The Washington Post / October 30, 2021
When the Israeli government last week slapped a “terrorism” designation on six Palestinian human rights groups that have worked closely with Western governments and international advocacy groups, it was met with widespread outrage from global civil society actors as well as surprise from the U.S. State Department.
But anyone surprised by this step has not been paying attention, as it represents just the latest depth the Israeli government has been willing to sink to in order to intimidate, silence and repress dissent against its apartheid policies.
The repression of Palestinian civil society actors has been a policy of the Israeli government and its military since 1948. But in recent years — as Israel’s occupation grew further entrenched thanks to the complacency and complicity of many governments — global civil society became something of the last refuge for dissent against Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians.
In the early 2000s, right-wing Israeli organizations, funders and politicians sought to support the efforts of the Israeli government in repressing Palestinian dissent, and increasingly civil society actors came under attack. While Palestinian civil society organizations were always the most vulnerable, even Israeli groups were not spared. By the mid- to late 1980’s, various Israeli human rights organizations were coming under constant attack, and in 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies assumed control of government for what would be the beginning of a 12-year stint, the government began passing and enforcing new laws aimed at scrutinizing human rights organizations and their funders. Groups such as the New Israel Fund, which supported many Israeli human rights organizations philanthropically, also came under orchestrated attack.
Shortly thereafter, with the right firmly in power, the government found creative ways to intimidate human rights organizations based inside Israel and Palestine. Then the effort began to internationalize. The Israeli government dedicated an entire ministry to this effort and put it in charge of leading the government’s efforts on this portfolio. This global repression ministry, euphemistically named the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, was beefed up in 2015 with a massive budget increase, and many of its activities remain secret to this day. The ministry boasted, however, about working to coordinate, support and empower what it often called the “pro-Israel network,” a wide range of organizational allies around the world that cooperated with and were sometimes directly funded by the repression ministry.
This network has worked to pass unconstitutional anti-boycott legislation and launch SLAPP suits aimed at intimidating or even eliminating organizations that spoke up for the human rights of Palestinians, including in the United States. In recent years, the Israeli official in charge of the ministry boasted to a gathering of allied network actors that the passage of repressive laws in the United States, the United Kingdom and France, as well as dozens of lawsuits targeting civil society actors around the world, “happened because of your commitment, dedication and tireless efforts, together with those of my ministry and all of the relevant bodies in the Israeli government.”
After unflattering information about the Ministry of Strategic Affairs’ global efforts began to leak out in the media, the ministry was shuttered and folded into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the most recent designation of six Palestinian human rights organizations as “terror” groups is the latest evidence that the agenda has not changed.
Organizations allied with the Israeli government will use this announcement to accelerate the ongoing stigmatization of Palestinian human rights groups with global allies and supporters and effectively shut down their work entirely. Their funding sources, bank accounts and allies will be aggressively attacked. The long arm of Israeli repression will be extended by its network allies in countries around the globe.
Independent civil society organizations are supposed to be forces for good in a democracy, keeping state power in check and creating space for dissent, debate and education. But through these efforts, the Israeli government is effectively looking to ensure that its abuses go unopposed. In doing so, it also provides a model and precedent for a plethora of authoritarian regimes to repress global dissent against their own abuses.
On the campaign trail and as president, Joe Biden has promised that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.” The State Department says the United States is “committed to a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated, and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable.”
If these words mean anything, the U.S. government must not only immediately condemn the recent Israeli decision to smear these Palestinian human rights organizations, but must also commit to opposing the broader and fundamentally undemocratic efforts of the Israel repression network.
Yousef Munayyer is a nonresident senior fellow at Arab Center in Washington