JERUSALEM (AP) — A confidential Israeli dossier detailing alleged links between Palestinian human rights groups and an internationally designated terrorist organization contains little concrete evidence and 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 +972 Magazine, which was the first to report on it, along with the Hebrew-language Local Call. Israel may have additional evidence that has not been made public.
Last month, Israel designated six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist groups, saying they were tied to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular, leftist political movement with an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis. Israel and Western countries consider the PFLP a terrorist organization.
But Israel has yet to take further action against the groups, which operate openly in the occupied West Bank. The Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet did not respond to requests for comment.
The six groups, some of which have close ties to rights groups in Israel and abroad, deny the allegations. They say the terror designation is aimed at muzzling critics of Israel's half-century military occupation of territories the Palestinians want for their future state.
The designated groups are the Al-Haq human rights group, the Addameer rights group, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.
The dossier 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 which was outlawed in January 2020. Both were reportedly fired in 2019 for embezzling funds, and were later detained by the Shin Bet. Their lawyers could not be reached for comment.
Neither appears to have ever worked for the six organizations outlawed last month.
In redacted excerpts from their interrogation by Israeli authorities, they allege that the six organizations are PFLP branches but do not provide any evidence beyond naming a handful of alleged PFLP members employed by the groups. They suggest that some of the employees forge receipts to siphon away donor funds, but do not provide proof or say where the money went.
Speaking about the Union of Agricultural Work Committees — one of the six — Abedat is quoted as saying, “as far as I know, this organization affiliates to the PFLP." His "estimation” is that the same printing company that helped him forge invoices also helped the other group.
Even when describing his own work in diverting funds to the PFLP, Abedat makes no mention of militant activities. “We funded PFLP activities such as university activities, funding of the injured and sick for the PFLP, funding of families of martyrs and prisoners from the PFLP,” he is quoted as saying.
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 dossier also details several forged invoices, all from the Union of Health Committees. In one instance, Abedat says: “I estimate that this money went to PFLP activities." In the others, it's either unclear where the money went, or Abedat says it was used to cover the UHC's debts.
Several European officials have expressed skepticism about the allegations.
In a letter to Dutch lawmakers on May 12, caretaker Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag said new Israeli information on two Palestinian organizations that were indirectly funded by the Netherlands “offers no concrete evidence of links with the PFLP."
Kaag acknowledged that two former employees of the UAWC who had received salaries from a Dutch-funded project were suspected in a deadly August 2019 bombing in the occupied West Bank that was blamed on the PFLP. She said the government had already suspended funding for that project pending an independent investigation.
Belgium's development minister told a parliamentary commission in July that her government also investigated Israeli information received in May but found "no concrete material evidence for possible fraud at the partner organizations.”
The minister, Meryame Kitir, said the government had also examined annual audits of the groups carried out by international firms like Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers without finding any irregularities.
"I therefore see no reason today to freeze funds, nor to have additional external investigations carried out," she said.
Last month, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney expressed concern about the terrorism designation, saying previous allegations against Palestinian civil society organizations supported by Ireland and the EU “have not been substantiated.”
Shin Bet officials traveled to Washington last week to brief U.S. officials on the terrorism designation. They shared a summary of their presentation with the AP that largely matched the dossier, including excerpts from the same interrogations, but may have shared other evidence that was classified. State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on those discussions or say whether the United States shares Israel’s assessment of the Palestinian groups.
NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel group that researches Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, says it has identified 13 — including the six targeted with the terror designation and the previously outlawed UHC— that together have employed more than 70 individuals with PFLP ties.
Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor, said Israel trained its attention on the purported network after the August 2019 attack, which killed a 17-year-old Israeli girl, and appears to be building its case.
“The HWC was the first one. They’re looking to see where the money comes from," he told the AP. “We identify organizations with sometimes 10, 11, 12 individuals in senior positions, in many cases the accountants, the treasurers, the board members."
Critics say pro-Israel groups aim to discredit Palestinian rights activists in order to shield Israel from criticism in world 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 views the ICC and other international organizations as biased against it.
Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli lawyer who often represents Palestinians, said the dossier “amounts to absolutely nothing" when it comes to the six organizations. He is providing legal representation to one of the six, Al-Haq, a human rights group founded in 1979 that gets only a passing mention in the dossier.
Sfard said the two detainees cannot be considered reliable witnesses, and that even if their statements are taken at face value, they don't prove anything.
“It’s all guilt by association. Even if it is true that people who work in certain organizations are PFLP operatives, it does not follow that the organization itself is part of the PFLP," he said.
"On all levels, this document in fact shows how weak the whole case against these six organizations is,” he added.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.
Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press