Israel sends veiled threat to attorneys of outlawed Palestinian NGOs

Attorney Michael Sfard (Oren Ziv)

Oren Ziv

+972 Magazine  /  July 18, 2022

A letter from the Defense Ministry to the lawyers representing the six groups hints that their legal work may be viewed as violating anti-terror laws.

A Defense Ministry official sent a letter to several of the lawyers representing the six Palestinian organizations that have been designated by Israel “terrorist organizations,” hinting that doing so could violate Israel’s anti-terror laws.

According to the letter — which was sent on July 14 to Michael Sfard, who is representing Al-Haq, Avigdor Feldman, who represents the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), and another attorney who represents one of the other six organizations outlawed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz in October 2021 — the three may be in violation of Israel’s terror laws for collecting fees from the groups. 

The letter states that the lawyers were required to receive prior approval from the Finance Ministry to collect the fees, so as to ensure that the lawyers would be excluded from Israel’s anti-terror laws. Although it is not stated, the letter implies that the very act of collecting those fees could amount to a security offense, which carry a severe penalty in Israel. 

The letter was sent in the run up to July 20, during which a Defense Minister committee will be hearing appeals by Al-Haq and the Defense For Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), two of the six organizations that are trying to overturn their designation. The Defense Ministry’s legal advisor, who sent the letters, will be representing the state in these hearings. “In view of the timing and significance of the letter,” Sfard wrote in a response letter to the Defense Ministry, “it is very difficult not to interpret it as a threat by the government toward a lawyer whose work is strictly legal.”

The lawyers say that not only did they inform the Defense Ministry ahead of time that they would be representing the groups, but that this is the first time they have ever received any such notice, which they view as little more than an attempt to threaten them. In his letter, Sfard stated that he disagreed with the position that prior approval is a necessary for collecting attorneys’ fees, adding that he has represented organizations that have been declared “terrorist organizations” for over a decade, and has informed the Defense Ministry at every instance. 

Almost all Palestinian organizations in the occupied territories, including the PLO, Fatah, and others, are deemed “terrorist organizations” by Israel. Sfard described the absurdity of a situation in which the same ministry that is behind the designation is now trying to bar these organizations from legal representation, saying the move gives the ministers the power to “steer the organizations in question to seek different representation, perhaps of the kind that would be more ‘convenient’ for the state.”

The Defense Ministry’s letter was sent two days after nine European countries declared that they had rejected the terrorist designation. Following Gantz’s declaration, the European donor countries pursued their own investigations into Israel’s allegations. Nearly nine months later — in large part due an investigative report by +972, Local Call, and The Intercept — they concluded that “no substantial information was received from Israel that would justify reviewing our policy” toward the organizations, and as such, they would continue to fund and collaborate with the groups. The decision comes several weeks after the European Union similarly stated that, after looking into Israel’s claims, it would continue to support Al-Haq.

Adalah, a Haifa-based Palestinian legal center that is representing three of the organizations — Addameer, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, and Bisan Center — but did not receive such a notice, called the letter a “direct and natural continuation of the political persecution of the six Palestinian organizations, and an attempt to intimidate the thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who have expressed unreserved support for these organizations and the entire Palestinian people. This incident proves yet again that the belligerence and oppression of the Israeli regime knows no bounds, and that the persecution of human rights organizations and Palestinian civil society reveals that it is dark and dangerous regime that the nations of the world must act to stop.”

Update, July 18: On Monday evening, the three lawyers in question sent a letter to the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser announcing that they are currently halting their representation of the Palestinian organizations. After not receiving a response to his letter, Sfard penned another letter to the Defense Ministry, in the name of the three attorneys, in which he wrote: “We will not carry out our work under your threat that we are committing serious security offenses, nor will we subject our representation to your approval, a matter that is completely unacceptable.”

Oren Ziv is a photojournalist and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective