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Italy’s Problem with Palestinian Terrorist Financing

avatar by Maria Zuppello

Opinion

A view of Milan, Italy. Photo: Jöshua Barnett/contemplicity.com via Flickr.

Italy faces an increasing risk of illicit financing activities for Palestinian terrorist groups. Italian prosecutors recently launched an investigation into the bank transfers of the country’s largest Palestinian organization — yet some Italian politicians appear to be blind to the threat, even funding Italian non-governmental organizations that engage with Palestinian terrorist organizations.

As a group of Italian and European parliamentarians recently highlighted, several Palestinian terrorist organizations, including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), are increasingly using Italy as a hub for their European operations.

Last October, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz designated Palestinian NGOs Addameer and Al Haq as terrorist groups acting on behalf of the PFLP. At the time, Italy’s Vice Foreign Minister Marina Sereni issued a press release expressing concern about this designation.

“Italy believes that the role of civil society organizations in promoting human rights and democratic values is essential and indispensable,” Sereni stated, reiterating the Italian government’s ambiguity on Palestinian networks.

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Two months later, the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights in the World, chaired by Laura Boldrini, former president of the Italian House of Representatives, held a videoconference hearing in which both organizations were represented. This committee aims to monitor Italy’s commitment to promoting human rights globally, while respecting all peoples and cultures. However, during the hearing, Al Haq director Shawan Jabarin defined Israel as “racist” and “colonialist” without anybody objecting. Jabarin is not just any Palestinian activist. In 1985, he was convicted in Israel of recruiting and arranging training for PFLP operatives.

The event prompted a response from the Israeli embassy in Italy: “Instead of providing terrorist organizations a voice, the Committee should send a strong message to Italy, asking it to stop funding terrorist groups and cut all ties with them.”

The Italian government’s ambiguous relationship with Palestinians dates back to the 1970s, when an unwritten agreement enabled Palestinian terrorists to transit through Italy with weapons, in exchange for a cease-fire on Italian targets. This is referred to as the Moro agreement, named after the then-foreign minister, Aldo Moro.

Although other European politicians have negotiated with Palestinian terrorists, according to historian Valentine Lomellini, author of the fascinating book “The Moro Agreement,” “the Italian deal was archetypal in terms of its longevity and broad participation by the country’s ruling class. It was an ‘Italian deal’ involving the Christian Democrat and Socialist leaderships, some magistrates, and the Republic’s Presidency. Italy’s pro-Arab stance, in addition to giving rise to the Moro agreement, is also its most important legacy.”

This legacy has evolved into an opaque network of organizations operating in Italy over the years.

The Palestinians in Europe Conference (PEC) Foundation is highly active in Italy, where two board members, Zeinab Khalil and Mohammed Hannoun, live. The PEC annual conference is frequently used to plan delegitimization efforts against Israel, from promoting the one-state paradigm to supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The PEC is sponsored by the UK-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), a Palestine advocacy group tied to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2010, Israel’s defense minister designated PRC as an illegal organization because prominent Hamas members such as Majed Al-Zeer, Zaher Birawi, and Majdy Aqil, are among its leaders.

PEC President Amin Ghazi Abu Rashed, who was designated as a European Hamas member by Israel, shared statements in 2017 from the Italy-based Europeans for Al-Quds. Europeans for Al-Quds is a federation of dozens of European pro-Palestinian organizations, whose president is the same Hannoun from the PEC board. Palestinian individuals and organizations appear to be inextricably intertwined in Europe, with Italy serving as a major crossroads.

The Italian Parliament expressed no concerns about hosting Hannoun’s February 17 press conference discussing the Europeans for Al-Quds annual report concerning the alleged Israeli violations in Jerusalem throughout 2021. Meanwhile, Italian prosecutors are investigating another Hannoun association, the Genoa-based Charitable Association of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (ABSPP).

The Italian UniCredit Bank suspended ABSPP bank accounts last November after several questionable activities were reported to the National Financial Intelligence Unit. Significant fund movement and money transfers to people who are on European blacklists prompted the shutdown.

According to Italian journalist Massimiliano Coccia, authorities suspected ABSPP was part of “Hawala 2.0,” a larger informal scheme of payments to launder money through Palestinian charities.

A 2011 IDF report revealed that ABSPP was active in the Union of Good (UOG) in Italy, and had ties to the Hamas leadership in Damascus and the Gaza Strip. The UOG is chaired by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a radical Islamist cleric who has long been suspected of being a top leader in the Muslim Brotherhood organization. The Union of Good is a global alliance of Islamist charities that was designated in 2008 by the United States for conducting Hamas fundraising activities.

“The primary purpose of this activity is to strengthen Hamas’ political and military position in the West Bank and Gaza, including by diverting charitable donations to support Hamas members and the families of terrorist operatives and dispensing social welfare and other charitable services on behalf of Hamas,” said the US Treasury Department.

Several posts on Hannoun’s social media accounts illustrate his views, including a video of an ABSPP rally last May in Milan, in which the protesters called the State of Israel “illegitimate and terrorist.”

ABSPP’s initiatives, with the support of many leftist Italian politicians, have helped fuel radicalism in the Palestinian cause. The association invited extremist preachers such as Sheykh Riyad Al Bustanji and Muhammad Moussa Al-Sharif, known for their sermons against Jews and Christians and in favor of Palestinian child martyrs, to speak.

“I have brought my daughter to Gaza, so that she can learn from the women of Gaza how to bring up her children on jihad, martyrdom-seeking, and the love of Palestine, Allah willing,” Al Bustanji said in a 2012 television interview. Hannoun was also among the organizers of an infamous 2017 Milan sit-in against Israel. Protesters sang jihadist and antisemitic chants such as, “Khaybar, Khaybar, Oh Jews, Muhammad’s army will return.” In addition to invoking a slaughter of Jews by Mohammed’s army, the chant is a battle cry used by Hamas and Hezbollah when they attack Israelis.

According to a 2020 Parliamentary hearing, the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) indirectly financed Palestinian terrorist groups with €4 million. The money went to Italian non-governmental organizations operating in the Palestinian territories, and that are partners of Al-Haq.

Italy has a solid financial framework to counter illegal transactions. But Palestinian networks will flourish as long as politicians remain silent.

Maria Zuppello is an Italian investigative reporter based in Brazil and an expert on the crime-terror nexus. She is the author of the book “Tropical Jihad.This article was commissioned by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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