Apparently, the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s designation of six Palestinian NGOs (non-governmental organizations) as terror fronts is among the most pressing dangers to international security and stability, at least according the European members of the UN Security Council. Iran’s illicit nuclear program, China’s threats to invade Taiwan, and Putin’s threat to Ukraine are nothing in comparison to the Israeli findings that NGOs, exploiting the facades of human rights and civil society, have links to terror. In the UN, diplomats from France, Ireland and Norway, among others, made criticism of this Israeli policy a top priority—in part reflecting their own (unstated) roles as key donors to some of these groups.
This and similar moves are part of the general panic within the NGO industry, which has a great deal to lose if the Israeli government convinces officials and the wider public in these countries to take the links to terror seriously. The Palestinian NGOs are at core of a powerful and unregulated lobby that receives tens of millions of euros from European governments annually to vilify Israel, and the allegations regarding the role of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have repercussions for the entire network. (The PFLP is listed as a terror organization by Israel, the U.S., European Union, Canada and Australia.) If the U.S. and key European governments agree that Al Haq, Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCIP), and the others are fronts for murderers, the credibility and financial support for NGO allies with whom they work on their campaigns of demonization (particularly the New Israel Fund network of NGOs) would also feel the heat.
As a result, representatives from the NGOs are doing round-the-clock interviews with sympathetic journalists, writing opinion essays in major media platforms, and pumping out a social media barrage to prevent the links between NGOs and terror from gaining a foothold. Their claims are familiar and predictable—the Israeli move is dismissed as yet another attempt to prevent criticism of human rights violations and to close the “space in which Palestinian civil societyis able to function.” These slogans are repeated at every opportunity, while none of the NGO spokespeople, journalists-fans and ardent supporters among European and UN officials, and Members of Congress mention the core issue of PFLP terror.
In this crucial political and public relations battlefield, the Israeli government was again revealed as unprepared, and is being hammered again. The critics ask why the MoD has produced no evidence, or, more accurately, no “new evidence.” Key allies in the U.S. and around the world, including those sympathetic to Israeli security concerns, were also taken by surprise by the October 22 designation announcement. They blame Israeli decision-makers and their senior staff members for not anticipating and preparing for the full-scale counter-attack in the NGO wars.
In this crucial political and public relations battlefield, the Israeli government was again revealed as unprepared, and is being hammered again.
In part, this is another example of the compartmentalization that still dominates Israeli policy-making on such issues. The PFLP’s NGO network is viewed primarily through the lens of security and terrorism, and for many months, the Israeli Security Agency (Shabak) gathered evidence and made arrests, followed by indictments and trials. This was accompanied by a number of legal reviews, including by the Attorney General, ending with the formal designation by the MoD. And the classified Israeli intelligence was shared with counterparts in the U.S. and among some Europeans.
But, as both critics and allies point out, the absence of publicly available evidence to accompany and justify the designation left the propaganda arena undefended. Instead, the government pointed to information from earlier investigations of a number of NGO officials charged with leading the PFLP cell that murdered 17-year-old Rina Shnerb in August 2019. In addition, in May 2021, the ISA indicted and released detailed information regarding the PFLP terror-supporting activities involving officials of another NGO, the Health Workers Committees, including forging of receipts, salary reports, and bank documents to inflate project costs in order to divert large sums of European funding. These were immediately dismissed by NGO supporters, including the European officials that fund them, as “unconvincing,” or “a few bad apples” in otherwise entirely reliable civil society organizations. Reinforcing the push-back, the NGO support industry, including many journalists, went to work to shift the focus away from the terror links and toward the usual anti-Israel conspiracy theories.
As part of this willful blindness, they also erased and ignored the extensive and systematic research on the PFLP terror links published by NGO Monitor, the independent research institute that I founded and lead. Based entirely on open sources, such as websites, YouTube videos and social media posts from the NGOs and the PFLP themselves (mostly in Arabic), researchers have identified 74 PFLP officials that hold positions in 13 NGOs, seven of which have been designated by the Israeli government. All of this carefully documented information is posted on numerous sites, and has been cited by members of parliaments, analysts and others.
When governments, such as the European UN Security Council members, and their NGO clients repeat the mantra that no evidence has been presented, they are being willfully misleading and worse. There is an abundance of readily verifiable information, even without the classified intelligence material, available to government officials and journalists who are interested in going beyond the simplistic slogans about NGOs.
As the Biden Administration begins spending millions of dollars in taxpayer funds on Israeli and Palestinian groups, these events highlight the importance of detailed and open investigations before any funds are allocated, to prevent diversion to terror.
Gerald Steinberg is emeritus professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and heads the Institute for NGO Research in Jerusalem.