Following intense political pressure from the Israeli government and allied organizations, the Dutch government has decided to cut funding to a Palestinian NGO that aids farmers in areas targeted for Israeli settlement expansion, the Union of Agriculture Work Committees (UAWC), despite an independent investigation finding no links to terrorism. The Jan. 6, 2022 announcement has been condemned by the Palestinian Authority and human right groups, and the UAWC issued a statement calling the decision politically motivated and said it is considering legal steps to challenge it.

The defunding decision caps a long-running campaign by the Israeli government and allied groups to defund UAWC and other groups working in Palestine, based on claims of ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is on the U.S. and EU terrorist lists. (See Chapter 7 of C&SN’s report on lawfare here for more information on this effort.) UAWC was cleared of such allegations by an Australian government investigation in 2012 and by the Dutch in June of 2019. 

In October 2019 UAWC notified the Dutch government that two of its employees were arrested by the Israeli government in connection with a bombing that killed Israeli teenager Rina Shnerb. The two employees, who had no connection to programs funded by the Dutch government, were fired. The arrests became controversial after evidence of ill-treatment in detention surfaced.

In the Netherlands the arrests were used by groups such as NGO Monitor, UK Lawyers for Israel and the Israel Information and Documentation Center (CIDI) and right-wing political parties to create a media frenzy accusing the government of subsidizing terror. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) ordered an independent investigation and suspended funding to UAWC pending the outcome in July 2020. 

The investigation, carried out by Proximities Risk Consultancy, was broadened to examine alleged ties to the PFLP from 2007-2020. It began in February 2021, eight months after funding was suspended. The final report, which was not made public, was submitted to the MFA for its consideration in November 2021. On Jan. 6, 2022 the MFA sent a letter to Parliament summarizing the results and its decision to defund UAWC. The letter noted that:

  • “The external review shows that no evidence has been found of financial flows between the UAWC and the PFLP. Nor has any proof been found of organizational unity between the UAWC and the PFLP or of the PFLP’s providing direction to the UAWC.”
  • “In the case of the UAWC, there is no question of the Netherlands making funds available directly to a listed organization, because neither the UAWC nor its staff are on the EU sanctions list.”
  • “[T]here are no indications that UAWC staff or board members have used their position at the UAWC to organize or support terrorist activities.” 

The MFA’s decision to defund UAWC was based on contradictory findings about alleged links between some UAWC staff and board members between 2007 and 2020 and civil society organizations the investigators considered to be part of the PFLP network. Noting that none of these groups are on EU or UN terrorist lists, the MFA letter said, “the government does not consider that it [the investigation] made sufficiently clear to what extent these organisations are actually under the PFLP’s direction or control.”

The individual cases included seven board members who were allegedly linked to the PFLP’s political arm during the investigation period. The letter said these individual level ties were sufficient cause for concern, despite noting that Proximities said “UAWC is bound to the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of political expression, and is not allowed to ask staff or board members about their political activities. On this basis, Proximities states that the UAWC could not be expected to be aware of individuals’ links with the PFLP.” 

Based on these individual ties, the letter said there was “sufficient reason in the government’s view to no longer fund the UAWC’s activities.” The justification was that UAWC “should have realized that this is an undesirable situation for donors – or should at least have been conscious of the sensitivity of these ties – and should have informed donors of the situation.” 

This establishes a classic Catch-22 standard: UAWC, which the letter noted has a policy that staff may not be politically active and is barred from policing the political expression of its board and staff, is nevertheless expected to report such staff to donors when there are alleged ties, even to groups that are not on EU or UN terrorist lists. In other words, grantees are expected to spare the ministry from controversy by reporting on staff or board members’ activities outside of their employment or face loss of funding. 

The MFA said its Ramallah office has already “intensified its due diligence” by requiring those applying for project funds to answer, “explicit questions about how an organization deals with employees or board members who may be part of organizations that are on the EU or UN sanctions list.” 

This outcome is likely to fuel further disinformation campaigns and political attacks against civil society in Palestine, as the Israeli government and its allied groups will be encouraged by the success of their tactics in the UAWC case. 

The fallout from the Dutch decision has been swift and growing. UAWC’s statement responding to the decision characterized it as a “breach of trust” based on political pressure, noting its cooperation with the investigation and saying the report “findings reflect UAWC’s status and existence as an independent organization.” It also expressed shock that the MFA would base its decision on allegations “resembling the toxic allegations of Israeli groups like NGO Monitor. This decision also contradicts the letter and spirit of reassurances the European Union has provided to Palestinian civil society, when clarifying in a March 2020 letter to PNGO that it ‘does not ask any civil society organization… to discriminate against any natural person based on his/her political affiliation.’”

The Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO)’s Jan. 8 statement called the decision “shameful” and “directed against Palestinian civil society as a whole…” It said the political basis for the decision “encourages the Israeli government to escalate its attack on Palestinian civil society and fuels the smear and incitement campaigns of groups like NGO Monitor…” 

On Jan. 10 the Palestinian Authority summoned the Dutch envoy to object to the decision, issuing a statement that rejected it as “unjust and biased.” The PA noted that UAWC aids Palestinian farmers “struggling to remain on their land in the face of Israeli settlement expansion.” 

On Jan. 10 the European Legal Support Center and The Rights Forum issued a joint statement strongly condemning the Dutch decision, noting that “It will encourage Israel’s illegal settlements enterprise and facilitate Israel’s de facto annexation of the Palestinian territory.” The statement noted that the Israeli government put UAWC and five other Palestinian groups on its terrorist list in October 2021. It noted a report issued that month by ELSC that “identified 12 attempts in the Netherlands – between 2015 and 2020- by pro-Israel advocacy groups to pressure Dutch donors… to defund civil society organisations supporting the Palestinian people.” The two groups called on governments and other donors to maintain their funding for UAWC.

The Charity & Security Network strongly objects to the Dutch government’s decision to cut funding for UAWC, and calls on donors to remain steadfast in their support for UAWC and Palestinian civil society broadly.