On October 19, 2021, Israel’s defense ministry designated six prominent Palestinian civil society non-governmental organizations as “terror organizations.” This designation was the result of a joint effort between the General Security Services (known as Shabak or Shin-Bet) and the National Bureau for Counter-Terror Financing. The decision was accompanied by a statement saying that the NGOs belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that they “constitute a network of organizations active undercover on the international front on behalf of the ‘Popular Front’,” and they “constitute an arm of the organization leadership.” The statement claims that the listed NGOs are “controlled by senior leaders of the PFLP” and serve “as a central source” for PFLP funding.
The PFLP began in 1967 as a secular umbrella organization for Palestinian nationalism, a counterpoint to the religious fanaticism of the then existing Palestinian liberation movements. Today it is the second largest constituent of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah’s primary opponent within the PLO.
In 1997, the United States secretary of state accurately designated the Popular Front as a foreign terrorist organization. But try as it will, the Israeli administration cannot successfully connect the targeted NGOs to the PFLP.
The six organizations accused by the Israeli government of being fronts for the PFLP all are long-standing civil society service organizations operating in the West Bank. They all denied the charges and vowed to clear their names.
• Al Haq was established in 1979 by Palestinian lawyers to advance the protection of human rights in the occupied territories. In connection with its work, it has contested not only Israeli actions but those of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
• Adameer, Arabic for “conscience,” has provided legal aid to prisoners arrested by Israeli authorities since 1991, and has advocated for the protection of detainees, some of whom are incarcerated without trial under a 1945 British Mandate law.
• Defense for Children International-Palestine, operating since 1991, is the Palestine affiliate of an international human rights organization dedicated to children. It is focused particularly on the needs of children incarcerated by Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
• The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees was created in 1980. In the words of the organization, “UPWC struggles to empower women and develop their circumstances to achieve real equity between men and women as well as equity among all social classes.”
• The Union of Agricultural Work Committees was established by agronomists in 1986. It assists Palestinian farmers through seed banks, expertise, and advocacy, and plays a particularly important role in West Bank Area C, where there is no Palestinian Authority presence.
• The Bisan Center for Research and Development was established in 1989 to promote Palestinian identity and society through research and cultural programming.
Despite the October defense ministry announcement, on November 1, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz explained that the six NGOs remained legal. Only the head of the Israel Defense Forces Command is authorized to declare an organization “disallowed,” and that must be done by issuing a specific order. According Ha’aretz “the State Prosecutor’s Office said, “no such order had been issued.” The paper went on to report that sources “at that Office have already conceded that they do not intend to file indictments against the organizations or their workers.” Just one week later, however, on November 7, the IDF Command did in fact issue those same designations making the NGOs illegal and their staff subject to arrest.
In an effort to gain international support and recognition of the Israeli claims and to cut off financial aid to the NGOs, Israel dispatched officials to show evidence to appropriate offices in the United States. If in fact the U.S. concurred, then by federal regulation no U.S. bank or financial institution could involve itself in the transfer of funds to those charities. The defense ministry dossiers, however, have been less than convincing. It appears that acceptance of the Israeli claim has been rejected, at least for the time being.
Upon receipt of the provided evidence, state department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We’ll be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations,” while noting that “the Israeli government did not give us advance warning.
“We believe respect for human rights; fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” he said.
While the Israeli government effort to convince the Biden administration was new, apparently the information wasn’t—it was reported to be mainly reheated material cooked previously. Back in May, the Shin Bet sent a 74-page report about the six NGOs to various governments in Europe. The Israeli webzine +972 Magazine reported that senior officials in at least five of the European countries were on record as saying the dossier did not contain any “concrete evidence” of financial funding of terror and thus decided to continue funding for the organizations. +972 wrote: “The Dutch foreign minister and the Belgian economic development minister have publicly stated that the dossier did not contain ‘even a single concrete piece of evidence.’ Following the dossier, Belgium and Sweden said they conducted independent audits on the financial conduct of the six organizations in question and their connection to the PFLP. Neither country found any evidence for the Shin Bet’s claims.”
With respect to those claims, Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, on a recent visit to Israel told the Jerusalem Post, “We have asked for the evidence basis for designating those NGOs…. We have not gotten any credible evidence to link the NGOs to terrorism.” Because Ireland provides money for Al Haq and Adameer, Covoney’s interest is not abstract.
In the Jerusalem Post interview, Coveney continued, “Two organizations that we provide modest funding to and who are representing people predominantly in occupied territory in the West Bank have been now designated as effectively supporting terrorist organizations, and we would like to see the evidence base for that.” Regarding the two NGOs, Coveney said, “We have very robust systems of knowing where our money is spent and how it is spent.”
Reports from those claiming to have seen the May Shin Bet dossier say the material covers confessions of two accountants, extracted during interrogation, who had been working for an unrelated seventh organization, and who since have been fired. There was no evidence, however, that monies were diverted to the PFLP or that there was any connection whatsoever with the six recently banned NGOs. The military declared that one of the accountants had confessed to being a PFLP fundraiser and Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid said the confession was proof that the “disallowed” NGOs were PFLP conduits. In fact, the confession and verdict of the military court were none of these. The defendant’s lawyer demanded a clarification and the military court confirmed there was no connection between the defendant and the six banned NGOs. The Israeli press reported the matter as the military court’s rejection of the government’s assertions.
While the defense ministry and the security services have been unable to collect clear evidence about the six NGOs, it has not been for want of trying. For years, they’ve conducted raids on the offices; equipment and files have been seized and workers arrested. Days before the October 19 announcement, NSO Pegasus Spyware was identified on equipment of the targeted NGOs. NSO is an Israeli software company involved in the creation of sophisticated surveillance programs that are supposed to be restricted for national security and crime prevention purposes but also have been used repeatedly by governments to spy on critical reporters and human rights groups.
If the spyware, the raids, the arrests, and pressure on the six NGOs has failed to generate concrete evidence of their involvement in terror related activities, why is the defense ministry working so hard to close them down?
Perhaps it is because the NGOs really are dangerous — not as terrorists but because they are good at their respective jobs. They are dedicated to representing defendants, speaking up about civil rights, providing social services, and limiting the abuses of powerful authorities, be they Israeli and/or Palestinian. They offer hope for a people who are living without hope. They offer refuge and a bit of security. It is not surprising, then, that labor and human rights organizations around the world, including Israeli human rights organizations, have spoken out against the defense ministry’s actions.
But the role of NGOs extends beyond such basic services. They create the framework of a Palestinian society, the very foundation that moves a population to obtain and maintain statehood. Just as the NGOs of pre-state Israel, including the JNF, the Histadrut, and the Jewish Agency, provided the underpinning for the eventual governmental institutions of the Jewish state, these Palestinian NGOs can form the groundwork for a democratic, peaceful Palestinian state. Is that what the Israel Defense Ministry and the Shabak are so afraid of?
Today they provide Palestinians a place to develop their own political ideals. They inspire action by professionals, particularly those with legal expertise, to use the rule of law to protect and lead public constituencies and organizational interactions. It is this social and distinctly national role that makes the NGOs so important, and because they are important, so dangerous; it is why they are such a high-priority target for the Israeli authorities who remain intent on promoting an unofficial West Bank annexation and permanent occupation.
The Israeli focus against European support for the NGOs is not merely financial. The European Union’s response to Israel’s unsupported allegations makes it clear: “EU funding to Palestinian civil society organizations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution.”
By presenting its political agenda as a security agenda, the Israeli administration does damage to both. There is broad international opposition to the policies of successive Israeli governments promoting unofficial Israeli annexation and permanent occupation. Because of unfounded security charges, countries are likely to see future Israeli security claims as merely the advancement of those political aims — aims with which these countries strongly disagree.
In the future, Israel might find when a real security problem emerges, its credibility has worn away, and national and international security agencies that once supported it no longer are willing to do so.
Hasn’t the Shin Bet ever heard the story about crying wolf?
How long can Israel hide behind the claim that there is no partner for peace, when Israel itself attacks the very elements that could make a partnership possible?
Dr. Mark Gold of Teaneck holds a Ph.D. in economics from NYU. He is on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel, a member organization of the American Zionist Movement and an affiliate of the World Union of Meretz.
Hiam Simon of Englewood is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu, the leading progressive Zionist membership organization in the United States. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students at what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.