Since placing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) on its terrorist list in June 2002, the European Union (EU) has been subjected to sustained pressure to revoke its decision. The push has come not only from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the terrorist group’s parent organization, but also from left-wing EU parliamentarians and Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
On the face of it, cooperation between organizations predicated on universal humanitarian values and a terrorist group committed to the indiscriminate use of violence is unthinkable. In reality, NGOs’ ties with terrorist groups have ranged from recruitment of violent supporters, to fundraising and money laundering, to the provision of materials and training, to a terror act itself. Indeed, in December 2017, several Palestinian “human rights” NGOs, notably Al-Haq and Addameer, lost funding from several European states over documented ties to the PFLP.
Listing and Delisting Terrorist Organizations
The EU’s terrorist list was established in December 2001 as part of the union’s response to the 9/11 attacks. The list was created with a view to facilitating the implementation of the newly-passed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 aimed at depriving terrorism of financial resources and punishing its abettors. Recommendations for inclusion on the terrorist list are presented to the European Council by a special working party, on the basis of proposals received from member states or non-EU states, with listing decisions reviewed by the council at regular six-month intervals. Delisting requests can be made by listed persons, groups, or entities, as well as the states that have originally proposed the listing and must be backed by supportive evidence as to why the original criteria are no longer valid (e.g., mistaken listing, changes in facts, the death of a listed person, liquidation of a listed entity).
A delisting process is usually protracted. Thus, for example, on January 26, 2009, after almost seven years, the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran became the first group to be removed from the EU’s terrorist list. Similarly, it took Hamas four years to have a lower EU court remove it from the terrorist list (in December 2014) on procedural grounds, only to have the judgment revoked in July 2017 by the European Court of Justice as “an error of law.”
The “Two Wings” Charade
A standard ploy used by terrorist groups to disguise their true nature is to cast themselves as comprising distinct “military” and “political” wings—the former engaged in “legitimate acts of resistance,” the latter in promoting purely political goals. Falling for this ploy, in 2013 the EU designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” as a terrorist organization while sustaining a working relationship with its “political wing.” This distinction was accepted despite admission by a Hezbollah spokesman that the group had a unified leadership and despite its known culpability for much of Lebanon’s domestic woes, notably the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Similarly, a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report described the PFLP as a political party with “an armed wing that attacked Israeli civilians,” despite acknowledging as early as 2002, at the height of the Palestinian war of terror (the so-called “al-Aqsa Intifada”) that there was no separation between the group’s military and political wings.
In reality, the PFLP’s two wings—the Political Bureau and the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades—are interdependent parts with only one leadership. Ahmad Sa’adat, currently serving a 30-year sentence in an Israeli prison, is both the PFLP’s secretary-general and leader of the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades. And while the group has persistently sought to reinforce the illusion of two distinct wings by carrying out terror attacks under the Brigades banner, its political leadership has regularly supported indiscriminate violence against Israeli civilians. Thus Deputy Secretary-General Abu Ahmad Fouad stated that “the occupation and racist settler colony perched on our land [i.e., Israel] cannot be defeated without a long-term people’s liberation war, in which armed struggle is in the forefront.” He added that “attempting to negate revolutionary violence as a leading method of struggle against the occupier only perpetuates the existence of the occupation.”
For her part, Leila Khaled, a prominent PFLP member and the first woman to hijack an airplane, stated that refusing to buy [Israeli] products in a store or cancelling a corporate contract [with Israel] will not liberate Palestine. Nothing but the Palestinian struggle and resistance in all of its forms, from refusing the orders of an occupation soldier to marching in protests to armed struggle, will liberate Palestine.
Other members of the political wing have been no less candid about their predilection for violence. Political Bureau member and leader of the PFLP in Gaza, Rabah Muhanna, repeatedly called for “maintenance and escalation of resistance in general and armed struggle in particular against the Zionist enemy” until “liberating all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” Central Committee member Khalil Maqdesi declared that
resistance is our only path; there is no other way in which Palestinians can liberate their land and achieve their rights. Resistance includes many methods of struggle, including, centrally, armed resistance and armed struggle. Revolutionary violence is necessary in order to confront and overthrow the colonization of our land and the confiscation of our rights.
Playing the NGO Card
Despite these endorsements of violence, the PFLP has engaged in numerous “non-violent,” anti-Israel activities through NGOs to hide its true nature and improve its image. These include the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees and the Union of Health Workers Committees (UHWC), which the PFLP established with European governmental funding and which maintain close ties with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), another European-funded NGO that justifies violence against Israeli civilians as a “legitimate right to resist the occupation.”
UHWC president Rabah Muhanna was among sixty PFLP activists arrested by the Palestinian Authority (PA) after the group claimed responsibility for the assassination of Israel’s minister of tourism Rehavam Ze’evi on October 17, 2001. Muhanna was charged with “damaging the interests of the state” but was released at the order of the Palestinian high court. And while, prior to Ze’evi’s assassination, Muhanna had threatened that “every Israeli citizen and every Israeli leader must feel he is a target” and vowed “to target and harm Israeli criminal leaders,” Amnesty International lobbied the PA for his immediate release (and for that matter, the release of “all prisoners of conscience, held for their beliefs who have never used nor advocated violence”).
PFLP’s members are also widely involved in European-funded Palestinian “human rights” NGOs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well as in the campaign to delegitimize Israel. Thus, for example, Khalida Jarrar, a senior PFLP official, is vice-chairperson and former director of Addameer, an official PFLP affiliate that supports imprisoned Palestinian terrorists (euphemized as “political prisoners”). Jarrar also played an important role in the PA’s 2015 bid to join the International Criminal Court.
Another example of PFLP-NGO ties is Shawan Jabarin, general director of al-Haq, a leading orchestrator of lawfare against Israel. Jabarin was convicted of recruiting members for terrorist training outside Israel, serving nine months of a two-year sentence. Yet despite his PFLP links, Jabarin served on the Middle East Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch and was elected as the secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights in 2016.
While some NGOs whitewash their association with the PFLP by turning a blind eye to its terrorist activities and using the “political wing” fig leaf, others do not shy away from expressing “understanding” for the group’s motives or even justifying them. The Freedom Flotilla Italia (FFI), for example, has repeatedly claimed that given the “Zionist occupation,” armed attacks are permissible, describing the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades as a vital component of the PFLP, which “acts politically and militarily autonomously.”
In December 2012, FFI activists met in Gaza with senior PFLP members and with Raji Sourani, Palestinian Center for Human Rights director, who was honored two years later by the PFLP with the Right Livelihood Award (presented as an “Alternative Nobel Prize).” The FFI and PCHR examples demonstrate that the PFLP sometimes does not need any disguise; some NGOs support the PFLP almost unconditionally.
Another incident highlighting the virtually nonexistent line between membership in a terrorist group and human rights activism was afforded by the Khalida Jarrar incident.
A PFLP senior political leader since 2006, Jarrar was arrested in April 2015 for violating an Israeli travel ban and was indicted for various offences, including active membership in a terrorist organization and inciting violence through a call to kidnap Israeli soldiers. In December 2015, she accepted a plea bargain and was convicted on one count of belonging to an illegal organization and another for incitement, receiving a 15-month prison sentence with an additional suspended sentence. Jarrar was released in June 2016 but was rearrested in July 2017 and placed in administrative detention. The PFLP condemned the arrest and called for violence, promising “resistance to occupation and confronting the crimes and projects that attempt to liquidate the Palestinian cause.”
Because Jarrar has been labeled a human rights defender for her work for Addameer and is also an elected member of the Palestinian parliament and the Palestinian representative on the Council of Europe, her arrest triggered an international solidarity campaign by anti-Israel activists and political NGOs such as Free Gaza Movement, If Americans Knew, Friends of Sabeel North America, and Jewish Voice for Peace. In an open letter to European Commission vice-president and EU high representative Federica Mogherini, fifty-eight members of the European Parliament—mostly from the far-left European United Left/Nordic Green Left—protested Jarrar’s arrest and called on the EU to put “significant pressure” on Israel for her immediate release.
The PFLP’s European Abettors
The PFLP’s strategies seem to be working in Europe. Leila Khaled, for example, has been granted British and Schengen visas (for twenty-six European states) on multiple occasions, allowing her to traverse the continent with impunity, giving speeches that glorify terrorism, support BDS campaigns against Israel, spread anti-Semitism, and urge the prosecution of “Zionist war criminals.” Between 2001 and 2017, she visited Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Britain, harnessing support for the PFLP’s delisting campaign.
The PFLP has used its widening circle of sympathizers to promote its delisting campaign at the EU level. In May 2014, it congratulated the Greek far-left Syriza party for its success in the European Parliament elections and called on these newly elected members … to end the use of the so-called “terror list” to delegitimize and criminalize Palestinian resistance to illegal occupation.
Good relations with Syriza proved beneficial in February 2016 when a PFLP delegation led by Khaled met with Dimitris Papadimoulis, Syriza member of the European Parliament and vice-president of the EU Parliament in Brussels. The delegation asked him for “broadening support for the Palestinians’ requests to the European Parliament, and discussed some specific ways to promote these objectives.”
Another opportunity came in September 2017 when Khaled was invited to speak at a European Parliament conference in Brussels, organized by the Spanish delegation of far-left Izquierda Unida (United Left) as part of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left bloc in the parliament, and the Unadikum Brigades of Spain, along with Samidoun (The Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network), Addameer, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Lambasting the EU for considering the PFLP a terrorist group, Khaled asked the audience to pressure their respective governments to end this practice since “there cannot be peace while there is even one Zionist on the Palestinian territory.”
She further compared Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, compared Gaza to Auschwitz, denied the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, and referred multiple times to terrorist attacks against the “illegitimate Zionist state” as being necessary and justified. Khaled received a long standing ovation.
Providing Khaled with a prominent platform and legitimacy were stark violations of the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, and later, the European Parliament did approve the banning of anyone who had been involved in terrorism. Yet Khaled’s case highlighted the fact that presence on the EU terrorist list does not automatically lead to travel restrictions. The Common Position establishing the terrorist list (2001/931/CFSP) authorizes only asset freezing while travel bans and arms embargos have been implemented directly by member states. Movement to and from EU countries is also controlled by national governments though member states must deny entry of EU banned individuals into their territory. Khaled was finally denied entry by the Italian Department of Public Security in November 2017 because she did not have a valid Schengen visa, but the Italian authorities took care to clarify that stopping her was an administrative act rather than a political decision.
By then, Khaled had addressed (via Skype) the April 2015 Berlin commemoration of the fourteenth anniversary of “the martyrdom” of PFLP secretary-general Mustafa. A year later, she appeared at another Berlin conference where she asserted that “negotiations will be held only with knives and weapons” and that “at the liberation stage, we must sacrifice blood for the sake of our national identity.” Despite protests from Jewish organizations and the Israeli ambassador, the German authorities were unwilling or unable to prevent her appearance. The PFLP organized similar events in Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Italy.
A bigger boost for the PFLP came in September 2017 when the German Ministry of Interior refused to bar the group from campaigning as a political party in the general election to the Bundestag. The PFLP was part of the small, far-left Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany (MLDP) election alliance called the Internationalist List. After the Jerusalem Post revealed that the MLDP formed a joint list with the PFLP, the Marxist party erased the PFLP entry from its website and wrote “sympathizers of the PFLP” instead.
Despite a ruling by a Hamburg court that the MLDP had cooperated with the PFLP, and despite the PLFP’s description by the MLDP’s leader as “a core member of the Internationalist List,” the Palestinian group dismissed the allegations regarding its cooperation with the MLDP as “Zionist propaganda” and “a racist campaign that attempts to suppress the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Arab communities from participation in public life.” The PFLP, nevertheless, praised the MLDP for demanding the removal of the PFLP from “terror lists.” Such a listing is an example of injustice that can never help in achieving peace and justice in the region and the world.
The Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany itself has been monitored regularly for several years by Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution (LfV) as a threat to the country’s constitutional democracy. Yet the German authorities did not outlaw the PFLP as its activities were deemed negligible and the government had no knowledge of the group’s involvement in violent activities on German soil. This lack of action overlooks, of course, the numerous events organized by the PFLP and its sympathizers over the years where calls for Israel’s destruction featured prominently.
Should the Council of the EU fall for the two-wing charade, as it did with Hezbollah, and remove the PFLP’s political wing from its terrorist list, it would be handing the terrorist group and its Western champions a tremendous victory.
For one thing, by legitimizing the PFLP as a political player and absolving its leadership of criminal responsibility for war crimes and atrocities committed by its supposedly distinct military wing, the decision will send a clear signal to other terrorist groups that a doublespeak strategy works. For another thing, while NGOs such as al-Haq and Addameer have lost some financial aid from Denmark and Norway (though not from the EU itself) over their PFLP ties, delisting will allow Palestinian terrorism-related NGOs to receive government funding under the pretense that this is funneled to the nonviolent “political wing.” Human Rights Watch used a similar argument against Jarrar’s arrest, saying she was “a member the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a political party” and hence uninvolved in terror attacks carried out by the “military wing.”
If the EU intends to take counterterrorism seriously, it must keep the PFLP on its terrorist list; make the EU’s NGO funding system more transparent; and end its false pretense regarding the “political wing” charade. Blacklisting remains an important mechanism for fighting terrorism. Delisting would be a deadly farce, and money sent to the PFLP’s “political wing” would inevitably find its way to terrorist acts and would legitimize and encourage even deeper cooperation between the terror group and NGOs.
Jan Kapusnak is an Israel-based political scientist. He holds MAs in political science and security and strategic studies from Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic. He previously interned at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, NGO Monitor, and the Israel Democracy Institute.