Two weeks ago, the Israeli Defense Ministry designated six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations. The Internet immediately exploded with articles and tweets accusing Israel of trying to criminalize Palestinian civil society, while anti-Semitic activists like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) called for “immediate consequences” for the Jewish state.
Even the U.S. State Department jumped on the virtue-signaling bandwagon, with spokesperson Ned Price claiming, “We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance,” before adding that the United States will “be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.”
For the record, Israel also believes in respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, which is why it made these designations in the first place.
The six NGOs were included on the list because of their strong ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, Canada and Israel. Among the problematic ties, these organizations have employed PFLP terrorists, diverted humanitarian funds from European donors to the PFLP, recruited members to the terrorist group and hosted meetings for senior leadership, including convicted terrorists.
Far from being hidden or classified, much of the evidence is readily available, compiled over years by organizations like NGO Monitor, and it is important to note that the PFLP has not even bothered denying these connections.
Here is a small sample of that evidence: On Aug. 23, 2019, PFLP terrorists detonated a roadside bomb and murdered 17-year-old Rina Shnerb while she was hiking with her father and brother, who were also injured. Shortly thereafter, three PFLP members were arrested; all three were employed in senior financial roles at the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, one of the newly designated NGOs.
In an official statement, the PFLP referred to one of those terrorists, who had led the operation, as a “commander, comrade and hero.”
The Bisan Center, another of the newly-designated NGOs, was headed by another one of the perpetrators of that very attack.
As to the other organizations: Three Addameer employees appeared on the PFLP’s 2021 election slate; Defense for Children-Palestine is headed by two senior PFLP members; Al-Haq by a third (and a convicted terrorist to boot); and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees Vice President openly refers to it as the PFLP’s “feminist framework.”
Israeli law allows the Defense Minister to declare an association a “terrorist organization” if it is: perpetrating or intentionally promoting the perpetration of terrorist acts; conducting training or providing guidance for executing terrorist acts; engaging in a transaction involving a weapon with the goal of perpetrating terrorist acts; or assisting or acting with the goal of advancing the activities of such a group.
It is hard to imagine that anyone is truly baffled by the idea that a humanitarian NGO—which may legitimately do some very good things—could also be engaged in providing material support for terrorists. It is especially surprising for the State Department to express confusion about such a determination, given the nature of their own obligations under U.S. counterterrorism law.
Moreover, 8 U.S.C. §1189 authorizes the Secretary of State to designate foreign terrorist organizations as such if they engage in terrorist activities. The statutory definition of “engage in terrorist activity” includes affording material support to a terrorist or terrorist organization even if such support is confined to non-terrorist activities. In addition, under 18 U.S.C. §2339, it is a federal crime to “knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization”—even if you happen to be a human rights organization that also does some good.
Sadly, that happens not infrequently, and in 2014 the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental money laundering and terror financing watchdog, issued a report specifically warning against the special risks posed by non-profit organizations in this context. In fact, the leading U.S. case in this area, Holder v. Humanitarian Law, is literally and explicitly about human rights groups providing material support to terrorist groups.
Price also claimed that Israel did not give the United States advance warning of the changes, but Israeli officials dispute this, saying they did give the Biden administration notice and proof, and are happy to do so again, with Israeli officials preparing to fly to Washington with evidence including “footage and receipts.”
To recap: The evidence that these six NGOs (at the very least) provided material support for terrorism is readily available and yet to be refuted; tellingly, none of the statements released by the various NGOs and activists condemning Israel bothered to actually address the underlying issue. Despite how it is being painted by reflexively anti-Israel groups and activists, including some members of Congress, the legal process Israel followed is not in any way unique. In fact, it is very similar to our own well-established practice. And if any of these organizations really do believe that a mistake has been made, there is an appellate procedure available, with claims to be submitted to the Advisory Committee regarding designations on Terror Organizations. Not surprisingly, none of the groups has yet appealed.
In the meantime, if all of those wringing their hands at the thought of these poor NGOs getting in trouble are really that concerned about their welfare, or even about human rights generally, there is one ready solution. The quickest way to solve this problem would be to stop focusing on how these groups ended up getting caught and start pressuring them to actually stop supporting terror.
Dr. Mark Goldfeder is the director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center. He served as the founding editor of the Cambridge University Press Series on Law and Judaism.
This article was first published by the “Jewish Journal.”