newsIsrael at War

British Foreign Office accused of cover-up over terror-linked Palestinian groups

“Yes, there is absolutely something being hidden,” said NGO Monitor's Anne Herzberg.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office's main building in Whitehall, circa 2014. Credit: U.K. Government.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office's main building in Whitehall, circa 2014. Credit: U.K. Government.

The British Foreign Office is suspected of sending millions of pounds to terror-linked Palestinian groups and then covering it up to avoid a public backlash after having refused to disclose where the money went.

The United Kingdom granted the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) £4.6 million, or about $5.9 million, in 2022. For the fiscal year 2020-2021, the NRC received about £2,500,000 ($3.2 million) from the U.K.

NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute, filed a freedom of information (FOI) request on March 25, 2021. It asked the U.K.’s Foreign Office, officially the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), for names of the beneficiaries.

The NRC is infamous in Israel as an NGO engaging in anti-Israel activities disguised as “humanitarianism.” It made headlines a few years back, when it tried to undermine the country’s judicial system by flooding its courts with cases.

NGO Monitor suspected that the Norwegian Refugee Council had funded Palestinian organizations with terror links, notably to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

A tip-off was the U.K. government’s growing reluctance to talk about the NRC’s beneficiaries.

“Up until 2018 or so, the government used to publish the names of all local NGO recipients of U.K. aid via the NRC,” Anne Herzberg, legal adviser at NGO Monitor, told JNS. “We began to see a marked decrease in transparency regarding NRC funding to local NGOs around 2018-2019.”

NGO Monitor knew that the NRC worked with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC). Fatah identifies UAWC as an official “affiliate” of the PFLP. Two of its officials were arrested in 2019 for the murder of 17-year-old Rina Shnerb. A 2017 NRC document showed the group still worked with the UAWC.

“We suspected, therefore, that U.K. funding via the NRC was likely still going to PFLP-linked NGOs, as well as NGOs that promoted antisemitism, and called for the elimination of Israel, and that is why we filed an FOI request to the British government in early 2021,” Herzberg said.

Is it a coverup?

“Yes, there is absolutely something being hidden,” Herzberg said, “For more than three years, the FCDO refused to provide us with the names of the NGO sub-grantees.” She referred to the fact that the Foreign Office slow-walked NGO Monitor’s FOI request, granting a hearing before the U.K. Information Commissioner Tribunal only on Feb. 1, 2024.

The Foreign Office also changed its excuse for denying the request. It first argued that releasing the names of the organizations could put them in danger. “The suggestion was that these wicked, violent settlers would be attacking them,” said Jonathan Turner, of UK Lawyers for Israel, who served as counsel for NGO Monitor on the case.

The Foreign Office offered lots of “bogus evidence” trying to prove it, he said. NGO Monitor pointed out that the grantees proudly published the fact that they had received NRC funding. They clearly weren’t worried about coming to harm and none did.

Turner told JNS that about a week before the hearing, perhaps recognizing the flimsiness of its argument, the Foreign Office switched to a different one, claiming instead that disclosing the recipients would endanger British foreign relations. When NGO Monitor asked “how on earth” it would harm foreign relations, the Foreign Office said, “That’s secret. And revealing the reason would be detrimental to foreign relations.”

Part of the hearing itself was conducted in secret between the Tribunal’s judge and the Foreign Office, Herzberg noted. “We therefore had no way to challenge all of the evidence and, unsurprisingly, the government Tribunal upheld the government’s refusal to disclose the information.”

(NGO Monitor cross-examined the Foreign Office representative at the hearing. It was the U.K.’s Deputy Consul General to Jerusalem, Alison McEwen. Last year, McEwen came under fire for organizing the British team at the Palestine marathon. They wore T-shirts featuring a map of “Palestine” that erased Israel.)

During the course of the proceedings, the Foreign Office may have inadvertently revealed that British money is going to the PFLP and its partners. It said some of its partner groups were subjected to arrests and office raids. “The only NGOs that we are aware of that had their offices raided were PFLP-linked NGOs, furthering our suspicion that such groups were getting U.K. funding,” Herzberg said.

Turner and Herzberg agree that the reason the Foreign Office wants the recipients of its money kept hidden is to avoid a scandal. “There would be a major public outcry,” said Herzberg.

Foreign Office staff, those without diplomatic immunity, may also be criminally and civilly liable, noted Turner. The PFLP is a designated terror organization in the U.K. and its “affiliates”—namely, the groups getting U.K. taxpayer money—are considered terror organizations in Israel.

If it turns out the Foreign Ministry is giving money to the PFLP, something which is unlawful, it may come under the scrutiny of the British courts, Turner added.

The stakes would explain the lengths the Foreign Office has gone to keep the information secret. While it won this round, the public lost, NGO Monitor said.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned since Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza, the failure to properly monitor and safeguard humanitarian aid has had disastrous consequences for both Israelis and Palestinians,” Herzberg said. “The public has a right to know who is receiving and what is being done with the millions of pounds in taxpayer funds given each year to the NRC. The FCDO should promptly disclose this information.”

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