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Improved vetting is key to US re-engagement with Palestinian NGOs

In the not-so-distant past, insufficient scrutiny led to the disbursal of U.S. funds to terror-linked actors and those who glorify violence.

Participants in "Meet the Youth," an initiative by the Palestinian NGO Pal-Think. Credit: Pal-Think.
Participants in "Meet the Youth," an initiative by the Palestinian NGO Pal-Think. Credit: Pal-Think.
Yona Schiffmiller. Credit: Courtesy.
Yona Schiffmiller

One of the ways in which the Biden administration has already departed from its predecessor is engagement with Palestinian Authority leaders and civil society. The United States government has that announced it will resume support for Palestinians, launching new funding programs through NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza.

Before funding decisions are made, it is crucial to ensure that this strategy is undergirded by a commitment to robust vetting mechanisms.  As a March 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stresses, sound policy is only as effective as its implementation. In reviewing USAID West Bank and Gaza operations for 2015-2019, the GAO found that the agency did not always ensure that sub-grantees were vetted properly, and in a timely manner, for potential terror ties.

Unfortunately, in the not-so-distant past, similar insufficient scrutiny led to the disbursal of U.S. funds to terror-linked actors and those who glorify violence.

An example of this phenomenon is a $723,405 USAID grant to World Vision in 2014, “to provide food security, sanitation equipment and health services to the conflict-affected areas in the Blue Nile region of Sudan.”

In order to deliver these services, World Vision entered into a contract with the Sudan-based Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA). At the time, officials at USAID apparently did not know that ISRA was on the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) sanctions list as a result of its terror-financing activity, including of Osama bin Laden and Hamas.

Six years later, the Senate Finance Committee’s Oversight and Investigation unit noted that the “failure occurred because World Vision’s system for vetting prospective sub-grantees was borderline negligent and ignored elementary level investigative procedures, such as failing to conduct basic secondary research that is widely available to the public on the internet via free search engines.”

In the context of support for Palestinian NGOs, previous U.S. administrations provided funding to  Pal-Think, which orchestrated interactions between representatives of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Palestinian teenagers. Notably, the United States has also funded groups such as PYALARA, which produced youth-focused television programs that praised suicide bombers and referred to Jews as “crows” and “rats.”

Though essential, improving vetting for terror ties and support of violence is not the only factor that the administration must consider when advancing its agenda vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians.

The January passage of the Nita Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act promises up to $250 million to NGOs engaged in “people-to-people” engagement between Israelis and Palestinians and to encourage business and entrepreneurial partnerships between the two people.

In order to ensure that the Partnership for Peace Act advances U.S. values, the government must ensure that the NGO grantees promoting anti-normalization—the idea that Jewish Israelis must be boycotted, excluded and discriminated against unless they join in boycotting other Jewish Israelis and supporters of Israel—are not considered eligible for funding under this program. Such a worldview is fundamentally incongruous with the goals outlined by this recent legislation.

Similarly, groups that organize and facilitate these programs must not apply biased ideological litmus tests when selecting partners for dialogue and cooperation. To achieve their objectives, Israeli participants should not be expected or pressured to abandon their narratives and beliefs in order to engage with their counterparts. In past projects, these conditions, subtly implied through coded and nuanced language, resulted in many failed and even counterproductive initiatives.

Additionally, the U.S. government should develop and apply meaningful metrics to systematically evaluate results and ensure return on investment, despite the inherently abstract objectives. Absent such metrics, it is not possible to know whether millions spent on past projects succeeded in substantially expanding the commitment of Israelis and Palestinians towards coexistence.

Previous practices that relied on self-reporting of grant recipients, including the number of participants in a given NGO initiative, are insufficient to gauge results. Meaningful assessments require independent analysis.

Finally, the grantee selection process must be free of external lobbying and based solely on objective criteria. The involvement of non-governmental actors in recommending or selecting grantees can lead to conflicts of interest and afford undue influence to privileged groups seeking to direct funding to their networks.

As Israeli and Palestinian NGOs prepare grant proposals, the U.S. Congress and administration must recognize the challenges and potential pitfalls that lie ahead. Only through a clear-eyed approach will they be able to avoid repeating past mistakes and advance an agenda that reflects U.S. values and interests.

Yona Schiffmiller is the director of the research department at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.

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