An order signed by Israel’s defense minister on Friday designated six leading Palestinian human rights groups “terror organizations,” marking an escalation in Israel’s effort to deprive independent agencies that document Israeli military abuses in the occupied territories of funding from U.S. foundations and European nations.
Israeli law criminalizes providing funds to groups designated as terrorist organizations and authorizes the police “to prevent activities by or in support of terrorist organizations, including organizing meetings, marches, or training.”
The rights groups uniformly rejected the charge — made in an unsigned statement from Israel’s internal security service and its bureau of counter-terror financing — that all six are secretly run by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which carried out bombings and hijackings starting in the late 1960s.
Because the Israeli agencies said the designations were based on secret evidence that was “concealed for security reasons,” the rights groups were given no opportunity to rebut an accusation that struck their many international and Israeli partners as transparently false.
“Through these designations, Israeli authorities are, once again, joining a long list of repressive States that use measures purportedly designed to counter terrorism as a pretext to crack down on legitimate human rights work,” Said Benarbia of the International Commission of Jurists said in a statement.
“This appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement,” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a joint statement. “The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner.”
News of the crackdown became public as Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was in Russia, praising President Vladimir Putin, whose government compels nongovernmental organizations to declare themselves “foreign agents” if they receive any support from abroad.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin are currently meeting for the first time in Sochi, Russia.
PM Bennett: "On behalf of the citizens of Israel, I can say that we see you as a true friend of the Jewish people." ????? pic.twitter.com/rfXSHEVmFn
— Prime Minister of Israel (@IsraeliPM) October 22, 2021
The rights activists branded terrorists by the defense minister, Benny Gantz, work on a range of uniformly peaceful civil society projects to improve life in the occupied territories run by Israel’s military.
The six groups are: Defense for Children International Palestine, which defends Palestinian children in Israeli military courts and has documented abuses and killings by Israeli forces; Al-Haq, which documents violations of Palestinians’ rights in the West Bank and is an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva; Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, which advocates for Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli and Palestinian prisons; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), an agricultural development group; the Bisan Center for Research and Development, an academic institute whose Ramallah offices were raided by Israeli forces in July; and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, a women’s rights organization.
Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq, was jailed by Israel in the 1980s for his alleged ties to the Popular Front, a charge he denied at the time and rejected again in an interview with The New York Times on Friday. “This is a false claim, completely,” Jabarin said. He added that his group was being tarred by the Israeli government for working to have its abuses tried by the International Criminal Court.
Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, posted a photograph of himself with Jabarin and a message of support.
Proud to be in solidarity with @alhaq_org's director @SJabaren, and with other Palestinian human rights defenders. Al-Haq and @btselem proudly won international awards together, and together we will defeat this apartheid. pic.twitter.com/sOy9ziBPlx
— Hagai El-Ad ??? ???? ???? ????? (@HagaiElAd) October 22, 2021
Omar Shakir, Israel director for Human Rights Watch posed with Jabarin on Friday night in Amman, Jordan.
Tonight in Amman with @SJabaren. @hrw has worked with @alhaq_org for 30 years. Shawan sits on our MENA Advisory Board. Deport us, ban us from travel, outlaw us, but you won’t silence us. Proud to fight apartheid & defend human rights alongside the indefatigable Shawan. pic.twitter.com/BYNYcY27zm
— Omar Shakir (@OmarSShakir) October 22, 2021
“We reject the recent designation as another unjust action by Israeli authorities to criminalize and eliminate our lawful human rights and child protection work,” Khaled Quzmar, the general director of Defense for Children International Palestine, said in a statement. “We defend Palestinian children in the Israeli military courts and expose grave violations against Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli forces. When years of delegitimization and disinformation campaigns against us have failed to silence our work, Israeli authorities choose to now escalate repressive tactics by labeling civil society organizations as terrorists.”
Defense for Children International Palestine is one of several groups that have been subjected to raids and harassment from Israeli soldiers enforcing military rule in the occupied West Bank this year.
Video surveillance footage from inside the DCIP office shows Israeli forces breaking down the door at 5:15 a.m. The Israeli soldiers moved through the office confiscating computers, laptops, and files, and then cut the closed-circuit television camera feed at 5:27 a.m. pic.twitter.com/AcI5K41ZV3
— Defense for Children (@DCIPalestine) July 29, 2021
The group’s documentation of abuse by both Israeli forces and settlers has drawn international attention to the brutality of the open-ended military occupation.
Criticism of the Israeli attack on the rights groups came from their supporters and partners in Palestine, Israel and abroad, including some members of Congress.
“Silencing, intimidating [and] criminalizing Palestinian civil society [organizations and] human rights defenders are Israel’s way of covering up its abuses while maintaining its impunity,” the veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi tweeted. “It’s the occupation that must be held to account.”
“If a regime designates human rights organizations terroristic, then that tells all those wavering minds all they need to know about the values of said regime,” Tareq Baconi, a former analyst for the International Crisis Group, observed. “It also – by the way – reveals the regime’s deep insecurity.”
The designation is an “unprecedented attack on human rights defenders who are exposing and resisting the Israeli occupation and its apartheid policies in the West Bank,” Adalah, a Palestinian legal justice group based in the Israeli city of Haifa, said in a statement. “These groups are among the most prominent human rights organizations in Palestine that daily challenge and expose severe violations of human rights before the international community.”
Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer, called the decision to designate the rights group “a declaration of war” on the entire human rights community in Palestine, in Israel and around the world. “It is an act the Netanyahu governments did not dare to carry out, and it was executed without presenting the public with any proof for the allegations made. It is difficult to escape the impression that this is a tyrannical move meant to annihilate the Palestinian civil society for its commitment to the struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid.”
B’Tselem, which monitors abuses in the occupied territories, noted bitterly that this move was taken by the post-Netanyahu government, which was supposed to bring about a change from the previous, ultranationalist coalition.
“Israel’s ‘change’ government’s designation of Palestinian human rights organizations as ‘terror organizations’ is an act characteristic of totalitarian regimes, with the clear purpose of shutting down these organizations,” the group said in a statement. “But war is not peace, ignorance is not strength – and the current Israeli government is not one of change, but rather of a continuation of the violent apartheid regime, in place for many years between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. B’Tselem stands in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues, is proud of our joint work over the years – and is steadfast to continue so.”
“Labeling human rights groups as ‘terrorists’ is a very typical move of authoritarian regimes (which the occupation is) and a prelude to increased repression,” observed Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders. Duss also called for “strong pushback” from the State Department, “followed by an offer to meet with these groups for their protection.”
A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was more guarded, telling reporters: “We’ll be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations. The Israeli Government did not give the U.S. advance warning that they would be designated.”
Progressive members of Congress were more outspoken in their outrage at the designations. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, noted the important role of Defense for Children International Palestine in her effort to ban Israel from using military assistance it receives from the United States to pay for the detention, interrogation, or torture of Palestinian children living in the occupied West Bank.
I stand with @amnesty in condemning the decision to designate Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist groups.”
— Rep. Betty McCollum (@BettyMcCollum04) October 22, 2021
“Israel should rescind their blanket decision to label Palestinian civil rights organizations as terrorist groups,” Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, wrote on Twitter. “Many of these organizations are working to bring peace in the region and are vocal critics Hamas” and the Palestinian Authority, he added.
“The apartheid regime’s labeling of award-winning human rights groups as terrorist organizations—just because they speak truths about Israel’s violence & its human impact—is grossly antidemocratic and dangerous,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American Democrat from Michigan, tweeted. “The U.S. must end funding for human rights abuses. Enough.”
As Diala Shamas, a human rights lawyer with The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, observed on Twitter, the order criminalizes groups Israel’s government has tried and failed to cut funding to for decades.
Translation of these orders: after years of unsuccessful efforts to persuade, or bully European and US donors and allies to defund and discredit Palestinian human rights defenders, the Israeli govt gives up and just criminalized them under Israeli law. https://t.co/Jyjb8glZhm
— Diala Shamas (@dialash) October 22, 2021
While concealing all evidence to support its claims, Israel made no secret of its determination to cut off funding from international organizations for these groups which make it more difficult to conceal the abusive nature of the occupation that has kept millions of Palestinians under military rule for 54 years. The statement from the Israeli government claimed that “the declared organizations received large sums of money from European countries and international organizations, using a variety of forgery and deceit ways” and diverted it from good works to a terrorist group.
The absence of any proof of that led some close observers to speculate that the decision might have been based on research done by a hyperpartisan Zionist group, NGO Monitor, which has successfully lobbied foreign donors to cut funding to Palestinian rights groups by claiming some of their employees are connected to Palestinian political parties with armed wings.
“NGO Monitor is [an] extremist group whose entire purpose is attacking Israeli/Palestinian/US human rights/civil society groups based on false information & tenuous connections,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, tweeted on Friday, as the Zionist group gloated. “Their reports should not be trusted,” Jacobs added.
Israel’s anger at European nations for providing financial and material backing to Palestinian civil society and rights groups has simmered for decades.
In 2017, reporters overheard Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, telling the leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia that it was “crazy” for the European Union to insist that Israel honor Article 2 of an association agreement signed in 1995, which makes trade with the bloc conditional on Israel’s “respect for human rights and democratic principles.”
The late historian Tony Judt had explained in 2010 that economic and cultural ties to Europe were of vital importance to Israel.
“Israel wants two things more than anything else in the world. The first is American aid. This it has. As long as it continues to get American aid without conditions it can do stupid things for a very long time, damaging Palestinians and damaging Israel without running any risk,” Judt told The London Review of Books. “However, the second thing Israel wants is an economic relationship with Europe as a way to escape from the Middle East. The joke is that Jews spent a hundred years desperately trying to have a state in the Middle East. Now they spend all their time trying to get out of the Middle East. They don’t want to be there economically, culturally or politically – they don’t feel part of it and don’t want to be part of it. They want to be part of Europe and therefore it is here that the EU has enormous leverage.”