Who’s targeting Palestinian NGOs more than Israel?

While Israel has come under attack for its move against six NGOs, there is almost no mention that the PA, which joined the bandwagon of anti-Israel criticism, has also been targeting Palestinian NGOs for quite some time.

By Khaled Abu Toameh, The Gatestone Institute

Israel’s recent decision to designate six Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as terrorist organizations sparked a wave of protests and condemnations from many parties around the world, including human rights groups and political activists.

Israel is being accused of cracking down on Palestinian civil society organizations not because of their affiliation with a terrorist group, but because of their political activities, which are often not that different.

The six Palestinian NGOs were classified by Israel as terrorist organizations because of their affiliation with the PLO’s Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by both the United States and the European Union.

The PFLP is one of 11 groups that forms the PLO, which is headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Each group receives monthly allocations of up to $70,000 from the PLO’s unofficial finance ministry, the Palestinian National Fund (PNF), which is responsible for managing financial aid coming from a variety of sources: funds from Arab states, contributions from wealthy Palestinians, and a “liberation tax” levied on Palestinians working in Arab countries.

Yet while Israel has come under attack for its move against the six NGOs, there is almost no mention that the Palestinian Authority (PA) (which joined the bandwagon of anti-Israel criticism) has also been targeting Palestinian NGOs for quite some time.

In fact, the measures taken by the PA against Palestinian NGOs seem far more serious than Israel’s decision to label six of them as terrorist organizations.

Israel targets 6 NGS, PA targets hundreds

While the Israeli measure affects only six groups and is related to security matters, the PA has been targeting hundreds of Palestinian NGOs, including charitable groups, as part of an effort to control them and take their funds. Unlike Israel, the PA is not targeting the NGOs because of their affiliation with terrorism. Many of the NGOs have been critical of the PA leadership: that is why Abbas wants to silence them.

The PA measures against the NGOs have been almost entirely ignored by the same people and parties who are now condemning Israel for its decision to designate the PFLP-affiliated groups as terrorist organizations.

Earlier this year, Abbas issued a “presidential decree” that restricts the work of Palestinian civil society organizations. The decree imposes severe restrictions on the activity and finances of Palestinian NGOs, authorizing Palestinian officials to transfer NGO funds to the PA treasury, but with virtually no transparency.

In 2019, the PA froze bank accounts of dozens of Palestinian NGOs in the Gaza Strip. The move was condemned by the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO), an umbrella organization for civil society groups.

According to PNGO, the decision to freeze the bank accounts of the NGOs “threatens the services they provide and undermines their role in enhancing the steadfastness of Palestinians.”

It is important to note that not all Palestinian NGOs are affiliated with terrorist groups, and that is the reason Israel has not taken any measures against them.

Abbas’s “presidential decree” essentially subordinates Palestinian NGOs to the PA government, granting it authority to intervene in their activity and budgets.

Palestinian civil society organizations condemned Abbas’s decree. They dubbed it a “vicious attack against NGOs.” The decree, they said, was “issued within the framework of several ongoing laws-by-decree that are drafted in full secrecy and behind closed doors.”

The NGOs and several Palestinian factions added that the PA leadership’s decree aims to tighten its grip on the work of civil society and charitable groups and constitutes a flagrant violation of human rights and public freedoms.

They also accused the PA of seeking to undermine the “monitoring role of the NGOs over the performance of the executive authority and their objective to hold this authority accountable for its violations.”

Al-Haq, one of the six organizations labeled by Israel as a terrorist organization, lashed out at Abbas’s decree regarding NGOs, saying it “finishes off what remains of a Palestinian political system and “demonstrates large-scale flagrant violations of the Palestinian Basic Law and international conventions.”

Additionally, Al-Haq said that Abbas’s move against Palestinian NGOs “infringes on the pillars of transparency and openness to civil society.” Al-Haq pointed out that this was not the first time the PA leadership had targeted Palestinian NGOs.

When Al-Haq complained about the PA decree targeting Palestinian NGOs, the mainstream media in the West, as well as several human rights organizations, self-righteously chose to look the other way.

When Al-Haq and other Palestinian NGOs denounced Israel for classifying them as terrorist organizations, though, many journalists and human rights organizations around the world suddenly woke up and joined the attack on Israel.

When several Palestinian factions called on Abbas to rescind his decree against the charitable and civil society organizations, many in the international community shut their eyes and ears. The international community did not demand “clarifications” from the PA leadership about his “assault” on Palestinian NGOs.

The factions said that Abbas’s decree “contradicts public freedoms and undermines the independence of civil society institutions.” They further warned that, if implemented, thousands of workers in health, educational, agricultural, human rights and other sectors would lose their jobs.

The International Commission to Support Palestinian Rights called on Abbas to cancel the decree because it “restricts public freedoms, especially the freedom to form and operate associations, and obstructs their work and vital role in protecting human rights.”

Palestinian legal expert Majed al-Arouri denounced the decree as a “collective punishment” targeting those who criticize the PA leadership. He said that more than 20,000 Palestinian employees would lose their jobs as a result of the restrictions imposed by the PA on the work of Palestinian NGOs and charitable organizations.

Another Palestinian legal expert, Issam Abdeen, said that Abbas’s decree “destroys institutions that have spent years building their national cadres.”

There is yet another ironic twist to the story concerning the six Palestinian NGOs declared by Israel as PFLP affiliates. Recently, PFLP officials accused Abbas of halting monthly payments to their organization as part of an attempt to blackmail it and force it to change its policies.

Palestinians believe that the suspension of the payments was taken because of the PFLP’s criticism of the PA leadership’s policies. The PFLP does not recognize Israel and favors a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — meaning a State of Palestine “from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea,” as they put it, in short, all of Israel.

A classic and continuous cover-up

Thus, while Israel is being castigated for targeting PFLP-affiliated organizations, not a word is being said about Abbas’s decision to halt payments to the terrorist group. As far as many in the international community are concerned, it is fine if Abbas takes punitive measures against the PFLP, but it is an outrage if Israel does so.

On October 25, Abbas met with representatives of the six NGOs labeled by Israel as terrorist organizations and told them that he stands with them in “carrying out their duty of exposing Israeli crimes.”

During the meeting, Abbas stated that Israel has no right to interfere with the work of the NGOs, which operate in accordance with the Palestinian law. This is the same Abbas accused by Palestinian NGOs of obstructing their work.

We are witnessing classic — and continuous — cover-up on the part of Abbas and the Palestinian NGOs, whose representatives seem to have forgotten to inform the world about the PA’s brutal measures against Palestinian civil society and charitable organizations.

One wonders whether those who are now denouncing Israel will have the decency to call out Abbas for imposing severe and destructive restrictions on Palestinian NGOs in an attempt to silence them and lay his hands on their money.

Those who are ignoring Abbas’s crackdown on the Palestinian NGOs are depriving the Palestinians of democracy and freedom of speech. It is no surprise that 71% of the Palestinians in the West Bank believe that they cannot criticize the PA without fear. It is also no surprise that half the Palestinians living under the rule of the PA describe the status of democracy and human rights as very bad.

The international community’s obsession with Israel — as demonstrated in its response to the designation of the six NGOs as terrorist groups — proves that it is more interested in condemning and delegitimizing Israel than improving the status of human rights and democracy under the PA.

Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.