A secret document distributed by Israel to justify its terrorist designations of six prominent Palestinian human rights groups shows no concrete evidence of involvement in violent activities by any of the groups.
The designation of the Palestinians groups, which was met by international outrage from defenders of human rights, was announced on October 22 by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Gantz cited alleged links between the groups and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, a left-wing Palestinian political party with its own military wing.
Despite the severity of the declaration, Israel has yet to publicly present any documents directly or indirectly linking the six groups to the PFLP or to any violent activity.
The secret document, a dossier containing the purported justifications were obtained by +972, Local Call, and The Intercept along with a raft of ancillary documents. The dossier, which was prepared by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security force, was marked as classified by the Israeli government but widely distributed. The dossier is largely based on interrogations of two accountants working for a seventh Palestinian civil society group that was declared a terrorist organization last year; a lawyer for one of the accountants said the testimonies were gathered under duress.
Since May, before Gantz’s declaration, Israeli Foreign Ministry envoys repeatedly appealed to the international community, particularly European nations, to make the case 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 involved in the financing of terrorist activities.
The 74-page dossier, or nearly identical documents, were distributed internationally to other governments both before and after the terror designations, in apparent hopes of rallying support to the cause of discrediting, defunding, and dismantling the groups. The Israeli Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.
The Palestinian groups, some of which are highly respected by the international community, draw funding from several European governments. In May, Israeli emissaries sent the dossier to European countries in a bid to persuade the governments to cut funding. The dossier, however, failed to convince the foreign governments; officials from at least five of the European countries said that the dossier did not contain any “concrete evidence” and decided to continue their financial support.
“The attack on them is a political one under the guise of security.”
“Since the Europeans didn’t buy the allegations, they” — Israeli authorities — “used unconventional warfare: declaring the organizations terrorist groups,” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer representing Al-Haq in the matter of the terror designation.
The effort to shutter the Palestinian rights groups is widely seen as part of a yearslong campaign to silence criticisms of Israel by getting European donors to withdraw funding. Sfard noted that the six groups had been classified as organizations involved in efforts to “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,” Sfard said. “The attack on them is a political one under the guise of security.”
Following Gantz’s designation, the groups 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 to silence them and their work exposing Israeli human rights violations.
Since May, Israel has raided the offices of four 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 of their governments’ requests for more information on the matter. Senior officials from three other European countries have issued statements to the media to that effect.
The dossier has continued to play a role in the political fallout from the terror designations. Two American sources familiar with the details of the matter told +972, Local Call, and The Intercept that an Israeli delegation sent to do damage control following outrage over the designations distributed a similar or identical document to members of U.S. Congress and congressional staff. 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 documents to the State Department, which, according to previous news reports, had requested more information on the designations.
Advocates for Palestinian rights said that the Israelis may get more traction with the Americans than Europeans. “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,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “In the U.S., 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.”
“Evidence” From Interrogations
The dossier is focused mainly on allegations against a seventh Palestinian group, Health Work Committees, and interrogations of two accountants who worked with the group. The two accountants, Said Abdat and Amro Hamuda, were fired after being suspected of financial misconduct, according to the Israeli government document. In addition to the Shin Bet dossier itself, +972, Local Call, and The Intercept obtained hundreds of pages of summaries based on Shin Bet and Israeli police interrogations of Abdat and Hamuda.
The document sent to the Europeans is based almost entirely on Abdat’s and Hamuda’s testimonies and claims that their accounts prove that the other six organizations were part of a network run by the PFLP and directed funds to PFLP’s armed activities.
Neither the dossier nor the summaries of Abdat’s and Hamuda’s repeated interrogations reveal any concrete information about ties between the six organizations and the PFLP. Instead, the accountants — who did not work for any of the six targeted organizations — based most of their assertions on general hypotheses, what they alleged was “common knowledge,” or information they claimed was widely known. The dossier and interrogation summaries contain no concrete evidence of involvement between any of the groups and violent PFLP activities, nor — contrary to assertions by Israel’s Defense Ministry — evidence that any of the six groups directed funds to the PFLP.
An attorney for Hamuda told +972, Local Call, and The Intercept that his client had offered no proof of any direct instance of funding to the PFLP. “There is not a single sentence in the investigation in which Hamuda claims to have transferred money to the PFLP,” said Khaled al-Araj, the attorney. “They distorted his testimony in order to persecute human rights organizations — this is something they have been doing for years.”
Labib Habib, an attorney representing Abdat, said the interrogators repeatedly pressured his client to incriminate the other six organizations. “This statement lacks any evidential value,” Habib said, referring to Abdat’s remarks about the other six groups. Habib said Abdat “does not have the relevant data” to link the groups to the PFLP: “Beyond the accounting he did for the organization he worked for, he has no way to determine such a thing.”
“He was subjected to a lot of pressure. They threatened to arrest his wife and family.”
Habib said he filed a motion to invalidate his client’s testimony because of the methods interrogators used. “He was subjected to a lot of pressure,” the lawyer said, of Abdat. “They threatened to arrest his wife and family, they put pressure on his family members.” The interrogations ran as much as 22 hours straight, Habib said, and when Abdat fainted several times, instead of receiving medical care, he was splashed with cold water and questioning continued. 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. Abdat was also barred from meeting with his lawyer for most of the interrogation period.
Israeli advocates against harsh interrogation techniques said Shin Bet’s practices, as outlined by Habib, may amount to torture. “The ‘shabah’ position is a stress position that causes the detainee severe physical suffering, to the point of torture,” Tal Steiner, the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, told +972, Local Call, and The Intercept. Steiner added that using family members to exert psychological pressure — which is banned by Israel’s High Court — could be considered psychological torture.
Shin Bet’s Allegations
The dossier, which bears 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.” According to the dossier, while some of these organizations have humanitarian goals, a portion of the donations made to them “have reached the terrorist organization itself.”
The dossier says Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, and the European Union all financially support the six rights groups. Both the Dutch foreign minister and the Belgian economic development minister have publicly stated that Israel’s allegations against the six groups did not contain “even a single concrete piece of evidence.” Following delivery of the dossier in May, Belgium and Sweden conducted independent audits on the financial conduct of the six organizations in question and their connections to the PFLP, spokespeople for the countries told +972, Local Call, and The Intercept. Neither country found any evidence to support the Shin Bet’s claims.
Health Work Committees, the organization at the center of the dossier, operates medical centers across the occupied West Bank. The group had already been outlawed as early as January 2020, following the arrest of the organization’s deputy director, Walid Hanatshah, on suspicion of his involvement in an August 2019 plot to murder 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb. Earlier this year, five of Health Work Committees’ employees were arrested and interrogated on suspicion of misappropriating funds to PFLP activities using false financial reports. The group’s general director, Shatha Odeh, has been in Israeli administrative detention since July, without being charged in any crime.
Along with Hanatshah, two employees belonging to the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, one of the six recently designated groups, were arrested in Shnerb’s murder — the only publicly available allegation about any member of the six groups and violent activity. Following the murder, several PFLP leaders as well as a host of rights group employees, activists, and students were caught up in an Israeli dragnet, but only a few of them were accused of involvement in the killing itself.
The evidence in the dossier against Health Work Committees, the seventh group designated last year, boils down to copies of nine fraudulent receipts as well as an audio recording of Hamuda, the accountant, in which he admits to producing the forgeries. The fraud appears to not have been directed toward funding violence, a claim for which no evidence is offered, but rather at undertaking financial tricks: Hamuda tells the Israeli officials that the “games” with invoices never benefited the PFLP — a denial omitted from the Shin Bet dossier — but rather were used to pay off Health Work Committees’ debt.
Though the only fake receipts produced in the dossier come from Health Work Committees, the Shin Bet used a single statement by Abdat to tie several of the other groups to PFLP violence by suggesting that they were using the same scheme. Abdat told his interrogators that he taught employees of Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and Bisan Center how to “forge documents and receipts, in order to make profits.” No proof was given to back up his claim and no evidence was presented that any of the other six groups used the scheme, let alone put it in service of financing terrorism.
Omissions of Context
Abdat and Hamuda claimed it was “known” that the six organizations were “affiliated” with the PFLP, according to the summaries of their interrogations. One interrogator summed up Hamuda’s remarks by writing, “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.”
In all cases where Abdat and Hamuda were asked to specify what they meant by “PFLP activities,” they described educational or humanitarian projects that are ostensibly politically affiliated with the organization. In no instance did they describe the financing of violent activities.
In the hundreds of pages of interrogation summaries, there is only a single reference to military activities.
When asked how he had come to understand that “that money reached the activities of the PFLP,” Abdat replied that “he saw receipts which were used for various PFLP activities, such as dabke courses held in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem,” referring to a traditional Palestinian dance. The dossier presented to European governments, however, only included the first part of the sentence about “PFLP activities” — omitting the context that the reference was to dance lessons.
In the hundreds of pages of interrogation summaries, there is only a single reference to military activities: Abdat, according to the summary of an April 8 interrogation, claimed that a particular PFLP committee “decides how to divide the funds between military activities and organizations.” The quote appears in the dossier but without caveats from Abdat that he doesn’t know how the committee gets or distributes the funds and that, as far as he knew, the money went to “university campus activities, support for the wounded or sick, and support for the families of martyrs and prisoners.”
In their interrogations, Abdat and Hamuda named several PFLP projects involving various groups from the six that were designated as terror organizations. In these cases, the dossier mentions the involvement in the projects but not Abdat’s and Hamuda’s explanations of the projects themselves. None of the activities fingered by Abdat and Hamuda as parts of the PFLP projects included violence; instead, the two accountants described summer camps, sports activities, campus organizing, and educational courses taught by PFLP members that provide “PFLP-related content.” None of the testimonies mentioned in the dossier are backed up by concrete evidence, including any documents or receipts.
In some instances, the summaries of Abdat’s and Hamuda’s interrogations reveal how poorly acquainted they were with the six organizations designated as terror groups. In one instance, Hamuda 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.