‘An axe above our heads’ — Palestinian Six fight Israeli smear

Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer of Addameer Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association (David Kattenburg)

David Kattenburg   

Mondoweiss  /  July 5, 2022

Good news comes in twos.

Eight months after being declared a “terrorist organization” by the Israeli military — alongside five other Palestinian groups — Palestine’s veteran human rights defender, Al-Haq, has been awarded a prestigious European prize, and the European Commission has announced that the suspension of its funding “has been lifted unconditionally and with immediate effect.”  

 Israel’s attack on the six human rights and civil society organizations –  Al-Haq, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Defense for Children International – Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees – was announced in October 2021 by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, based on their alleged ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Israel’s go-to rationale for crushing Palestinian rights defenders (some of whom have called for Gantz’s prosecution at the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Gaza.)

I received updates from all but one of the groups (the Palestinian Women’s Committees), in their offices in Ramallah and its sister city, Al-Bireh.

Gantz’ ‘terrorist’ designation was worse than a lie, several of them told Mondoweiss. It was a devious and cynical distortion, aimed at upending the work of perfect peaceful and legitimate groups who oppose Israeli military oppression and apartheid.

Gantz’ declaration was swiftly condemned by the global human rights community.

“Claiming rights before a UN or other international body is not an act of terrorism, advocating for the rights of women in the occupied Palestinian territory is not terrorism, and providing legal aid to detained Palestinians is not terrorism,” said UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.

“This designation is a frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere,” said a group of UN rights experts. “We call upon the international community to defend the defenders.”

Defense of the defenders has been slow in coming.

Israel’s menacing designation echoed charges communicated to various governments in May 2021, in a 74-page dossier developed by Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet. The dossier arose from Shin Bet’s pursuit of a seventh group, the Palestinian Health Work Committees. In June 2021, with Covid infections and deaths rising, their offices were raided and the group shut down. Their director, 60-year-old Shatha Odeh, was subsequently sentenced to eleven months in jail for “holding a position in an organization that’s deemed unlawful.”

Although independent researchers swiftly debunked Israel’s dossier, Israel’s closest allies said they needed to investigate the “terrorism” charges.

As foreign governments hedge their bets, Al-Haq’s latest human rights award, issued in Vienna this past June 23, is like a tall pitcher of water in the wilderness.

The Bruno Kreisky Prize, named after Austria’s late Chancellor, is among Europe’s oldest and most prestigious human rights awards.

Mondoweiss spoke with Al-Haq director Shawan Jabarin, shortly before his departure for Vienna, to pick up the prize.

Israel’s attacks are an “indicator that we are going in the right track,” Jabarin told me.

“They can do anything they want. They can confiscate [our laptops and files]; they can close the office; they can arrest people; they can arrest me and criminalize me … We will not give up. I assure you we will not give up, and we will not step back.”

None of this has happened – yet. They could, at any moment.

Israeli smears and threats are nothing new to Al-Haq. Founded in 1979, its computers have been hacked, its financial operations sabotaged and its staff threatened and arrested. A Netherlands-based staff member engaged in liaison with the International Criminal Court received death threats.

Jabarin had no difficulty crossing the King Hussein Bridge into Jordan in late June, on his way to Vienna to receive the Kreisky Prize, alongside Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kalesnikawa, Austrian popular educator Martin Hochegger and Asylum Coordination Austria.

Al-Haq’s latest award is an “expression of solidarity, especially in light of [Israel’s] latest unprecedented attacks,” Lebanese writer and journalist Elias Khoury told the Vienna audience.

****

For another member of The Six — the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association – Israel’s “terrorist” designation has generated much more fallout.

Four months after the designation, in early March, Israeli forces invaded the home of Addameer lawyer Salah Hammouri, placing the French-Palestinian under administrative detention. Hammouri has been charged with “breach of allegiance,” and now faces revocation of his Jerusalem residency.

A month later, catching a flight to the World Social Forum in Mexico, Addameer Director General Sahar Francis was stopped at the boarding gate. US authorities had refused her transit, even though she held a valid visa.

Closer to home, Addameer’s office have been raided twice over the years, and several employees have been arrested.

These events are “part of a whole campaign to silence Palestinian civil society,” Addameer’s International Advocacy Officer, Milena Ansari, told me.

A host of renowned NGOs have supported Addameer, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Carter Center and the American Bar Association. The UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture told Addameer that they’ll continue to fund its work.

But diplomats are hedging their bets — “which by default means they are granting the Israeli occupation impunity,” Ansari told Mondoweiss.

“Under the table,” they’re giving Israel the “green light.”

As they do, anxiety builds.

“The Israeli occupation won’t come now and close the offices. They will wait till the momentum is low,” says Ansari. “It’s like an axe above our heads. At any moment we are at threat of being imprisoned and closed.”

“Part of the harassment, as well, is the instability that the employees are living. Constantly afraid of being arrested, solely for the work that you do. I live in Jerusalem, and I’m a Jerusalemite. And every day I come and go, and I cross Qalandia checkpoint, and every day I pray to the gods or whatever higher power there is that I don’t get their attention.”

***

Having declared Palestine’s leading prisoners’ rights defender a “terrorist” entity, Israel naturally aimed its sights on the Palestinian branch of Defense for Children International.  

DCIP documents the arrest, injury, death and incarceration of Palestinian children and youth, and offers legal defense to those prosecuted in Israeli military courts.

Mondoweiss sat down with the group’s Accountability Program Director, Ayed Abu Eqtaish.

Since 2000, over two thousand Palestinian children and youth have died at the hands of Israeli soldiers and police, Abu Eqtaish told Mondoweiss. Some two hundred are currently jailed inside Israel ‘proper’, beyond the reach of parents and lawyers, and in flagrant breach of the 4th Geneva Convention (Article 76).

“The process is designed to horrify and intimidate Palestinian children who pass through this experience,” Abu Eqtaish, told Mondoweiss.

Palestinian kids are kicked, slapped, beaten and forced into stress positions. Confess, they’re ordered – in Hebrew, a language few understand – or else their parents and siblings will be arrested. Sentences of up to six months are meted out to kids under fourteen, up to five years to those between fourteen and sixteen, and up to twenty for stone throwing. Above the age of sixteen, Palestinian youth are treated like adults, with no maximum sentence.

In jail, Palestinian kids face solitary confinement, in cells as small as a couple of square meters, for an average of two weeks.

“I believe that every child who passes through this system will be psychologically impaired,” Abu Eqtaish told Mondoweiss.

In the wake of its “terrorist” designation, DCIP’s work continues normally – more or less. International donors have largely rejected Israel’s designation, says Abu Eqtaish, and financial operations have been running smoothly.

Still, as with the other five targeted groups, uncertainty prevails. Israeli authorities could invade their office or arrest staff at any moment. The most recent invasion, in July 2021, was captured on video.

Abu Eqtaish says other DCIP staff have crossed to Jordan without problem. They could be blocked at any time, for no reason, without a formal travel ban.

***

The travel gods have not been on Ubai al-Aboudi’s side. Al-Aboudi is Executive Director of the Bisan Centre for Research and Development, another one of the six Palestinian groups Israel has declared beyond the pale.

Founded in 1989, Bisan carries out critical social and economic research. “Development for the few, versus de-development of the Palestinian population as a whole,” is what it opposes, Al-Aboudi told Mondoweiss, in his Al-Bireh office.

In its struggle for Palestinian agency, Bisan confronts both the Israeli occupation and its neoliberal subcontractor in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority.

“Very old people controlling everything,” is how Al-Aboudi describes President Mahmoud Abbas and his PA cronies, “without any accountability to the people.”

Bisan has been at the center of Israel’s bulls-eye for years.

In the wee hours of July 2021, two months after Shin Bet’s 74-page ‘terrorist’ dossier began circulating in European capitals, Israeli police broke into its offices, in the heart of ‘Palestinian-controlled’ Area A.

Then, in late April 2022, In the wake of Israel’s ‘terrorist’ designation, heading to Jordan to catch a flight to Mexico to attend that World Social Forum gathering, Al-Aboudi was denied passage over the King Hussein Bridge. Al-Aboudi is a US citizen. The Israelis didn’t care about that (much less Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

A month later, heading to a gathering of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), in Amman, Al-Aboudi got blocked again.

His lawyers have asked Israel for an official travel ban. Israel has declined. US authorities have provided no assistance, Al-Aboudi told me.

As for Benny Gantz’ formal “terrorist” designation, Ubai Al-Aboudi smiles and shrugs.

“The occupation, I think they got fed up with the work that Bisan and other civil society organizations are doing, that we are voicing the voice of the Palestinian people in the face of Israeli repression and PA repression,” he told Mondoweiss.

But the designation is no laughing matter.

“These designations literally meant that Bisan Centre is the same as Al-Qaeda! … So, the leader of the Bisan Centre is the same as the same as Osama bin Laden! Which is quite crazy.”

For a few months following the designation, Bisan’s funding was frozen. Cash flow has now resumed, Al-Aboudi says.

On the diplomatic front, Bisan meets “regularly” with friendly diplomats from all countries. But categorical public positions are another matter.

“Although the capitals of many countries have told us directly that the Israeli evidence is not convincing — there’s no evidence against the six — some of the countries are still afraid to go publicly against the Israeli apartheid occupation regime,” Al-Aboudi told Mondoweiss.

But Israel’s efforts may have backfired, says Al-Aboudi. Thanks to the “terrorist” designation, Bisan’s work is drawing more attention. In partnership with a team of international academics, including the US-based group Scientists for Palestine (this writer is co-chair of its Outreach Committee), Bisan has launched a lecture series aimed at achieving “full integration of Palestine into the global learning community.”

***

Of the six Palestinian civil society organizations targeted by Israel, none has taken a harder hit than the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC). I spoke with its General Director, Fuad Abu Saif.

The UAWC provides technical and human rights support to 20,000 Palestinian farmers and shepherds in Oslo Area C of the Israeli-occupied West Bank — the 60% of the region where Israel exercises full civil and military control. Defending their access to land and water, amid relentless settlement expansion and settler-soldier violence, is a major part of its work.

Half of the 720,000 quarter acres (dunums) in Area C are under direct military control, Abu Saif told Mondoweiss. Palestinian Bedouins have access to 50,000 dunums, producing about two-thirds of Palestine’s domestic food supply. Area C’s 20,000 Jewish settlers — living in seventeen settlements and numerous outposts, some of them pretending to be indigenous shepherds — control the remainder.

UAWC has been targeted by Israel’s settlement movement and their international lobbyists for years, says Abu Saif. In 2019, the Israel security agency Shabak arrested two UAWC staff with alleged ties to the PFLP, one of whom was linked to an attack in which a 17-year-old settler died. The UAWC swiftly terminated their employment and halted salary payments. Neither of the three had been involved in the implementation of internationally funded projects.

In the months following their arrest, the Netherlands government carried out an inquiry. The UAWC had been receiving Dutch funding, indirectly, since September 2007, and as the lead partner in a resource management project since 2013. UAWC performance had been outstanding, they’d been told.

Israel’s terrorist designation changed all that.

In January 2022, having suspended UAWC funding, the Dutch government cut its support entirely – in spite of a clean bill of health from a Dutch risk management firm.

According to a statement issued by the UAWC on January 5, 2022, citing a Netherlands Foreign Ministry report, the firm had found no evidence of organizational or financial ties between the UAWC and the PFLP, nor of UAWC board or staff involvement in “terrorist” activities.

The Dutch government has not shared the investigation with the UAWC, Abu Saif told Mondoweiss.

In response to the Netherlands decision, sixty Dutch universities and NGOs signed a statement calling for funding to be renewed.

Spain, France, Ireland and a pair of UN agencies stood by the UAWC. According to Abu Saif, the UAWC’s partner networks have actually doubled since 2019.

But Israel’s ‘terrorist’ designation has had its toll. The UAWC’s reputation has been hurt, and its staff has dropped by two-thirds since 2019. They haven’t faced travel restrictions. Abu Saif recently traveled to Geneva and back, without a hitch. And financial flows continue – in Euros and Jordanian dinars, rather than dollars. But their budget is tight.

Abu Saif recalls the advice of a European donor.

“Why don’t you change your priorities from Area C to any other areas? You will get a huge amount of money!” the donor said.

“We told them, ‘Like what? To move from Area C to Ramallah? Having a dance team? Then you will give us funds? We are an agricultural organization!’”

And that Sword of Damocles continues to hang by a thread above its head. Beside the UAWC’s front door, leaning against a wall on the walkway from a busy Al-Bireh avenue, another door – battered and smashed — serves as a memento of Israel’s last raid, in July 2021. Israeli police arrived in the wee hours of the morning, as is their wont, smashing down the door, ransacking UAWC’s offices and locking the front gate – smack dab in the middle of PA-‘controlled’ Area A, just down the street from Mahmoud Abbas’ palace, the Muqata.

Abu Saif and others wanted someone to come break the lock or cut the chain.

“We asked the Palestinian Authority, ‘Okay, look, it’s your area! It’s your sovereignty!’” Abu Saif recalls.

“They said, ‘We cannot do anything. It’s up to you. If you want to open it, you open it.’”

“We told them, ‘If we open it, you protect us!’ They said no.”

Abu Saif laughs. “It’s the collaboration! It’s ongoing, the security coordination!”

And, Abu Saif adds, ‘terrorism’ is a phony excuse.

“The real reason is to silence the most important six Palestinian civil society organizations … The aim of the designation is to scare the donors and the partners.”

As Abu Saif and Palestine’s other outlawed rights defenders try to get the PA to show some cojones, Palestine’s veteran human rights NGO is taking one of those donors to court – after it backed down.

On June 28, the European Commission announced that its year-old suspension of Al-Haq funding will now be lifted, immediately and without condition.

There are “no suspicions of irregularities and/or fraud affecting EU funds in the implementation of [Al-Haq’s] EU-funded project,” the Commission is quoted, in an Al-Haq media release.

Pleased but unsatisfied, Al-Haq has now filed a lawsuit against the Commission.

“[The] suspension was not prompted by any genuine concerns about the possible misuse of funding,” Al-Haq shot back. The suspension was “aimed at giving the Israeli government a tailwind in its attempts to disrupt and defame Palestinian civil society and to oppress the voices of Palestinian human rights organizations and defenders.”

“[When] a rule-based actor like the EU effectively aligns itself with such a toxic campaign, a red line is crossed,” says Al-Haq.

With the aid of a Belgian lawyer, in early April, Al-Haq had pitched an “amicable settlement” to the EU Commission.

The Commission ignored the proposal, says Al-Haq, “in violation of its contractual obligations,” and “in bad faith.”

So, on June 16, Al-Haq’s Belgian lawyer lodged a formal lawsuit against the Commission. The first court session will take place in Brussels on July 4.

In the wake of the June 28 release of its funding, Al-Haq’s lawsuit would now appear moot. Al-Haq will pursue it anyway.

Palestine’s freshly minted Kreisky Prize winner wants EU assurance that the remainder of its contract will continue “in good faith,” free of “politically-motivated disruptions based on slanderous allegations.”

David Kattenburg is a university science instructor and radio/web journalist based in Breda, North Brabant, the Netherlands