGO MONITOR)

In May 2021, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced that it had uncovered a network of NGOs that diverted humanitarian assistance from European governments to the PFLP. In July, the IDF raided and shut down some of these offices. Finally, in August, the European Anti-Fraud Service (OLAF) opened a preliminary investigation into the European Commission’s funding to Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over the potential risk of terrorist financing.

OLAF is the European Union’s external body that investigates potential fraud and money-laundering cases in the context of EU spending, and Deutsch says that their investigation of links between Palestinian NGOs and terror groups is a major development.

“Even if, in the end, OLAF does not find conclusive evidence of the EU directly financing terror, the investigation on its own is a huge statement that there is something inherently wrong with the system. For years these self-proclaimed human rights and humanitarian NGOs have enjoyed both generous financial support, but also incredible access to decision-makers through which they could directly impact policies.” The fact that the EU is investigating, says Deutsch, is an important political statement.

As to NGO Monitor’s position in the matter, Deutsch adds, “We think it important that the findings of the investigations are made public, especially in the light of the designations. The fact that the security forces deem these groups a threat to the safety of civilians is a serious matter, and there is no question that the donor governments will have to treat it as such. The designations accuse these NGOs of diverting European public funds to pay salaries of PFLP activists and for building the capacity of PFLP. For the sake of the Palestinian people, we should be able to find better-suited partners to promote human rights and humanitarian causes.”

Deutsch is not expecting an immediate change in how NGOs are viewed, but she thinks that incremental changes will occur over the next several years in how governments engage with NGOs. “I do think that there is a greater awareness of the need to critically discuss this and not to take it for granted. This has already happened because of the fact that there are all these investigations and that more and more elected officials are asking questions. This shows that calling yourself a human rights and humanitarian group does not grant you a ‘halo,’” says Deutsch.She adds that this past March, in its annual budgetary reports, the European Parliament called for no EU funds to be spent on activities that go to terror or go to organizations or entities that engage with individuals or activities that have participants who are affiliated with terror or incitement of violence.

NGOs provide the opportunity to have a vibrant civil society that advocates for change and helps others, but like any other industry, says Deutsch, it can be abused. “We need to ask for accountability and transparency in order to ensure that those that might seek to abuse this don’t get a chance to do that.” She laments the politicization of those Palestinian NGOs that have abandoned the cause for their existence. “They’re failing the Palestinian people,” she says. “Instead of a Palestinian NGO fighting for women’s rights, or against child abuse or any other topic of rights, they turn everything into a politicized discussion of ‘yes occupation – no occupation,’ ‘yes settlers – no settlers, ‘yes Israel or no Israel.’”

Deutsch says that until now, most of the funding to these groups comes from the EU and other European governments, which is why they focused a lot on that. However, with the US renewing its funding, NGO Monitor will work to address this phenomenon in the North American context as well. The US government, she notes, has earmarked $250m. for Palestinian people-to-people projects over the next five years. “It is important that the process that happened in Europe is not lost. Some of the best practices should be shared between the decision-makers to ensure taxpayers’ money is not used as a vehicle to delegitimize the Jewish state in The Hague, at the UN, or to support terror activities.

Deutsch says that traditionally, the United States is seen as the most careful in vetting funds allocated to NGOs, but recently there have been attempts to diminish this oversight. “Policymakers should be encouraged to continue to support civil society organizations, financially and otherwise. But at the same time, they must ensure that none of the money ends up in the wrong hands.”

Deutsch points out that the recent opposition in Congress to continue funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system was, in part, inspired by the NGO lobby. This is another example of the importance of discussing the NGO issue.

So, dear reader – the next time you come across the term NGO, don’t immediately turn the page to read about something flashier. NGOs have a growing impact in Israel, and NGO Monitor is keeping a close eye on maintaining accountability, transparency and promoting critical discussion on NGO activities in the Middle East.

This article was written in cooperation with NGO Monitor.