How Palestine advocacy is silenced in the Netherlands

Protesters wave Palestinian flags in Amsterdam in 16 May (AFP)

Giovanni Fassina

Middle East Eye  /  November 11, 2021

Report reveals a pattern of attempts by pro-Israel groups to intimidate and smear those who stand up for Palestinian rights.

Freedom of expression is highly valued in the Netherlands, but a new report from the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) reveals that, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, something is badly amiss.

Dutch authorities, politicians and journalists too often replicate unfounded accusations about antisemitism and terrorism, promoted by a small number of actors seeking to shield Israel’s far-right government from accountability for its systemic violations of Palestinian human rights.

From a European perspective, the Netherlands is far from the worst place to advocate for Palestinian rights. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists neither face anti-BDS resolutions, as they have in Germany or Austria, nor are they repressed through criminal prosecution, as in France.

The Dutch government has refrained from formally adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which has been criticized for conflating political criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism, and it continues to prioritize the protection of civic space and human rights defenders.

Nevertheless, the new ELSC report cites a pattern of attacks aimed at silencing Palestinian voices and their supporters based on unfounded allegations of antisemitism or support for terrorism. Although such attacks – which can include smear campaigns, attempts at preventing access to event facilities, pressure to terminate funding, and threats of lawsuits – do not always achieve their objective, they create a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

The result is a climate of self-censorship and shrinking civic space, which clashes with the Dutch democratic system and the rule of law.  

Far-right influence

It is also important to stress that these attacks are a consequence of the global strategy of the Israeli government aiming at suppressing Palestinian civil society. The recent decision by the Israeli government to designate six leading Palestinian NGOs as “terrorist” organizations is directly linked to the pressure put on European governments, including the Dutch government, to defund Palestinian NGOs.

In the Netherlands, there are no powerful Zionist organizations or pro-Israel lobby groups. Rather, such attacks are reportedly led by small Dutch advocacy groups.

Smears and attacks are usually amplified by far-right political parties and small right-wing media outlets. But their influence derives mainly from centrist political parties and their representatives, as well as liberal and conservative mainstream media, who either remain silent in the face of repression, or even amplify the disinformation.

University boards and administrators, as well as financial service providers, also play a role. One scholar told the ELSC: “The way universities deal with these attacks is to look at media coverage and possible parliamentary questions and to base their strategy on that. As scholars, we often find that our battle is not against the people doing the actual intimidation, but against the institution which is supposed to defend us but often does not … So, in the end, you want to organize academic activities that don’t attract too much controversy.” A writer who was smeared and harassed explained: “The impact of all this has been mostly anger and a drain on my time, because I refuse to back down.” 

And a representative of a Dutch charity whose fundraising account for a school in the occupied West Bank was closed said: “It didn’t come to our minds that financial services could be terminated abruptly … This incident has diverted a lot of time and resources away from our core activities.”

Protecting freedom of expression

The protection of freedom of expression is a constitutional duty protected in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights by the Dutch government, authorities and institutions.

The pattern of attacks cited by the ELSC, enabled by the collusion of liberal and centrist political actors with far-right groups who support Israel’s repressive agenda, is particularly worrying – and potentially indicative of a general trend in European democracies. 

As long as the Netherlands is unwilling to hold the state of Israel accountable for its gross violations of international law and Palestinian human rights, the Dutch government and authorities must – at a minimum – ensure that civil society can denounce these violations without being smeared, cancelled, defunded, dragged to court or otherwise hurt.

Such repression leads to the removal of the Palestinian experience from public debate, undermining fundamental human rights. It harms society’s ability to receive accurate information and to engage in a democratic political debate about Israel-Palestine.

Giovanni Fassina is the Director of the European Legal Support Center