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Israel's disinformation campaign suffers a setback in the Netherlands

Incitement campaigns against Palestinian rights defenders are disingenuous and inaccurate and should be treated as such by European governments and NGOs
A young boy holds a sign saying 'Free Palestine' during a protest in front of the US consulate in Amsterdam on 18 July (Reuters)

For many years now, the Israeli government and disinformation groups like NGO Monitor have been working constantly to attack and smear organisations that draw attention to, and demand accountability for, the war crimes and other rights violations perpetrated by Israeli authorities.
These efforts have focused, in particular, on denigrating Palestinian human rights defenders living under Israeli military occupation, including by alleging involvement in, or links to, "terrorism". 

It’s a particularly nasty tactic given that, under Israel’s military regime, Palestinian political activity and expression is systematically delegitimised as "terrorism". The tools of repression include military courts, detention without charge, and the banning of more than 411 organisations since 1967.

A significant setback

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This disinformation campaign has now suffered a key setback after the Dutch government issued a comprehensive rebuttal of smears levelled at the Gaza-based Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights.

Under Israel’s military regime, Palestinian political activity and expression is systematically delegitimised as 'terrorism'

Earlier this year, NGO Monitor had published a report on Al Mezan’s supposed "ties" to "terror", a report which prompted questions to the Dutch government - a funder of the centre – by legislators from the ultra-nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV), including its far-right leader, Geert Wilders.

The response from the Dutch authorities, however, demolished NGO Monitor’s allegations.

Some of the "evidence" was dismissed as nothing more than guilt by association. Even more embarrassingly, NGO Monitor repeatedly used sources that were actually about completely different people with similar names – including, in one case, someone who was actually dead.

Note that the original report, with all its inaccuracies, remains on NGO Monitor’s website.

The Dutch government also rejected accusations of a lack of transparency, affirming that Al Mezan complies with all its reporting obligations and is annually audited by an international firm.

Perhaps the most instructive accusation – and refutation – was NGO Monitor’s charge that Al Mezan engages in so-called "lawfare"– that is, by seeking to hold Israeli officials to account in international fora for violations committed against Palestinians.

As the Dutch government pointed out, such activities constitute an entirely legitimate and routine tool used by human rights groups around the world. Not for the first time, it is the likes of NGO Monitor who are looking to "single out" Israel – for impunity.

An important episode

It is unusual for a European government to so publicly rebut such attacks. In 2017, for example, Denmark responded to NGO Monitor complaints by freezing funding to the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC) - a grouping of local women's organisations in the West Bank.

The Dutch government's move is thus an important episode, and a future point of reference for whenever NGO Monitor – as well as fellow disinformation groups in UK and US – make such claims.

Will western governments push back against Israel's assault on civil society?
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But this is not just a microcosm of attempts by the Israeli government and its allied groups to attack Palestinian human rights defenders – it is also a perfect illustration of how everything NGO Monitor accuses human rights groups of, it is in fact guilty of itself.

Spreading disinformation? Once again, NGO Monitor’s reports are shown to be characterised by – as Dutch authorities have, in fact, previously noted – "selective citations, half-facts and insinuations".

Links to extremism? Whether or not NGO Monitor asked PVV to table the questions on this occasion, the group happily works with the European nationalist right; see, for example, its “instrumental” (in NGO Monitor’s words) role in a bill submitted by the Swiss anti-immigrant People’s Party.

Lack of transparency? NGO Monitor refuses to reveal who funds its operations – in the words of the Israel-based Policy Working Group, the organisation "relies almost entirely on funding from donors in the US" and "shirks the transparency it demands of others".

It is worth noting that in their response to the Dutch government's devastating statement, NGO Monitor was unable to explain why its attacks on Al Mezan included such elementary mistakes, and merely reiterated the same guilt by association smears.

Welcoming the dismissal of NGO Monitor’s claims, Al Mezan noted that “NGO Monitor has been spreading falsehoods and disinformation about Al Mezan’s transparency for years”, and “doing so in close cooperation with the Israeli government, which is a global catalyst for shrinking civic space”.

Disinformation groups like NGO Monitor indeed enjoy a close relationship with Israeli officials.

Embedded with the state

When NGO Monitor was founded in 2002, it was initially run from within the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs – whose head at the time, Dore Gold, was also a senior advisor to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Disinformation groups like NGO Monitor indeed enjoy a close relationship with Israeli officials

As reported by +972 Magazine, NGO Monitor founder claimed to have worked for the Israeli government as a consultant after having founded NGO Monitor. Fast forward to 2020, and NGO Monitor remains dedicated to attacking those who document and challenge Israeli violations. 

Meanwhile, as the Trump administration reportedly prepares to attack major human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Oxfam as "antisemitic", the State Department is said to be “drawing much of its information from NGO Monitor”.

Al Mezan concluded its statement welcoming the Dutch government’s answers by urging its donors and international civil society “to unequivocally reject and actively counter the malicious incitement campaigns by the Israeli government, NGO Monitor and similar organisations, which are waged to shield Israel from accountability and to pave the road to its formal annexation of Palestine”.

These “incitement campaigns” are now fully exposed and discredited as both disingenuous and incompetent, and should be treated as such by European government officials and NGOs alike.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ben White is a writer, journalist, and analyst specialising in Palestine/Israel. His articles have appeared widely in international media outlets, including Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Independent, and others. He is the author of four books, the latest of which, 'Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel' (Pluto Press), was published in 2018.
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