How can the EU want closer ties with Israel while funding terror NGOs? - opinion

Between 2011 and 2021, the EU raised a total of €200 million for PFLP which is designated as a terror organization.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR/FILE PHOTO)
European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018.

The EU’s highest-ranking executive, Ursula von der Leyen, is set to arrive in Israel this week on her first official visit since the Bennett-Lapid government took office. While most coverage will portray the visit as reflecting improved ties between Jerusalem and Brussels, her visit also marks six months since the Israeli government designated six Palestinian NGOs as terror fronts. This decision was originally met with criticism by the European Commission. 

The designation, which was a major departure from previous Israeli policies, came after at least five senior NGO employees were arrested for their involvement in the murder of 17-year-old Rina Shnerb in August 2019.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) referred to the six NGOs as “a network” that operates “on behalf of the ‘Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP],’” an EU-designated terror organization. Relevant for Israel-Europe relations, the MoD accused the NGOs of diverting humanitarian funds from European government donors to the PFLP. 

Independent research conducted by NGO Monitor shows that in 2011-2021, the European Commission alone provided at least €28 million for projects featuring these NGOs as implementing partners. Together with other European governments, the total exceeds €200 million to a network of at least 13 NGOs linked to the PFLP.

How can this possibly happen? How can the EU and other governments support organizations linked to a  terror group? Part of the problem lies with the unique structure of the PFLP. This terror group consists of three overlapping branches: a militant wing, a political party, and an NGO network that engages with European officials and raises funds from them. 

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR/FILE PHOTO)European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR/FILE PHOTO)

How can this happen?

The NGOs in this network claim to promote human rights and provide humanitarian aid, while in practice they promote politicized partisan narratives, oftentimes coupled with antisemitic tropes, and inciteful content aimed at harming the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Over the years, NGO Monitor has identified – using only open sources! – more than 70 individuals who simultaneously held positions at the PFLP and with European-funded NGOs.

As these facts surfaced, many members of the European Parliament spoke about the need for better vetting and more careful processes in selecting NGO partners for EU-funded projects. In 2020, in response to revelations about involvement of NGO officials in the murder of Rina Shnerb, EU Commissioner Varhelyi ordered an internal investigation into potential diversion of EU funds to terror groups. 

Others argued that the existing EU procedures were solid and provided enough safeguards, especially given that in 2019 the EU introduced a new restriction in all its contracts with NGOs prohibiting work with anyone who appears on “the lists of EU restrictive measures” (the official term for the EU terror list). 

In practice, however, this made very little difference. The murder of Rina Shnerb happened after that. Part of the reason lies in the fact that the EU’s terror list includes entities like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and PFLP, but it does not include any persons or organizations connected or identified with them. 

It was actually Ursula von der Leyen who first officially clarified in June 2020 that EU vetting rules “make the participation of entities, individuals or groups of individuals affiliated, linked, or supporting terrorist organizations incompatible with any EU funding.” The word “affiliated” offered the missing specification that should have allowed the EU to impose the restrictions on all those who are in any way linked to a terror organization. 

To be fair, shortly after Israel alerted them of the NGO officials involvement in the Rina Shnerb’s murder, the European Commission quietly froze its funding to Al-Haq and the Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC), two of the designated NGOs pending final resolution. It was a welcome immediate reaction, but the EU is yet to make a definitive statement on its policy.

Contrary to this uncertainty, the Netherlands ended its €13 million contract with UAWC, after an independent investigation found that, based solely on open source information at least 34 UAWC employees had ties to PFLP. And the German foreign minister announced that her government will continue funding “projects in the territories without the money going to six Palestinian organizations that Israel outlawed as terrorist groups,” 

Perpetuating this lack of clear EU policy, the head of the EU mission to Ramallah Sven von Burgsdoff met with representatives of the six designated Palestinian NGOs in December 2021 immediately after the designations, conveying that the “EU will continue to stand by international law and support civil society organizations […].” This directly contradicts von der Leyen’s statement, but is not surprising given the EU’s ambiguity and reluctance to implement its own policies.

Also, the EU is currently funding a €588,299 project (2021-2024) implemented by Palestinian NGO Network, whose inaugural event included a workshop that “focused on the strategies and mechanisms needed to combat counter-terrorism policies.” In other words, the EU is funding a project that attempts to undermine counterterror policies, including its own.

The dichotomy between the policies adopted by EU’s elected officials and the European Commission bureaucrats’ reluctance to implement them continues to grow. Von der Leyen’s visit might be an opportunity for Israel’s Foreign Minister Lapid and Defense Minister Gantz to address this issue, calling on her to unify the message coming out of Brussels. 

Only a month ago, the European Parliament adopted von der Leyen’s exact language in its most important annual budgetary resolution (Discharge), stating that the Commission should thoroughly verify that funds would not go to terror-affiliated organizations. If these policies will be implemented remains to be seen. 

The writer is vice president of NGO Monitor.