On July 20, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a major Palestinian agricultural development group, got word of a stunning blow to their work: the Dutch government, a major donor to the group for 13 years, was suspending their funding.
For years, a global network of Israel advocacy groups had been lobbying European governments to cut off funding to UAWC, a group that assists Palestinian farmers to cultivate and remain on their land, market their produce, and develop water infrastructure.
The lobby’s campaign rested on claims that UAWC was tied to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist party which made up the second largest faction within the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1970s, after Fatah. Historically, many Palestinian civil society groups were often tied to political factions that had broad support in Palestinian society because of the social services they provided, their role in public education, and their opposition to Israel’s occupation.
The factions, in turn, had separate armed wings that at times operated independently of the political units. The PFLP wing carried out armed attacks in the 1970s, 1980s, and during the Second Intifada. While Israel and its allies say such attacks constitute “terrorism,” Palestinians have viewed them as responses and manifestations of armed resistance to Israel’s own violent military occupation.
The campaign against UAWC had only modest success until July 2020. A push to cut UAWC’s funding by Shurat HaDin, an Israeli legal center that has close ties to the Israeli government, prompted Australia to temporarily freeze funding to UAWC and review its government donations in 2012. Ultimately, the Australian government rebuffed Shurat HaDin, pointing out that UAWC was “not banned by Israel or declared a terrorist organization by the Israelis” (although in 2018, Israeli authorities claimed UAWC was linked to terrorism).
The efforts of such lobby groups continue, however, with the Dutch suspension only the most recent hit to UAWC. “There is no comparison between the power and resources that they have and what we have,” UAWC director Fuad Abu Saif tells +972. “Every one of us is a terrorist in their eyes.”
A web of relations
The political landscape had abruptly shifted for UAWC in the fall of 2019, when Israel arrested Samer Arbeed and Abdel Razaq Farraj, two of the union’s employees, who allegedly are also members of the PFLP. The Dutch government said its money had helped pay for Arbeed’s and Farraj’s salaries.
The Israeli authorities charged the two for allegedly overseeing a bomb attack on August 23, 2019 that killed Rina Shnerb, a 17-year-old Israeli who was visiting Ein Bubin, a spring near the West Bank settlement of Dolev that Israeli settlers have long sought to control.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, has been accused by human rights groups of employing torture tactics that were claimed to have resulted in six of Arbeed’s ribs being broken and caused his kidney to go into failure, according to human rights advocates. On Jan. 24, the Israeli Attorney General closed its investigations into the case, claiming “there are no grounds to prove that the crime of torture has been committed.”
In response to the arrest of their employees, UAWC said in a statement that “UAWC is an independent organization, which has no political or religious affiliation with any party or political organization.”