EU enables Israeli attack on Palestinian groups

(Mamoun Wazwaz - APA Images)

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 26, 2021

Israel’s designation of six major Palestinian rights groups as “terrorist” organizations on Friday elicited an immediate and strong response from human rights defenders.

Reactions have continued to pour in. On Monday, two dozen human rights organizations in Israel jointly condemned the move as an “act of cowardice” that is “characteristic of repressive, authoritarian regimes.”

They called on the “the international community to oppose this decision unequivocally.”

“This designation is a frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere,” a dozen UN special rapporteurs stated on Monday as well.

The independent experts, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor a range of issues, warned that the Israeli designation would effectively ban the work of the human rights groups. It provides a pretext for Israel to arrest their staff, close their offices and seize their property.

The rapporteurs added that in at least one case, the Israeli action “may have been taken as a form of reprisal for cooperation with UN entities.”

Several of the organizations have also been cooperating with the International Criminal Court’s investigation of war crimes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Silencing their voices is not what a democracy adhering to well-accepted human rights and humanitarian standards would do,” the UN experts added.

“We call upon the international community to defend the defenders.”

EU keeps its head down

Some members of the European Parliament have also called for Israel to be held accountable, including by suspending the special privileges it receives under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

Yet there has been a conspicuous silence from the European Union and its member states.

The EU’s hyperactive social media accounts chattered on about every issue under the sun, but nothing was said about this latest Israeli attack on the allegedly European values of human rights, democracy and freedom.

Dimiter Tzantchev, the new EU envoy in Tel Aviv even tweeted about how much he “enjoyed” a visit to a new Israeli TV studio, along with the French ambassador.

On Monday, I wrote to Peter Stano, the foreign affairs spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. I asked him what explained this silence – especially since at least two of the six banned organizations receive EU funding.

He responded right away, admonishing me, “you are wrong in your statement about the EU being silent.”

Stano pointed out that he had addressed the matter that day during the EU’s regular press briefing, in response to questions from journalists.

He sent me the text of his response.

When I asked Stano why the EU had not initiated a statement or put anything out on social media, he replied that it was “very superficial and actually quite misleading to make judgments based only on the activity” of the EU’s statements on social media.

“We always use a variety of means of communication and ways to get our message across at an appropriate time,” Stano added.

Given that the EU never seems to find the “appropriate time” to hold Israel accountable, skepticism is in order.

But let’s look at what the EU has given us so far.

Aside from the fact that the EU waited days to comment and only when asked, the substance of Stano’s remarks at the press briefing was less than overwhelming.

The EU did not criticize or condemn Israel’s action but did “take note” of it.

Perhaps the most significant part of the statement was that “past allegations of the misuse of EU funds in relation to certain of our Palestinian civil society organizations’ partners have not been substantiated.”

As even the right-wing Jerusalem Post acknowledged, Israel has presented no evidence at all for its accusations that the six groups – Al-Haq, Addameer, Defense for Children International Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Bisan Center for Research and Development – are channeling funds to support “terrorist” activities by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

And yet, the European Union bent over backwards in showing deference to Israel: Stano said the bloc took the Israeli accusations “very seriously” and was “looking into the allegations.”

“Smoke and mirrors”

Surely, given how even the EU acknowledges that Israel’s previous claims have been false, the onus should be on Israel to provide proof before the EU investigates.

But of course there will never be such proof because as every organization that is serious about defending human rights knows, the Israeli accusations are baseless.

Interestingly, Gerald Steinberg, the director of NGO Monitor, perhaps inadvertently acknowledged this.

NGO Monitor is a right-wing Israeli organization that is the main source for these kinds of smears against Palestinian rights groups and those who fund them.

It has published what it claims is an “analysis” supporting the Israeli accusations.

On Monday, Sweden apparently became the first EU member state to speak out – albeit mildly – about Israel’s attack on the Palestinian groups.

The Swedish government confirmed that “previous allegations of misuse of Swedish funds [were] not substantiated.”

Steinberg responded with the assertion Swedish officials “have known for years that officials in a number of their Palestinian NGO [nongovernmental organization] subcontractors are involved with the PFLP terror organization.”

“How do they know that, beyond salaries, untraceable taxpayer funds for NGO industry do not get diverted to terror?”

Steinberg’s question reveals that Israel’s and NGO Monitor’s theory for outlawing these organizations is based on nothing more than speculation and guilt by association with the PFLP – which like virtually every other Palestinian political party Israel designates as “terrorist.”

Steinberg has accused Palestinian human rights organizations of being “terror fronts” hiding behind “smoke and mirrors.”

But that is a much better description for Israel’s campaign of lies aimed at sabotaging the work of those who document its crimes.

The European Union does appear to be sensitive enough to the mounting criticism over its silence and complicity with Israel’s escalating violations of Palestinian rights that it staged a photo-op on Monday with representatives of the six organizations.

But as usual, this came with no condemnation or consequences for Israel’s actions. That’s tantamount to a green light from Brussels for Israel to further escalate its assault.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)