JERUSALEM – A confidential Israeli file detailing alleged links between Palestinian human rights groups and an internationally designated terrorist organization contains little concrete evidence and has failed to convince European countries to stop funding the groups.
The 74-page document appears to have been prepared by Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service and shared with European governments in May. The Associated Press obtained the document from the online magazine +972, which was the first to report on it, with the local call in Hebrew. Israel may have additional evidence that has not been made public.
Last month, Israel named six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist groups, claiming they were linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a left-wing secular political movement with an armed wing that carried out deadly attacks against the Israelis. Israel and Western countries consider the PFLP to be a terrorist organization.
But Israel has yet to take further action against the groups, which openly operate in the occupied West Bank. The Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet did not respond to requests for comment.
All six groups, some of which have close ties to rights groups in Israel and abroad, deny the claims. They say the terrorism designation is intended to muzzle criticism of Israel’s half-century military occupation of the territories the Palestinians want for their future state.
Designated groups are Al-Haq Human Rights Group, Addameer Rights Group, Defense for Children International-Palestine, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Union of Committees of Palestinian Women and the Union of Agricultural Working Committees.
The case relies almost entirely on the interrogation of Said Abedat and Amru Hamudeh, who worked as accountants for the Union of Health Committees, a separate group that was banned in January 2020. Both were reportedly sacked in 2019 for embezzlement. funds, and were then allegedly detained. by the Shin Bet. Their lawyers could not be reached for comment.
Neither of them appear to have ever worked for the six banned organizations in the past month.
In written excerpts from their interrogation by the Israeli authorities, they allege that the six organizations are branches of the PFLP but provide no evidence beyond naming a handful of suspected PFLP members employed by the groups. They suggest that some employees are forging receipts to siphon donor funds, but do not provide proof or say where the money went.
Speaking of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees – one of six – Abedat reportedly said: “As far as I know, this organization is affiliated with the PFLP. His “guess” is that the same printing company that helped him forge invoices also helped the other group.
Even when describing his own work of embezzling funds towards the PFLP, Abedat makes no mention of militant activities. “We have funded PFLP activities such as university activities, funding the wounded and sick for the PFLP, funding the families of martyrs and PFLP prisoners,” he said.
Israel says the PFLP and other armed groups use such activities to recruit and indoctrinate members, and to provide financial support to militants and their families.
The file also details several falsified invoices, all from the Union of Health Committees. In one case, Abedat said: “I believe that this money went to the activities of the PFLP. In the others, it is either not clear where the money went or Abedat says it was used to cover UHC debts.
Several European officials have expressed skepticism about the allegations.
In a letter to Dutch lawmakers on May 12, Acting Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag said new Israeli information on two Palestinian organizations indirectly funded by the Netherlands “offers no concrete evidence of links to the PFLP” .
Kaag admitted that two former UAWC employees who had received salaries from a Dutch-funded project were suspected of a deadly August 2019 bombing in the occupied West Bank, blamed on the PFLP. She said the government had already suspended funding for the project pending an independent investigation.
The Belgian Minister of Development told a parliamentary committee in July that her government had also investigated Israeli information received in May but had found “no concrete material evidence of possible fraud among partner organizations.”
Minister Meryame Kitir said the government has also reviewed annual group audits carried out by international firms like Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers without finding any irregularities.
“So I see no reason today to freeze funds, or to conduct additional external investigations,” she said.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney last month expressed concern over the terrorism designation, saying previous allegations against Palestinian civil society organizations backed by Ireland and the EU “have failed. been founded “.
Shin Bet officials visited Washington last week to brief US officials on the terrorism designation. They shared a summary of their presentation with the AP which largely matched the record, including excerpts from the same interrogations, but may have shared other evidence that was filed. State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on the talks or say whether the United States shares Israel’s assessment of Palestinian groups.
NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel group that studies Palestinian non-governmental organizations, says it has identified 13 – including the six targeted with the terrorist designation and the previously banned UHC – who together employed more than 70 people with PFLP ties .
Gerald Steinberg, the head of the NGO Monitor, said Israel had drawn its attention to the alleged network after the August 2019 attack, which killed a 17-year-old Israeli girl, and appeared to be building its case.
“The HWC was the first. They are looking to find out where the money is coming from,” he told the AP. “We identify organizations with sometimes 10, 11, 12 people in leadership positions, in many cases accountants, treasurers, board members.”
Critics say pro-Israel groups aim to discredit Palestinian rights activists in order to protect Israel from criticism from global bodies like the International Criminal Court, which opened an investigation in March into alleged Israeli war crimes. Israel is deeply opposed to the investigation and considers the ICC and other international organizations to be biased against it.
Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli lawyer who often represents Palestinians, said the case “means absolutely nothing” to the six organizations. He provides legal representation to one of the six, Al-Haq, a human rights group founded in 1979 which is only mentioned in passing in the file.
Sfard said the two detainees cannot be considered reliable witnesses and that although their statements are taken at face value, they prove nothing.
“It’s all about guilt by association. While it is true that the people who work in some organizations are agents of the PFLP, it does not follow that the organization itself is part of the PFLP, ”he said.
“At all levels, this document actually shows how weak the set of arguments against these six organizations is,” he added.
Associated Press editors Matthew Lee in Washington and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands contributed to this report.