International law expert, Francesca Albanese, speaks to The Palestine Chronicle on the banning of six Palestinian rights groups

International law expert Francesca Albanese (PChr)

Romana Rubeo

The Palestine Chronicle  /  October 28, 2021

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on October 21 has de facto outlawed six prominent Palestinian human rights groups, by declaring them to be ‘terrorist organizations’, “secretly linked” to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The designated groups include Al-Haq, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Addameer, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.

The decision, vehemently rejected by the six Palestinian rights groups and by other international organizations, provoked a public outcry. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch noted in a joint statement released on October 22 that the “appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement.”

A few days later, on October 26, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet slammed the decision as “an attack on human rights defenders, on freedoms of association, opinion, and expression, and on the right to public participation, and should be immediately revoked”.

To better understand the reasons behind Israel’s decision, as well as the impact it could have on the critical work of the Palestinian NGOs, I spoke with Francesca Albanese, International lawyer and researcher, and the author of numerous publications on the question of Palestinian refugees, including ‘Palestinian Refugees in International Law’, co-authored with Lex Takkenberg.

Could you explain to us how this move constitutes a “brazen attack on human rights”? Is it a legitimate decision under international law?

 Over the past 30-40 years, the targeted organizations have worked to support and protect Palestinians under Israeli occupation. It is worth remembering that this is the longest military occupation of modern time, which, according to the authoritative analysis of Professor Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), has long crossed the threshold of legality.

In fact, under international law, occupation is only justified for strictly military purposes, and should be temporary, conducted in good faith and for the best interest of the population under occupation, and never turn into an acquisition of control or sovereignty over the occupied land or people. All the more, the occupying power has no right to settle its civilian population in occupied territory, or to annex any part of it, and the territory that Israel occupied in 1967 must be returned in its entirety to the sovereign – the people under occupation – as soon as possible. This is clearly not the case of the oPt where Israel for 54 years has suspended civilian order in the pursuit of establishing Jewish domination over the Palestinians, and where Israel has clearly no intention of relinquishing its control of the 60% of West Bank land that it de facto controls and for many aspects considered (though unlawfully) ‘annexed’.

In this context, the above-mentioned organizations are the last bastion of protection of the people under occupation, given the despicable inaction of the international community that remains responsible for emboldening Israel and therefore enabling the situation in Palestine to go on.

This is not the first time Palestinian and Israeli rights groups come under attack by the Israeli government. While restrictions on Israeli NGOs, especially those fighting against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, are fairly recent, throughout the years, Palestinian rights groups have been subjected to pressure, violence, restriction of movement, raiding of offices, and arrests. Why is Israel so scared of human rights groups, to the point that it intends to silence them altogether?

 Because they expose the brutality of the occupation, and the precarity of living conditions and enjoyment of basic rights under occupation, owing to Israeli practices but also Palestinian Authority’s conduct. Israel fears them as they are what has allowed the world to know (even though knowledge has not yet translated into principled action) what Israel is doing, under the pretense of ‘maintaining security’. 

Indeed, I fully agree that terrorism is ongoing in the oPt, as Amira Hass denounced in her last piece: where defenseless civilians are exposed to the fear and brutality of masked Israeli soldiers raiding Palestinian homes and villages, often in the middle of the night; where there is a complete lack of accountability for the frequent loss of civilian lives, unjustified demolitions of Palestinian houses; confiscation of civilian structures and livelihood, including to shepherds and farmers; the torching of century-old orchards and olive trees; the countless daily humiliations Palestinians are exposed to under the yoke of the occupation. In this respect, I agree that practices amounting to terrorism in the oPt must be investigated and those responsible prosecuted.

The Palestinian rights groups that have been targeted by the Israeli designation played a critical role in building a case before the International Criminal Court against Israeli individuals who allegedly committed war crimes, especially in gathering evidence and supporting the victims. Do you think this decision is related to the ICC probe?

 In my view, yes and no. It is undeniable that Israel is using all available measures to prevent the ICC probe, and accountability at large; however, I think there is something more.

Silencing once and for all those (organizations) that allow the world to know the brutality of Israeli practices against the Palestinians, and how ‘a five-decade-old occupation has become indistinguishable from annexation and apartheid’, is now key. 

This year – thanks to the relentless denunciation by Palestinians and initially few courageous international experts (the likes of Professors Dugard, Reynolds, Falk and Tilley), now supported by Israeli organizations (Yeshdin and B’Tselem) and international independent human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch – it has become ‘more accepted’ that Israel has crossed the threshold of legality in Israel and the oPt and it is committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution against the Palestinians. This is a huge development that has ignited international debate and higher scrutiny over Israel. 

Israel is in long-standing breach of basic principles of international law, which started 70 years ago with the forced depopulation of two-thirds of the indigenous Arab population in what became the State of Israel in British Mandate Palestine, their denationalization en masse, the continuous denial of their right of return, and the policies and practices Israel has imposed in the oPt since 1967, not to mention the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on the occasion of successive military attacks against Gaza, whose population has been imprisoned in an illegal blockade for 13 years, which constitute collective punishment under international law (the responsibilities of its de facto authorities notwithstanding).  

This is fully exposed now and the lens of ‘apartheid’ is better suited to explain the past and present reality in Israel/Palestine as well as the reason for the unattainability of peace. I guess Israel resents this discourse, sustained by the evidence that these organizations continue to produce. In other words, ‘le roi est nu’, the king is naked, and also furious, so it is acting with an unprecedented lack of tactics, in my view.

One of the six NGOs, the Ramallah-based human rights group, Al-Haq, while rejecting the Israeli decision, called for international solidarity and concrete measures to ensure its immediate rescission. What is the role that the international community can play? And on the other side, what are the consequences that these NGOs could suffer, for example in terms of funding?

 The fact that these NGOs are now outlawed authorizes the Israeli military apparatus to close their offices, seize their assets, and arrest and detain their staff members. It also prohibits funding or even publicly expressing support for their activities. If the order is not immediately rescinded, it will further strangle the capacity of Palestinian civil society to resist, no doubt. And yet, I do not believe that it will make the Palestinians (and the Israelis standing for justice and human rights in Israel/Palestine) any less resilient: the contrary instead is more likely. The Palestinians have endured so much, and for so long, that this will just be another low in their collective experience.

However, as HRW and Amnesty International have denounced, the international community’s response to this attack ‘will be a true test of its resolve to protect human rights defenders’ at large. For too long, the international community has allowed Israel to get away with impunity, grave human rights abuses notwithstanding. This has emboldened Israel to continue to act in defiance of international law. But also, it is somewhat eroding the moral force of human rights law and the international order premised upon them. Double standards do not work well, especially at the international level, and western countries should be wary of this.

It is upon the time for the international community to hold its promise to stand up for human rights and constrain Israel, starting with diplomatic measures and sanctions, so that this untenable state of affairs is brought to an end. 

I do believe that the work of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, with respect to its investigation of the situation in Palestine, should continue and, besides, that a paradigm shift to the way the question of Palestine has been approached over the past 70 years is finally enacted. As the last report of the Special Rapporteur on the OpT painfully denounces, “In this post-colonial era, in the third decade of the 21st century, the world is tolerating the intolerable: the imposition of a colonial reality in Palestine. All of this favors the acquisitive occupier. All of this works against the rights of the subjugated, who are long overdue for restitution.” This must end. 

A solution to the question of Palestine, including the 7 million Palestinian refugees still longing for justice, must be moved from the bilateral approach of the last 30 years, namely the Madrid/Oslo framework, back to the multilateral arena of the United Nations. And the UN needs to act with principle, guided by international law, and not let realpolitik determine the fate of the longest unresolved conflict of the modern era. Too many, especially in the Arab region, have paid for it. 

As ARDD Global Network on the Question of Palestine has recently requested, it is essential that all partners of the targeted organizations take an unequivocal position in their support, and demand that the Israeli government immediately and unconditionally revoke its 22 October 2021 military order criminalizing these organizations. All governments that assert their foreign policy seeks to promote human rights and protect human rights defenders, must end the long-held double-standard approach to Israel-Palestine and adopt concrete measures, individually and collectively, to compel Israel to end apartheid in Palestine, including the occupation of West Bank and East Jerusalem and lift the Gaza blockade. 

States’ action should not be limited to statements of regret, concern, and even condemnation: it is time to accompany these statements with measures and consequences that deter Israel from further abuses. Despite what happens to this military order, the recently appointed UN Commission of Inquiry on Israel/Palestine, whose mandates includes addressing all underlying causes of systematic human rights violations ‘on both sides of the Green Line’, should also investigate the persecution of Palestinian human rights defenders and organizations, as they have exposed to Israeli violations of human rights for a long time now, and will continue unless concrete measures are taken to protect the Palestinians including human rights defenders.

Francesca P. Albanese is an international lawyer and researcher and the author of various publications and opinions on the question of Palestinian refugees, the longest and most protracted refugee situation since WWII. Together with Lex Takkenberg, she has recently authored a new book Palestinian refugees in International Law (OUP, June 2020), which provides a comprehensive overview of the Palestinian refugee question from its origins to present day, through a rigorous legal and historical account.

Romana Rubeo is an Italian writer and the managing editor of The Palestine Chronicle