Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – U.S. tax money is underwriting a Palestinian anti-Israel lobbying and propaganda campaign, according to an independent analyst and researcher in Israel.

A Palestinian non-governmental organization called the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) has received more than $1 million in American tax money to help pay for a program entitled “Civil Society Empowerment.”

The money, which is funneled to the group through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helps pay for a program that teaches Palestinians how to lobby, raise money for political causes, and win favorable media coverage and support.

According to its official description, PASSIA is a non-profit, independent Palestinian institution, “not affiliated with any government, political party or organization.”

But in the context of the Middle East conflict, some critics said a group does not need to be affiliated with a political organization to promote a view that is detrimental to Israel’s cause.

According to PASSIA, the group “seeks to present the question of Palestine in its national, Arab and international contexts through academic research, dialogue and publication.” But others are concerned the organization is a front for Palestinian Authority propaganda.

The Palestinian Spin

David Bedein, director of the Israel Resource News Agency, has studied the work of PASSIA and said he’s found Palestinian Authority officials to be effective manipulators of the media.

Bedein said PA officials have been able to “repackage” PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and “market” a terrorist group as something positive. “Every time terrorists attack, [they] give the impression that the PA had nothing to do with it,” said Bedein, who described the practice as “stacking the deck,” against Israel in the public relations war.

He said he was surprised to learn that an agency of the U.S. government was financing the PASSIA public relations effort, as was U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.)

“While it is my hope that the Palestinians will someday be able to develop a democratic society, I am deeply concerned about U.S. funding for… PASSIA,” Engel said. “I find it very peculiar that PASSIA is teaching lobbying to a population that doesn’t even have a working legislature.”

While semantics play a part in describing the work of PASSIA, Engel said if U.S. tax dollars are being used “to train Palestinians in their campaign against Israel around the world,” then the funding to PASSIA should stop immediately.

On the other hand, if the group focused entirely on promoting good governance and democracy within the Palestinian community, Engel said, “my concerns would be allayed.”

Repeated attempts by CNSNews.com to interview PASSIA officials over the course of more than a week were unsuccessful.

U.S. Defends PASSIA Programs

The Palestinian Civil Society Empowerment program has been supported by USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Missions and the U.S. Embassy since its inception in 1997.

The USAID/West Bank and Gaza office in Tel Aviv defended PASSIA’s work as a non-profit, non-governmental organization promoting “democracy, good governance, rule of law, reform, reconciliation and communication amongst religious groups in Jerusalem, dialogue, and the peace process.”

The Democracy and Governance Office of USAID here has provided $1.2 million to PASSIA since March 31, 1997, USAID spokeswoman Gina Benevento stated in a Wednesday e-mail response to an inquiry by CNSNews.com.

According to Benevento, a cooperative agreement between USAID and PASSIA allocates those funds for two primary activities: training seminars for mid-career Palestinian professionals and a project that “will provide a forum to examine the experience of other countries in the transition to democracy, particularly as it impacts on the establishment, legitimization, and empowerment of a rule of law.”

She said that USAID attends meetings and seminars supported with its funds and receives reports on and regularly audits organizations receiving its monies.

“There is oversight, but not censorship,” said Benevento. “If an individual instructor, as in this case, chooses to bring in an example from his own experience, grounded in the American context, USAID is not going to expunge that from the record.”

She noted that USAID funds cannot be used to lobby the U.S. Congress, and said the program is designed for Palestinians “to advocate and lobby in the Palestinian domestic context in a generic sense. The course did not focus on particular issues, but on general skills.”

But some of the program’s curriculum has dealt with specific projects, including fundraising to support the case for what many consider terrorist attacks aimed at Israeli civilians.

How To Raise Money for Terrorism Propaganda

According to PASSIA’s 2001 Annual Report, the program is designed “to assist in the human resource and institutional development of nascent Palestinian infrastructure.”

The program offers periodic seminars conducted by professionals geared toward Palestinian civil society practitioners, government personnel and others, covering topics such as media and communication skills, leadership skills, project management, fundraising, advocacy and lobbying.

In a course on fundraising, presented in Ramallah in May 2001, participants were given an assignment to write a paper estimating a budget and creating a fundraising concept for a specific project, the annual report said.

“The project you are currently working on deals with the publication of English-Arabic language booklets on the Al-Aqsa Intifadah for dissemination inside Palestine as well as select organizations in Europe and the U.S. You are in charge of fundraising,” reads a portion of the assignment.

The goal of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah, as described in October 2000 by the terrorist group Hamas, is “expelling the occupation from our land.”

“We stress that Al-Aqsa intifadah was not launched for the achievement of minor demands. It was launched with the aim of expelling the occupation from our land and holy sites and attaining our full rights,” read part of a Hamas statement on the 2000 Sharm el-Sheikh accord, published by BBC News.

“We are determined, so are all the Palestinian forces, to maintain the intifadah until its objectives are achieved, in God’s will,” the Hamas statement said.

In another course on advocacy and lobbying in the Civil Society Empowerment Series, also presented in Ramallah last year, David Nasser used examples from his work at the Arab-American Institute explaining how the AAI had worked to lobby the U.S. Congress.

In other publications, not related to the Civil Society Empowerment program, PASSIA advocates the Palestinian position of two capitals in the city of Jerusalem, the evacuation of Israeli settlements in disputed territories, and the right of return for some five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants to territory within Israeli borders.

While the issue of Jerusalem and settlements are both debated within Israeli society, even the most liberal Israeli politicians reject the right of return for Palestinian refugees. They argue that if Israel absorbed an Arab population comparable to its Jewish population, within a few years the Jewish state would cease to exist.

Legal v. Appropriate Use of U.S. Tax Dollars

While questions are being raised about whether it’s appropriate to use U.S. taxpayers’ money for such activities, some PASSIA critics concede the practice may not be illegal.

Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said he is “not happy” about PASSIA using American money to teach lobbying skills.

“It’s an inappropriate use of American money to take it to a foreign entity [and teach them how to lobby us],” Neumann said, adding, “it’s not a violation of that use.”

Neumann noted that there are many programs – such as basic education or education in democracy – that the U.S. could fund, and he questioned why the money is being used to teach lobbying skills.

“The target is America,” Neumann said. “Americans should take a careful look [at the appropriations] and reconsider the allocation.”

Others were more vocal on the question. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he was “outraged” that USAID money is funding PASSIA.

“The U.S. is giving money to an organization, to a man who refused publicly to condemn the murders of Jews,” Klein said. “He is not worthy of U.S. money.”

Klein was referring to PASSIA Director Dr. Mahdi F. Abdul Hadi and an incident involving the two men several years ago.

After addressing a group of about 35 a.m.erican Jewish leaders at a hotel in eastern Jerusalem, Klein said Hadi asked the crowd to stand and observe a moment of silence for 29 Arab victims who had been gunned down by an Israeli Jewish doctor in a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron a few days earlier.

According to Klein, the Jewish leaders, including himself, stood at attention in silence. Klein said he then asked Hadi to publicly condemn the murder of Israelis, but said Hadi refused to do so and stormed out.

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