Yuval Abraham, Oren Ziv & Meron Rapoport
+ 972 Magazine / November 4, 2021
Israel hoped a classified Shin Bet document would convince European governments to stop funding Palestinian rights groups. +972 and Local Call got hold of the dossier’s testimonies — and found no real evidence to justify Israel’s claims.
On October 22, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz designated six prominent Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organizations,” citing alleged links with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a left-wing Palestinian party and militant movement. Despite the severity of the declaration, which was reportedly based on intelligence gathered by the Shin Bet, Israel has failed to present any documents directly or indirectly linking the six organizations to the PFLP or to any violent activity.
So on what evidence was this declaration supposedly based? This question has been asked over the last two weeks by the human rights community, as well as a small number of Knesset members and senior representatives of countries friendly to Israel. A source inside the defense establishment was widely quoted in Israeli media saying that the proof against the Palestinian groups was “rock solid.”
However, information from classified documents that we are revealing here for the first time casts serious doubt on that claim.
Since May of this year, Israeli Foreign Ministry envoys have repeatedly appealed to the international community that the six Palestinian organizations — Al-Haq, Addameer, Bisan Center, Defense For Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees — are closely linked to the PFLP, and are even involved in the financing of terrorist activities.
To substantiate the allegations against the NGOs, some of which are highly-respected in the international arena, Israeli emissaries sent a 74-page classified dossier prepared by the Shin Bet to representatives of European countries in May 2021, in the hope of persuading them to stop funding the organizations. Yet according to the evidence we have gathered, the dossier failed to convince these foreign governments. Senior officials in at least five of the European countries said that the dossier did not contain any “concrete evidence,” and thus decided to continue financially supporting the organizations.
+972, Local Call, and The Intercept got hold of the classified Shin Bet dossier, as well as hundreds of pages of summaries in Hebrew of Shin Bet and Israeli police interrogations of two Palestinian accountants: Said Abdat and Amro Hamuda. Both men worked for a Palestinian organization that was not listed in Gantz’s orders, the Health Work Committees, and both were fired by the NGO after being suspected of financial malpractice. Both men remain in Israeli detention.
The document sent to the Europeans is based almost entirely on Abdat’s and Hamuda’s testimonies. It claims that these testimonies prove that the six organizations in question were part of a network run by the PFLP, and that the funds the organizations received were being used for the PFLP’s armed activities.
An examination of the dossier’s “evidence,” however, along with an examination of the summaries of Abdat’s and Hamuda’s repeated interrogations, reveals that the accountants — who did not work for any of the six targeted organizations — based most of their accusations on general hypotheses, what they alleged was “common knowledge,” or information they claimed was widely “known.”
More importantly, even Abdat’s and Hamuda’s unsubstantiated testimonies indicate, at most, that some of these organizations were involved in civic and public activities such as student events, helping the sick, and poetry classes that form part of the PFLP’s work as a movement in Palestinian society. A lawyer representing one of the accountants, Abdat, further alleges that his client may have been pressured to provide testimony following interrogation methods that could amount to torture or ill-treatment.
These critical aspects of Abdat’s and Hamuda’s testimonies were omitted from the Shin Bet’s dossier. In fact, contrary to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s claims, the dossier did not provide a single piece of evidence proving the six organizations diverted their funds to the PFLP or to violent activities.
The dossier’s accusations against the six NGOs are almost identical to the allegations in Gantz’s announcement two weeks ago. The accountants’ interrogations, which took place between March and May of this year, were also mentioned by the ministry as a source for the allegations.
Since May, Israel has raided the offices of three of the six human rights groups, and may have obtained additional evidence to try showing a direct link between the organizations and the PFLP. However, senior officials from two European countries who spoke with +972, Local Call, and The Intercept on condition of anonymity said that, since Gantz’s announcement, Israel has ignored all requests for more information on the matter. Senior officials from three other European countries have issued statements to the media to that effect.
Additionally, two American sources familiar with the details on the matter said that an Israeli delegation was sent to Washington to do damage control following outrage over the terror designations, and met with members of Congress and Congressional staff to try and explain Gantz’s announcement. One of the sources said that the documents the delegation presented to U.S. lawmakers was very similar to the one presented to the Europeans in May, adding “That’s all the members of Congress saw.” The two American sources, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the diplomacy, said there were plans to present the same documents to the U.S. State Department, which, according to previous news reports, had requested more information from the Israeli government on the designations.
The Shin Bet’s ‘evidence’
The classified dossier, which features the Shin Bet logo, is titled: “Findings of Inquiry: Foreign Funding for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine through a Network of ‘Civil Society’ Organizations.” The document opens with background on the PFLP — which Israel, the United States, and the European Union deem a “terrorist organization” — and its armed operations since the 1970s, and goes on to argue that the PFLP established civil society organizations to serve as front groups. According to the document, while some of these NGOs have humanitarian goals, a portion of the donations made to them “have reached the terrorist organization itself.”
The dossier mentions Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, and the European Union as countries and bodies that financially support the six NGOs, and its aim was most likely to persuade them to cut off money to the groups. Yet both the Dutch foreign minister and the Belgian economic development minister have publicly stated that the dossier did not contain “even a single concrete piece of evidence.” Following the dossier, Belgium and Sweden said they conducted independent audits on the financial conduct of the six organizations in question and their connection to the PFLP. Neither country found any evidence for the Shin Bet’s claims.
In fact, most of the dossier does not actually discuss the six NGOs in Gantz’s announcement, but rather focuses on a seventh Palestinian organization, the Health Work Committees. The organization, which operates medical centers across the occupied West Bank, was not included in Gantz’s declaration since it was already outlawed as early as January 2020 after the group’s deputy director, Walid Hanatshah, was accused of plotting to murder 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb in a roadside bombing attack in August 2019. Earlier this year, five employees belonging to the Health Work Committees — including its director, Shatha Odeh — were arrested and interrogated on suspicion of misappropriating funds to PFLP activities using false financial reports.
Furthermore, two employees belonging to the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, one of the six NGOs in question, were arrested over Shnerb’s murder — perhaps the only known link between any member of the six groups and violent activity. Following the murder, Israeli security forces arrested dozens of political activists, employees from various human rights organizations, activists, and students on suspicion of links to the PFLP, including Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for the PFLP. In Jarrar’s case, the Shin Bet issued a dramatic statement linking her to the PFLP’s violent activities, yet the allegation was entirely absent from her indictment sheet and she was never convicted of ties to violence.
Financing terror — without any proof
The dossier contains nine fake receipts issued by the Health Work Committees, as well as an audio recording of Hamuda, in which he allegedly admits to forging such receipts. The dossier quotes a phone call he held with another employee, in which Hamuda reportedly said: “For each project you will buy something real and buy something that is not real. What is not real, we will inflate and transfer to the funder, who will pay the amount. That way we will close the debts of the Health Work Committees.”
However, these receipts, along with the other hundreds of pages of the Shin Bet and police investigations, offer no proof that the alleged embezzlement of the organization’s funds was done for the purpose of financing violent activities.
For example, during Hamuda’s interrogation on March 29, the interrogator repeatedly accused him of “playing with invoices” to support the PFLP. According to the documents, Hamuda replied that while he “played games here and there, it was not for PFLP purposes,” and that he instead “helped inflate the invoices [because of] the Health Work Committee’s debts to service providers.” These sections of the investigation do not appear in the Israeli dossier sent to the Europeans.
The fake receipts presented to the Europeans come solely from the Health Work Committees, and are accompanied by general allegations by Abdat and Hamuda. Speaking about the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Abdat said during his April 7 interrogation: “I assume that the Bisan printing company [unrelated to Bisan Center, one of the six groups in Gantz’s declaration] provides services to the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and also helps them forge receipts.” Regarding the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and Bisan Center, Abdat claimed that he taught employees in those organizations how to “forge documents and receipts, in order to make profits.” No proof was given to back up his claim.
Given the unsubstantiated nature of the testimonies, the value of the Shin Bet’s evidence seems very lacking — especially when taking into consideration that the accountants never worked for the six organizations they testified about, and were fired from the Health Work Committees due to suspicions of financial malpractice.
Ideological support for dance classes
Abdat and Hamuda allegedly claimed that it was “known” that the six organizations were “affiliated” with the PFLP. For example, when asked about Al-Haq on April 7, Abdat said that anyone who is not a member of the PFLP is “forbidden from working in Al-Haq.” Speaking about the UAWC and DCI-Palestine, Abdat told interrogators that both organizations are associated with or operate under the PFLP.
The Shin Bet interrogator summed up Abdat’s remarks in the interrogation on April 6 as follows: “The institutions belong to the PFLP, are connected to each other, and constitute the lifeblood of the organization economically and organizationally. That is, through money laundering and in financing the activities of the PFLP.” The interrogator summed up Hamuda’s remarks from his March 31 interrogation as such: “The PFLP operates institutions, centers, and committees in a centralized manner for the purpose of receiving funding for PFLP activities.” When asked how the money is transferred to the PFLP and for what purposes, Hamuda replied that he “does not exactly know.”
However, in all cases where Abdat and Hamuda were asked to specify what they meant by “PFLP activities,” they only described educational or humanitarian projects that are ostensibly affiliated with the organization. In no case did they describe the financing of violent activities. When asked how he had come to understand that “money reached the activities of the PFLP,” Abdat replied that he “saw receipts which were used for various PFLP activities, such as dabke [a traditional Palestinian dance] courses held in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem.” Only the first part of this sentence was presented to Europeans, while the second part — from which it is understood that the receipts refer to a dance class — was omitted from the dossier.
During Hamuda’s March 29 interrogation, he was asked which PFLP activities were funded by the Health Work Committees, to which he replied: “These are different activities for students, such as summer camps.” In a separate interrogation, Hamuda replied that they funded “courses on leadership with external lecturers, and courses for women on women’s rights.” When asked by the interrogator on March 29 how these organizations contribute to the PFLP, Hamuda replied that “he does not know.”
In fact, in the hundreds of pages of interrogation summaries, there is only a single reference to military activities. According to the summary of his April 8 interrogation, Abdat claimed that there exists a PFLP committee that “decides how to divide the funds between military activities and organizations.” While this part does appear in the dossier, it was presented without mentioning that Abdat had also added: “I do not know how the funds get to the committee and how they distribute the funds.” When asked to describe the PFLP’s activities, Abdat only spoke of “university campus activities, support for the wounded or sick, and support for the families of martyrs and prisoners.”
Abdat also told the interrogators that three of the six organizations in question supported an educational initiative entitled “Kanan Project,” which he claimed is affiliated with the PFLP. In its briefings to Israeli journalists, the Defense Ministry also mentioned the Kanan Project as one of the reasons the UAWC was declared a terrorist organization.
However, even in this case, the details of the activities themselves were not presented in the dossier, most likely to create the impression of clandestine activity. The investigation documents reveal that on April 6, Abdat told his interrogator that the Kanan Project “focused on youth rehabilitation; dabke classes; PFLP courses featuring PFLP content; preparation for summer camps; sports competitions; and volunteer opportunities; studies and research; campus activities; and activities for Jerusalem teenagers against the Zionist occupation. All the courses are managed by members of the PFLP and include PFLP-related content.” According to the Shin Bet, the Kanan Project is supported by the Basque Government through the foundation Mundubat.
That same day, Shin Bet interrogators also asked Abdat about an additional project, entitled “Five Associations,” in which four of the six organizations are allegedly involved, and whose activities are public. The interrogators summarized Abdat’s responses as follows:
As part of the Five Associations project:
- The Defense for Children International—Palestine published the arrests of and attacks on teenagers under the age of 18 by the “Israeli occupation.”
- Bisan Center dealt with the financing of a lawyer for detainees as well as summer camps for released prisoners of the PFLP.
- The Health Work Committees dealt with exercising medical rights of the residents of East Jerusalem vis-à-vis Israeli institutions and the activities of young people on behalf of the PFLP, such as theater and poetry classes.
- The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees dealt with exercising rights related to women’s rights, particularly to benefit women who support the PFLP.
Alleged ‘pressure’ in interrogations
None of the testimonies mentioned in the Shin Bet dossier are backed up by any concrete evidence, including any documents or receipts proving the accountants’ allegations.
Moreover, the summaries of Abdat and Hamuda’s interrogations reveal how poorly acquainted they were with the six organizations listed in Gantz’s declaration. For example, during his interrogation on March 31, Hamuda mentioned the six groups but erroneously noted that parliamentarian Khalida Jarrar is the director of Addameer, an organization that defends the rights of Palestinian political prisoners, despite the fact that she has not headed the organization since 2006 (Addameer’s current director is attorney Sahar Francis).
Atty. Labib Habib, who represents Abdat, said that the Israeli interrogators repeatedly pressured him to incriminate the other six organizations, and that the investigation continued until he agreed to say they belonged to the PFLP.
“This statement lacks any evidential value,” Habib said, “because [Abdat] does not have the relevant data according to which he can determine what belongs or does not belong [to the PFLP]. Beyond the accounting he did for the organization he worked for, he has no way to determine such a thing.”
Habib said he filed a motion to disqualify his client’s testimony. “He was subjected to a lot of pressure, [the interrogators] threatened to arrest his wife and family, they put pressure on his family members.” According to Habib, on some days his client was interrogated for 22 hours straight. He also said that Abdat fainted several times during the interrogation, after which Shin Bet interrogators poured water on him, and continued the interrogation without allowing him proper medical treatment.
Habib also claimed that throughout the interrogation, Abdat’s hands were bound behind his back and his legs were tied (known as the “shabah” position), causing him severe pain. He was also barred from meeting with his lawyer for most of the interrogation period. According to documents we received, Abdat was interrogated 32 times.
Khaled al-Araj, Amro Hamuda’s attorney, said: “There is not a single sentence in the investigation in which Hamuda claims to have transferred money to the PFLP… [the investigators] distorted his testimony in order to persecute human rights organizations — this is something they have been doing for years.”
Atty. Tal Steiner, the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, said that the Shin Bet practices outlined by Abdat’s attorney may amount to torture. “The shabah is a stress position that causes the detainee severe physical suffering, to the point of torture,” Steiner said. Steiner added that sleep deprivation causes serious mental and physical harm to the detainee, and that using family members to exert psychological pressure on the detainee — an act that was banned by Israel’s High Court — can be considered psychological torture.
European countries: ‘No concrete evidence’
According to multiple sources, Israel’s dossier failed to convince European officials that the organizations were indeed linked to either the PFLP or violent activities.
For example, during a discussion in the Belgian Federal Parliament in July, the country’s Minister of Development Cooperation Meryame Kitir said that her government had received the dossier, after which she instructed the administration to “thoroughly examine” the document. “Our investigation revealed that there is not a single piece of concrete evidence in the Israeli document that raises suspicions that there was fraud in these organizations,” Kitir continued. “I instructed the administration to examine the information again… the investigations were completed and the results were handed over to me in July. On that basis, I have determined that there is no reason to freeze funding for these organizations.”
In May, while still in office, former Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag — whose country helps fund three of the six organizations — said her government “received information from Israel claiming that there is a link between the Palestinian organizations and the PFLP. The information about the organizations that are indirectly funded by the Netherlands has been examined by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and there is no concrete evidence linking the organizations to the PFLP.”
Two European diplomats in Israel who have seen the dossier told +972, Local Call, and The Intercept that despite repeated requests, Israel has not provided them with new evidence since May to support the allegations that the six organizations diverted European funds to violence.
“There was a lot of pressure on us to stop the funding, but in a document presented by Israel, there was no solid evidence against the organizations,” one European deputy ambassador to Israel who had seen the dossier said. “We turned to the [Israeli] Defense Ministry this week and said that in order to take such a sharp step, we would need [to see] actual materials that prove their claims. We asked them to send us more materials, but we have not received anything since. Representatives of other embassies received similar responses.”
A senior EU official we spoke to this week also said that “the document provided to us by Israel in May was unconvincing, to say the least. We contacted [the Israelis] again immediately after the announcement to ask for more information, but as of this moment, we have not received anything. We were told that any further information will be passed only through intelligence channels.”
‘A political attack under the guise of security’
The dossier comes on the heels of a decade in which Israel exerted immense pressure on European donors to stop funding Palestinian civil society organizations. The pressure increased significantly when Israel’s now-defunct Strategic Affairs Ministry allocated special funding to the pressure campaign. The ministry compiled reports that claimed many Palestinian human rights groups, as well as activists that promote a boycott of Israel, are affiliated with terrorist organizations. Donor countries were clearly not convinced and did not freeze their funding.
The six groups have publicly denounced Israel’s claims, calling it “political persecution.” In a press conference held in Ramallah last week by five of the six groups, representatives from the organizations said they were targeted with false accusations in order to silence them and their work exposing Israeli human rights violations.
“Our work is entirely legal and transparent,” Al-Haq’s senior field researcher Hisham Sharbati told +972 two weeks ago. “Our funders receive detailed reports. We are under tight oversight, and everyone knows where every single shekel goes.”
“We have been targeted for years, for one reason: we’re succeeding in changing the paradigm around the world by speaking of apartheid,” Addameer’s director Sahar Francis also told +972. “We must go back to the roots of this attack.”
According to human rights attorney Michael Sfard, who is representing Al-Haq in its legal battle against the designation, the dossier was sent in order to persuade the Europeans to stop funding the organizations, yet “after this step failed, since the Europeans didn’t buy the allegations, [the Israeli authorities] used unconventional warfare: declaring the organizations terrorist groups.”
Sfard said the story of the six organizations “began in the Strategic Affairs Ministry — not in the Ministry of Defense, when they were first classified as organizations that ‘delegitimize Israel.’ It all starts and ends with the fact that these organizations are seen as promoting a boycott of Israel and the investigation of war crimes at the International Criminal Court. The attack on them is a political one under the guise of security.”
Lara Friedman, who heads the Foundation for Middle East Peace, called the dossier “a combination of out-of-context quotes implicating the [six] organizations, and which were taken during interrogations of people who were arrested for other things, together with alleged documents suggesting that not every dollar the Europeans gave one of the groups went to the purpose it was intended, yet without connecting that money to terror. In a court of law, this is not considered the highest level of evidence. This is not proof.” (Full disclosure: FMEP is a financial supporter of the nonprofit that publishes +972 Magazine.)
Friedman says the reason the Europeans, as opposed to the Americans, are far more reticent to accept the Israeli allegations as truth is a result of a “long escalation.”
“The Israelis have long tried to get the Europeans to stop funding these groups: first by accusing them of delegitimizing Israel, then by accusing them of being terrorist groups, and now by accusing them of affiliation with terrorist groups. In the United States, on the other hand, there is a general lack of awareness of the process to delegitimize these organizations and shut down their funding. So when the Israelis show up in D.C. and say they have evidence, the Americans don’t know any better,” Friedman said.
Not all U.S. lawmakers are willing to accept Israel’s allegations. Bernie Sanders’ Senate office is reportedly planning to host a briefing for Congressional staff members featuring some of the six NGOs as speakers, as well as human rights attorney Sfard. “We thought it was important for staff to hear from the Palestinian groups themselves to get a full understanding of the legal ramifications, as well as the context for the crackdown on civil rights activism,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy advisor.
At the time of publishing this article, the Israeli Defense Ministry had not responded to our query over whether the defense establishment has additional evidence on the six organizations beyond what was presented to European countries and the United States.
Yuval Abraham is a photography and linguistics student
Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, a founding member of the Activestills photography collective, and a staff writer for Local Call
Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call