The European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office is not expected to open a probe into the Palestinian groups Israel declared as terrorist orgs, sources say ■ One diplomat says the evidence submitted ‘doesn’t meet the required threshold of proof’
Israel has not provided European countries with sufficient evidence about the six civil society organizations in the West Bank it accused of funding and acting on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, European diplomats told Haaretz.
Sources said the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, is not expected to open an investigation into the organizations after its initial examination.
In October, Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed an order declaring six Palestinian organizations as terrorist organizations: Addameer, Al-Haq, the Bisan Center for Research & Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. The organizations deny this allegation.
Representatives from six countries told Haaretz that Israel gave them materials meant to prove its claims against the organizations via diplomatic and intelligence channels. “It’s simple, we were given evidence, and we did not find it to be compelling enough,” one diplomat said. Another said officials in most of these states believe the evidence submitted by Israel “does not meet the required threshold of proof of the transfer of funds.”
Most European countries’ representatives have as yet avoided making public statements about their position, in part because they are waiting for the EU to declare its conclusion on the matter.
In early May, Meryame Kitir, Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation and Urban Policy, said to parliament that Brussels had examined the issue and found no evidence confirming the claims about organizations that Belgium supports and no reason to take action against them. Bisan and DCIP receive indirect funding from the Belgian government, through charitable foundations.
In December, Denmark said it had not received evidence to support Israel’s claims, and Haaretz was able to confirm that Copenhagen had not changed its position since then. The foreign minister of the Netherlands met recently in Ramallah with representatives of Al-Haq, and was later quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying there was not a single European state that reached the conclusions that Israel did about the organization.
In May 2021 the European Commission suspended its financial support of Al-Haq, even before Gantz issued his order, after Israel presented arguments about the organization’s ties to the PFLP. After Gantz’s order, the EC also froze its funding of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, via Oxfam. European diplomats told Haaretz that the decision to suspend support for Al-Haq in May of last year was unusual. One said it was very odd for the EC to take a position that diverged from that of EU member states.
In conversation, diplomats said Oliver Varhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement and an associate of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was behind the move. One said that Varhelyi was thought to be pushing Hungary’s agenda. Other diplomats mentioned the delay in European support for the Palestinian Authority over allegations of antisemitism in Palestinian textbooks as another step pushed by Varhelyi. One source said it was the first such incident, and not just regarding Palestine. Officials at Al-Haq claim that the EC has not been transparent regarding its suspension of funding and that its conduct constitutes “a violation of the Commission’s minimum standards of good administration.”
Officials in some of the six organizations claim that the payment of funds meant for them was delayed or stopped during the period in which Israel’s claims were under examination, and in some cases have since been renewed. In April, experts from the United Nations called for the resumption of payments that had been held up during this period. Officials in the Union of Agricultural Work Committees told Haaretz that the organization’s operations ended almost completely after The Hague suspended its support in July 2020, after two employees of UAWC were suspected of involvement in the murder of Rina Shnerb, a 17-year-old Israeli girl, and in the wake of the suspension of the EU’s support via Oxfam. The Netherlands permanently ended its support for the organization in January after a government probe found that while the Union of Agricultural Work Committees did not funnel money to the PFLP, there were personal ties between employees and members of the work committees and the PFLP that had not been reported.
One diplomatic source told Haaretz that irrespective of any official decision on the matter, the organizations had already suffered harm. “I think Israel got what it wanted,” he said. “It will deter the countries in any event, because we’ll never know if Israel will enforce its decisions and what the consequences will be for employees of the organizations on our behalf, for example.”
Ubai Al-Aboudi, the executive director of Bisan, says Israel’s action was an attempt to isolate the Palestinians from the international community. Aboudi, who has been barred by Israel’s Shin Bet security service from leaving the West Bank after he was convicted of membership in an illegal organization – the PFLP – in a plea bargain, told Haaretz: “It’s part of general Israeli policy, to increasingly isolate the Palestinians so that it can continue with its actions, without any documentation.”
In a written response, the Foreign Ministry said the order classifying the six groups as terrorist organizations was taken after a thorough review of all of the relevant elements, was signed by Gantz and is in effect. It was meant, among other things, to stop the support for the organizations. “The conversation with European states on the matter is important and meaningful, but their agreement is not a condition for implementing the order and we expect [the countries] to honor the Israeli decision and to block aid to organizations that have been defined in Israeli law as terrorist organizations.”
OLAF said it does not usually issue comments on cases it may or may not be treating. This is an order to protect the confidentiality of any possible investigations and of possible ensuing judicial proceedings, and to ensure respect for personal data and procedural rights.
In a written response the EC said: “Civil society is an essential contributor to good governance, human rights, international law, democratic values and sustainable development in the EU, in Israel, Palestine and elsewhere.”
“EU funding to Palestinian civil society organizations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution,” the statement said. “The EU will continue to stand by international law and support civil society organizations that have a role to play in promoting international law, human rights and democratic values.”
“We are thoroughly analyzing additional information received by the Israeli authorities following the listing” of the six NGOs by the Defense Ministry in November 2021. “Designations originating from a partner country are taken very seriously,” the response read, adding that the EC would not offer more details or comments until the internal assessment is concluded.