Dutch minister secretly deleted anti-Palestinian tweets shortly before assuming office

Former minister Geoffrey van Leeuwen disseminated tweets posted by islamophobic, anti-Palestian and extreme right accounts on X, formerly Twitter, after the 7th of October. A number of the messages contained disinformation about the Gaza war. Van Leeuwen did so before assuming his role as interim minister for Foreign Trade and Development in December 2023. Shortly before taking office, the tweets were removed from his account. Investico has obtained screenshots of the deleted messages, taken before their removal.

Van Leeuwen served as interim minister for Foreign Trade and Development from early December until mid-April. Van Leeuwen is known as Mark Rutte’s right-hand man: the former prime minister is set to bring Van Leeuwen along to Brussels when he assumes his role as NATO’s secretary-general later this year.

Multiple messages disseminated by Van Leeuwen contained disinformation about the war, such as tweets by the account ‘Imam of Peace’, run by the known right-wing and islamophobic thinker Mohammad Tawhidi. The interim minister also ‘liked’ messages posted by accounts such as Viségrad24 and Mario Nawfal. Both are ranked among the most influential sources of pro-Israeli disinformation on X, according to analyses by both Bloomberg and the University of Washington.

The former minister also ‘liked’ a message that peddled the infamous ‘Pallywood’ conspiracy theory, which holds that footage of Palestinian suffering is staged, and these fakes are used to incite hatred against Israel. In the particular message, the account ‘Imam of Peace’ shares a video of a Palestian mother rushing into a hospital to see her wounded son. Tahwidi writes: ‘He’s fine, it’s just an act mommy. It’s called Pallywood.’ An independent review by both AP News and Alt Media classifies the tweet as disinformation, as the man is in fact injured.

Another message ‘liked’ by Van Leeuwen shows a video of an Israeli military spokesperson giving a tour in a network of rooms below a Palestinian hospital. The man points out a list of ‘names of terrorists’ in Arabic, supposedly a work schedule for Hamas-terrorists guarding Israeli hostages. This, also, proved to be untrue: the document didn’t list any names, it was merely a calendar with the days of the week written on it, reporting by France24 showed.

In response to Investico’s questions, Van Leeuwen explains his social media activity. ‘When I see a message that I want to read more attentively at a later time, want to re-watch, or follow to see whether a broader story develops, I like it.’ According to the former minister, ‘there is no broader or deeper consideration’ that goes into it. The former minister does not respond to the question why the decision was made to secretly delete the tweets. He also does not address Investico’s questions whether he does or does not support the content of the messages, or whether he deems it fitting for a high-ranking government official or soon-to-be minister to publicly engage with disinformation in the way he has.

In his ministerial role, Van Leeuwen was responsible for the decision to suspend the funding for UNRWA, the UN organisation that provides humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. He did this after Israeli authorities alleged in January that 12 UNRWA employees had been involved in the October 7th attacks last year.

UNRWA disclosed the allegations in a press statement - shortly after being informed about them by Israel - and immediately fired all accused staff. The UN announced an internal review into the matter. In response to the allegations, 15 donor countries suspended their funding for the aid organisation.

Internal emails from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that, the day the allegations became public, expert advice on what course to follow was yet to be drafted within the ministry. Van Leeuwen, however, announced the Dutch funding suspension before receiving said advice, internal correspondence obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Al Jazeera shows. Several civil servants anonymously confirmed to Investico that Van Leeuwen took the decision single-handedly, without being consulted by his staff. ‘This is not how these things are supposed to go’, one civil servant says.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs states, in response to Investico’s questions, that they will not comment on whether or not Van Leeuwen received advice before taking his decision on UNRWA’s funding suspension. The ministry also stresses that they ‘have never in any way been involved in mr. Van Leeuwen activities on X’ before he took office. ‘After becoming minister, a social media team started managing his X-account, as is usual.’

Almost all donor countries resumed their funding of UNRWA in recent months, due to the crucial role the organisations fulfills in Gaza, and the fact that Israel has yet to provide any evidence supporting their allegations against the 12 UNRWA employees. The Dutch government has indicated that funding will not resume until UNRWA implements a set of fifty recommendations. The yet to be installed new government coalition, however, is expected to have the final say in whether or not aid to UNRWA will be resumed.

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