Israel threatens attorneys representing Palestinian civil society organizations

MIichael Sfard (Yossi Gurvitz)

Siham Rashid 

Mondoweiss  /  August 8, 2022

In a blatant attempt at intimidation, Israel is claiming that providing legal representation to Palestinian civil society organizations violates anti-terrorism laws.

To the dismay and outrage of human rights defenders, the Israeli Ministry of Defense is threatening three prominent attorneys for representing and defending their clients.

Prior to an appeal hearing for Al-Haq and Defense for the Children International–Palestine (DCI-P), attorneys Michael Sfard and Avigdor Feldman received a letter insinuating that merely representing their clients and seeking due process constituted a violation of Israel’s 2016 Counter-Terrorism Law. DCI-P and Al-Haq make up two of the six human rights organizations that Israel designated as “terrorist” organizations in a flagrant disavowal of human rights.

The EU investigated the Israeli terror designation and found no evidence to substantiate these claims, further illustrating Israel’s political motivations behind the designation. The letter penned by the Israeli government threatening the defense attorneys came almost immediately after nine European Union member states decided on July 12 to resume the vitally needed funding of these organizations — funding that they had withdrawn for a period of nine months following the terror designation. 

EU member states consistently highlight the global need for strong civil society and rights-based organizations, especially in the occupied Palestinian territory, where a brutal and unlawful Israeli military occupation has ensured that generations of Palestinians do not experience their essential human right to live with dignity and freedom. While it is evident that the terror charge is unsubstantiated, EU member states participate in a sort of theater of the absurd, stating that “should evidence be made available to the contrary, we would act accordingly,” rather than demanding that Israel cease its attempts to criminalize civil society and human rights organizations, which are critical to the survival of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. 

The EU member states must follow through on their commitment, which claims that “a free and strong civil society is indispensable for promoting democratic values.” Note the stark contrast in those states’ approach to Ukrainian civil society organizations, where the EU (and the United States) put the onus on Russia to immediately cease its crackdown on and targeting of civil society organizations. In March 2022, in response to Putin’s attack on Ukraine, European parliamentarians overwhelmingly voted for a proposal to counter the crackdown on civil society organizations and individuals in Ukraine. The parliamentarians condemned the Russian criminalization, and reiterated the importance of ensuring an enabling environment for civil society organizations. It is these same parliamentarians that drop all concerns for protection when it comes to Palestinian civil society organizations and human rights defenders.

When it comes to Palestinian human rights, the EU and the United States are on the same page — Israel is always the exception to the rule of international law. 

Back in October of 2021, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price stated during a press briefing that the United States had not been given advance warning of the designations, and will be engaging the Israeli government for more information. He also stated that the United States believes that “respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance.” These are tragically Orwellian words when it comes to the U.S. government, whose colossal financial, diplomatic, and military support o Israel’s military occupation clearly demonstrates that the U.S. government has, in fact, poured its massive resources into the suppression of Palestinian human rights, completely disregarding the Palestinian quest for freedom. 

Why Israel targets these organizations

In March 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced the opening of an investigation into Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in response to a request by the Palestinian Authority (PA). On the same day that the ICC announced the investigation, the U.S. and Israel declared their opposition to this decision, with the aim of ensuring that Israel continues to be exempt from any accountability for its litany of war crimes and human rights violations against Palestinians. 

This did not stop numerous organizations targeted by Israel from providing evidence of Israeli human rights abuses to the ICC, which culminated in a recent report finding that

“…ending the continued Israeli occupation and discrimination against Palestinians is essential to stopping the conflict and halting the persistent cycle of violence, while a ‘culture of impunity’ feeds resentments and fuels recurrent tension, instability, and protraction of conflict.”

These civil society organizations’ extensive work documenting Israel’s abuses against Palestinians and cooperation with the ICC threatens Israeli political and military leaders with prosecutions for war crimes. This is the reason behind the targeting of these organizations. 

Consequences of the designation

The terrorism designation criminalizes the work of the six organizations, and will be used as a pretext by Israel to shut down offices, seize assets (including the confiscation of personal client files), freeze bank accounts, arrest staff, and even prohibit funding or public expressions of support for their activities. It could also make third parties and foreign partners apprehensive about engaging with these organizations and their work. The Palestinian people living under military occupation, who have historically relied heavily on these organizations, would no longer have access to critical services and programs. 

These organizations would no longer be able to draw the attention of the international community to the daily human rights abuses inherent in the Israeli military regime’s suppression of the Palestinian people’s quest for freedom and equality.

In April 2022, United Nations experts called on governments to resume funding to the six organizations, and “to announce that they will continue to financially and politically support these organizations and the communities and groups they serve.” On July 18, 2022, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley wrote to Secretary of State Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Haines, in which she and over 20 of her colleagues urged the U.S. administration to hold an inter-agency briefing to discuss the Israeli designation and its implications on Palestinian civil society. 

The Biden administration must pressure Israel to reverse this dangerous designation. The United States cannot continue to claim to support human rights, provide Israel with $3.8 billion annually in military aid, and then maintain complicit silence while that same aid is used to violate international law, including the use of violence against human rights defenders.  The Palestinian people are under Israeli military occupation, and the U.S. administration is playing a leading role in enabling this travesty.  

Siham Rashid is the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center