A battle is raging over Israel's declaration that six Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGO) are fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Several American NGOs are lashing out at Israel for the move. But they are skating on thin ice. Some of them have worked closely with the six NGOs in question. And if Israel's accusations prove to be true, they could find themselves in hot water.
The PFLP has been listed on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations since 1997. The group has actually been engaged in terrorist activity since 1968, with hijackings, bombings and shootings that grabbed headlines around the world. Today, Israel believes the PFLP is backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite its roots in Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are often the headline-grabbers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the PFLP has slowly worked its way into the conversation in recent years, with a resurgence in terrorism. Yet, few expected Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to announce last month that six nonprofits—Addameer, Al-Haq, the Bisan Center, Defence of Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) and the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees (UPWC)—were part of the PFLP's financing network.
Israeli authorities have not yet released the evidence that informed their decision. They must apparently wait until an ongoing court case is resolved, so as not to influence the outcome. However, the Israeli accusations are not hard to fathom. Two defendants now on trial for a terrorist attack that killed an Israeli teenager in 2019 worked for two of the banned organizations. There are many other recent instances of overlap between the employees from the six NGOs and the PFLP.
Israel's intense scrutiny of the designated organizations began shortly after the August 2019 bombing that killed one Israeli in the West Bank. According to investigators, Samer Arbid led the PFLP cell that planted the bomb. Arbid had served as an accountant for the UAWC and Addameer. Another defendant, Abed el-Razeq Faraj, was the UAWC's director of finance and administration.
In response to the bombing, Israel arrested some 50 PFLP members and seized a large number of weapons. Authorities arrested Khalida Jarrar, a PFLP activist and Addameer's former general director. The net has widened in recent years to include other Addameer employees, board members and even its co-founder. All were PFLP operatives.
Defence of Children International-Palestine is another NGO that found itself in the crosshairs of Israeli investigators. DCI-P's board and staff were filled with PFLP members. Notably, the PFLP lionized the late Hashem Abu Maria, the DCI-P's community mobilization unit coordinator, as a "leader." PFLP flags adorned Abu Maria's house following his death in 2014.
The NGO Al-Haq may be the most notorious of Israel's recent designations. The organization's director is Shawan Jabarin, whom the Israeli Supreme Court in 2008 described as a "senior activist" in the PFLP.
Israeli authorities also arrested Ubai Aboudi and Itiraf Hajaj, the current and former executive directors of the Bisan Center, during its 2019 anti-PFLP campaign.
Aboudi worked for the UAWC before coming to Bisan in April 2019. The UAWC's designation in Israel was among the easiest to predict. USAID and the Palestinian Fatah faction have identified the UAWC as a PFLP affiliate. UPWC was also a no-brainer. UPWC's president and vice president are a PFLP activist and a central committee member, respectively, according to the terrorist group's website.
Of course, NGOs serving as terrorist fronts is nothing new. In the early 2000s, the U.S. shuttered numerous charities and organizations for raising funds on behalf of Hamas. Famously, the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation (HLF) was found guilty of funneling $20 million to Hamas. The move was widely jeered by civil rights activists who painted the HLF case and other terrorist designations as violations of the "fundamental rights of American Muslim charities."
The vast majority of U.S. actions against terrorist-funding charities have withstood challenges over the years. Appealing the evidence is usually a failed legal strategy, but appealing to the court of public opinion has often been more successful. Now, American NGOs are at it again.
For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International recently issued a statement declaring, "This appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement." Similarly, J Street smeared Israel's move as a "deeply repressive measure that seems designed to outlaw and persecute important Palestinian human rights groups."
Such groups have every right to express their opinions. However, a number of them have worked uncomfortably close with the accused. HRW has partnered with Al-Haq, frequently cites its research and has campaigned with DCI-P against Israel. Members of Al-Haq sit on HRW's Middle East and North Africa advisory board. And J Street relied on DCI-P research for a bill that it lobbied for in Congress.
If Israel corroborates its charges, the six NGOs should be designated as terrorist charities here in America. Their U.S.-based partners should also come under scrutiny. No wonder their voices are shriller than most: Their reputations hang in the balance.
David May is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidSamuelMay and @JSchanzer. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.