Israel disputes US claim it wasn’t told of plan to outlaw rights groups

Defense official says US was given intel showing ties between PFLP terror group and Palestinian groups, doubles down on the allegation — but refuses to release evidence publicly

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) gestures to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) gestures to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

An Israeli defense official on Saturday disputed American claims that the United States was not informed of a highly contentious decision by Jerusalem to label six Palestinian rights organizations as terror groups, insisting Washington had been told in advance.

“Officials in the American administration were updated in advance of the intention to make this declaration and they received intelligence information about the matter,” the defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On Friday afternoon, Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that half a dozen Palestinian civil society groups — including highly prominent ones with significant backing and oversight from the European Union and other international bodies — were being designated as terror organizations, asserting that they worked on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group.

The list consisted of: Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees; ADDAMEER — Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association; Bisan Center for Research and Development; al-Haq Organization; Defense for Children International — Palestine (DCI-P); and the Union Of Agricultural Work Committees.

“Those organizations were active under the cover of civil society organizations, but in practice belong and constitute an arm of the [PFLP] leadership, the main activity of which is the liberation of Palestine and destruction of Israel,” Gantz’s office said in a statement. According to the Defense Ministry, all six organizations employed senior PFLP members, “including activists involved in terror activity.”

Representatives of the groups and international organizations denied the charges and accused Israel of trying to silence criticism of alleged human rights abuses, with one of the organizations, al-Haq, calling the move “a sinister, unprecedented, and blanket attack on Palestinian human rights defenders and civil society organizations.”

The move sparked a swift backlash around the globe, with the EU, the Palestinian Authority, progressive Democrats, US Jewish groups, and international human rights organizations expressing criticism.

The defense official doubled down on the charges against the six groups on Saturday night, accusing them of serving as fronts for the the PFLP.

“The organizations act as an organized network under the directive of the Popular Front’s leadership. Many terrorist operatives, including those convicted of terrorism, have been employed by the organization. The organizations forged documents in order to raise money and to continue raising them with activities that never took place,” the official said.

“The organizations represent a lifeline for the Popular Front for raising money and recruiting operatives and even for laundering money for the PFLP,” he added.

The defense officials also alleged that the organizations recruited people to join the PFLP’s armed military wing.

The Defense Ministry provided no concrete evidence of these allegations or of a direct connection between these organizations and the PFLP in its announcement on Friday, nor did the defense official on Saturday night.

The official said the alleged connections between the PFLP and the six civil rights groups were raised during an investigation by the Shin Bet security service that was conducted from March to May of this year.

The official was responding to comments from US State Department spokesman Ned Price, who the day before said Washington planned to ask Israel for more information about this decision.

“The Israeli government did not give us advance warning” that the Palestinian groups would be blacklisted, he added.

“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” Price said.

The State Department spokesman also condemned Israel for its recently published plans to advance plans for thousands of settlement units to be built throughout the West Bank.

Earlier on Friday, the United Nations and EU had separately raised doubts about Israel’s reasoning for the blacklistings.

“The designation decisions published by the National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing of Israel list extremely vague or irrelevant reasons, including entirely peaceful and legitimate activities such as provision of legal aid and ‘promotion of steps against Israel in the international arena,’” the UN Human Rights Office in Ramallah charged.

An EU statement noted, “Past allegations of the misuse of EU funds in relation to some of our Palestinian [civil society organization] partners have not been substantiated.”

Both Israeli military and civilian law ban supporting or joining a terror group, and violators can face years in prison. Israeli authorities can also seize assets belonging to terror organizations and forbid funding their activities. Donors may also be subject to significant jail time.

Israeli authorities have charged before that the PFLP has pilfered millions of euros from civil society organizations affiliated with its members to fund terrorist activities.

In May, the Shin Bet arrested four suspects, including a Spanish citizen, who were believed to have channeled European funds to the PFLP.

Jacob Magid and Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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