NGO monitoring in the Middle East: how to do it

The term “NGO” is one of those difficult-to-decipher acronyms that frequently appear on the pages of The Jerusalem Post, leading those who encounter you to quickly turn the page to focus on the items they consider to be of most interest. However, given the current climate of global anti-Semitism and the rise in anti-Israel sentiments, the term is quite significant and deserves an explanation.

An NGO or non-governmental organization, writes Professor Ryan Irwin of the State University of New York at Albany, “refers to a group of like-minded individuals, not affiliated with any government, who seek to affect public policy and / or provide services to a community. “NGOs can provide valuable services around the world in areas such as emergency relief, international health education, women’s rights, children’s rights, economic development, environmental protection, disaster preparedness and more. In the Middle East, however, some have been involved in anti-Israel activities and have even been linked to terrorist organizations.

Olga Deutsch, vice president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, the independent research institute that publishes analysis on NGOs in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, explains that last week, Israel officially designated six Palestinian human rights NGOs as Terrorist groups working on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a terrorist organization designated by the EU and the United States. NGO Monitor research has shown that since 2011 the European Union alone authorized grants of at least $ 45 million to NGOs linked to the PFLP.

“There are several Palestinian human rights and humanitarian NGOs,” says Deutsch. “There are Palestinian organizations that deal with women’s rights. There is a Palestinian NGO that deals with children and their rights and another that advocates for access to medical services. A handful of these organizations – eight or nine – are affiliated with the PFLP terrorist group, with PFLP figures involved in financial and decision-making roles in these organizations.

In August 2019, 17-year-old Rina Shnerb was killed by a roadside bomb while walking near Dolev, a community 20 minutes from Modi’in. Israeli security forces arrested members of a PFLP cell after their assassination. Deutsch says: “Five of the 50 people who were arrested were senior employees of these Palestinian human rights and humanitarian NGOs.” All these NGOs, he adds, received funding from the EU and other government funds. NGO Monitor was the first organization to report on the connection between these NGOs and the terrorist organization PFLP. “Thanks to our investigation, there was a very public campaign led by members of the European Parliament who started demanding explanations,” says Deutsch. For the past year and a half, Deutsch says, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has debated this issue.

NGO Monitor Vice President Olga Deutsch (credit: NGO MONITOR)

In May 2021, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced that it had discovered a network of NGOs diverting humanitarian assistance from European governments to the PFLP. In July, the IDF raided and closed some of these offices. Finally, in August, the European Anti-Fraud Service (OLAF) opened a preliminary investigation into European Commission funding of Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the potential risk of terrorist financing.

OLAF is the external body of the European Union that investigates possible cases of fraud and money laundering in the context of EU spending, and Deutsch says his investigation of links between Palestinian NGOs and terrorist groups is an important advance.

“Even if, in the end, OLAF does not find conclusive evidence that the EU directly funds terrorism, the investigation alone is a huge statement that there is something inherently wrong with the system. For years, these self-proclaimed human rights and humanitarian NGOs have enjoyed generous financial support, but also incredible access to decision-makers through whom they could directly influence policy. ” the EU is investigating, says Deutsch, is an important political statement.

Regarding NGO Monitor’s position on the matter, Deutsch adds: “We believe that it is important that the results of the investigations are made public, especially in light of the designations. The fact that the security forces regard these groups as a threat to the safety of civilians is a serious matter and there is no doubt that donor governments will have to treat it as such. The designations accuse these NGOs of diverting European public funds to pay the salaries of PFLP activists and to build the capacity of the PFLP. For the sake of the Palestinian people, we should be able to find more suitable partners to advance human rights and humanitarian causes. “

Deutsch does not expect an immediate change in the way NGOs are viewed, but believes that there will be incremental changes in the coming years in the way governments engage with NGOs. “I think there is a greater awareness of the need to critically discuss this and not take it for granted. This has already happened due to the fact that there are all these investigations and that more and more elected officials are asking questions. This shows that calling yourself a human rights and humanitarian group does not give it a ‘halo’, ”says Deutsch.
It adds that last March, in its annual budget reports, the European Parliament asked that EU funds not be spent on activities that go to terror or that go to organizations or entities that get involved with people or activities that have participants who are affiliated with terrorism. or incitement to violence.

NGOs provide the opportunity for a vibrant civil society that advocates for change and helps others, but like any other industry, Deutsch says, it can be abused. “We need to ask for accountability and transparency to make sure that those who might try to abuse this don’t have the opportunity to do so.” It regrets the politicization of those Palestinian NGOs that have abandoned the cause for its existence. “They are failing the Palestinian people,” he says. “Instead of a Palestinian NGO fighting for women’s rights, or against child abuse or any other rights issue, they turn it all into a politicized discussion of ‘yes occupation – no occupation’, ‘yes settlers – no settlers’ , yes Israel or no Israel. ‘”

Deutsch says that so far most of the funding for these groups has come from the EU and other European governments, so they focused a lot on that. However, with the US renewing its funding, NGO Monitor will work to address this phenomenon in the North American context as well. The United States government, he points out, has allocated $ 250 million. for Palestinian people-to-people projects over the next five years. “It is important that the process that happened in Europe is not lost. Some of the best practices need to be shared among decision makers to ensure that taxpayer money is not used as a vehicle to delegitimize the Jewish state in The Hague, at the UN or to support terrorist activities.

Deutsch says the United States is traditionally seen as the most careful country in investigating NGO funding, but recently there have been attempts to lessen this oversight. “Policy makers should be encouraged to continue to support civil society organizations, financially and otherwise. But at the same time, they have to make sure none of the money ends up in the wrong hands. “

Deutsch notes that recent opposition in Congress to continue funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system was, in part, inspired by NGO lobbying. This is another example of the importance of discussing the issue of NGOs.

So dear reader, next time you come across the term NGO, don’t immediately turn the page to read about something more eye-catching. NGOs have a growing impact in Israel, and NGO Monitor is keeping a close eye on maintaining accountability, transparency and promoting critical debate on NGO activities in the Middle East.

This article was written in cooperation with NGO Monitor.

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