Mondoweiss / August 20, 2021
Israel has stopped arguing the content of human rights reports or allegations. Instead, it simply attacks human rights organizations themselves.
The restrictions on civil society organizations worldwide are growing and the effects on their work have been increasingly noticeable in many places. These restrictions may include laws, policies, state practices, administrative decisions, arrests, judgements, and incitements. The ultimate intent is to silence criticism and critics. Such attempts are classified as Shrinking Spaces: to hinder or eliminate civil society’s freedom or scope of action. In some regions this strategy had the effect that no independent civil society exists anymore and only state mouthpieces in the shape of non- governmental organizations.
Palestinian civil society organizations (CSOs) face growing difficulties in their work due to an environment of constraints, restrictions, and obstacles. While the Palestinian Authority adopts laws and policies to control these organizations and jeopardize their independence, Israel continues to attack CSOs, especially human rights organizations, to undermine their credibility and dry up their funding sources. Restrictions are experienced differently depending on the geographical context, type of organization and the nature of their work. Israel does not tolerate any objection to its system of control and tries to silence CSOs who uphold international law and the rights of Palestinians.
Measures imposed by Israel on Palestinians such as movement restrictions, the segregation wall and its associated permit regime, the siege of the Gaza Strip, restricted access to Area C and East-Jerusalem, limits the work and the operational capacity of Palestinian NGOs.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) also threatens freedom of expression in the West Bank through practices and laws. For example, the 2017 Cybercrime Law increasingly restricts civil, political, and social space on social media and the Internet. Arrests of journalists, activists, and opposition members continue to occur. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, peaceful demonstrations are violently dispersed. The latest increase in violence and crackdown on protesters throughout the West Bank in Spring 2021 including the unlawful killing of activists by PA security forces is considered by Al Haq a serious regression on public rights and freedoms. Moreover, the PA legislates in the form of presidential decrees, which are enacted without any debate or any form of transparency. The independence of the judiciary has also been significantly constrained by decrees,  forcing the 35 judges of the Palestinian Supreme Court into retirement.  In the absence of a functioning Palestinian Legislative Council such a move has a serious impact on democratic principles and separation of power. In Gaza, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms documented 113 violations by Palestinian authorities in 2019, including cases of arrest or detention of journalists, thereby creating an atmosphere of intimidation, and restricting public opinion.
Israeli defamation and intimidation campaigns
The Institute for International and Security Affairs, a German think tank, warned as early as 2017 of Israeli “restrictive laws and massive smear and intimidation campaigns” against individuals and institutions critical of Israel’s policies in the OPT. There have been aggressive campaigns against human rights organizations in recent years by politicians as well as think tanks and NGOs of the right-wing political camp. Corresponding organizations in Israel have been branded as traitors, collaborators, terrorists, and foreign agents, and in some cases have been massively threatened.
The Policy Working Group, composed of former Israeli diplomats and academics, wrote in an analysis published in September 2018 that those right-wing NGO’s “overriding goal is to support government policies that help maintain Israeli occupation and control over Palestinian territories [and] supply Israeli ministries and foreign missions with misleading information to defame human rights organizations critical of the occupation and mobilizes the Israeli government to pressure European counterparts to stop their financial support”.
Two strategies stand out: first, the demonization of NGOs that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and tries to influence European governments and parliaments to categorically withdraw their financial support. The second is to defame Palestinian NGOs through the tabling of accusations that these organizations have links to terrorism, without providing meaningful evidence to support such claims. Accusations are instead based primarily on repetitive and misleading information, selective research, and guilt by association. Reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Palestinian Territory also warn of “an atmosphere of intimidation, threats and arrests of human rights defenders and civil society actors by Israel.”
In several cases, the Israeli military raided and vandalized the offices of Palestinian NGOs and confiscated computers, documents and cash, with the latest examples coming in June and July 2021. Amnesty International previously wrote in 2019 that intimidation attempts by Israeli authorities against civil society organizations in Israel and the OPT had intensified dramatically in the preceding years. Civil society, according to Amnesty, faces ongoing attacks through restrictive laws and state practices, accompanied by smear campaigns aimed at delegitimizing human rights work.
Anti-democratic Israeli legislation
Efforts to use legislation to restrict the scope of action of organizations critical of the government and occupation in Israel have been underway for several years. As early as 2016, the so-called “Transparency Law” was enacted, which is mainly directed against critics of the Israeli occupation. The Law requires Israeli non-profits that receive more than 50% of their funding from “foreign political entities” to declare this fact in all released documents and all public communications. This law is considered a key component in the smear campaign against organizations working to protect human rights, positioning them as agents of foreign governments and serving foreign interests. In addition to Israel’s long history of entry denial of international human rights delegations, Human Rights Defenders and UN human rights experts, the Entry into Israel Law of 2017 as a direct follow-up to the Israeli Boycott Law, grants the Minister of Interior the ability to deny an entry visa to any foreign national who has publicly called for a boycott against the State of Israel (including the OPT), or plans to participate in a such an activity. Based on this, the deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches, among others, was denied entry. The Israeli Supreme Court’s decision in 2019 to uphold the expulsion of Human Rights Watch Director Omar Shakir was also based on alleged ties to the BDS movement.
Since 2000, Israel has closed more than 42 Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, under various pretexts ranging from “illegal” political affiliation to failure to pay bills. Since the passage of the “anti-terror” law in the Knesset in 2016, the Israeli authorities have practiced more severe and widespread repression on Palestinian institutions and civil society organizations. The law contains provisions of the emergency law and as stated by Adalah is designed to “suppress the struggle of Palestinian citizens of Israel and in East Jerusalem and suppress their political activities in support of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” This law allows the state to use “secret evidence” on a large scale in trying defendants and makes a full response to these charges difficult. The law also expands the definition of “terrorist activity” to include “public expression of support for or sympathy with terrorist organizations.” In other words, it prohibits Palestinian political expression inside Israel since it considers Palestinian political parties as terrorist organizations.
Civil society must be protected
The systematic narrowing of Israeli civil society space by the Israeli government, is documented in the 2019 report published by the Israeli Human Rights Defenders Fund. The study cites as key elements “incitement and smear campaigns, legislation, criminalization, isolation of local human rights organizations, reduction of public space, violence, and restriction of the independence of the judiciary.” In 2021, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders published the report, Target Locked, in which Israel’s various campaigns to silence critical civil society organizations have been outlined.
The targeted restriction of civil society room for maneuver, physical threats of violence and coordinated defamation by Israeli state bodies, government-related organizations and anonymous actors have been extensively documented by various organizations as seen above. The defamation campaigns are often intended to divert attention from the prolonged military occupation by placing an alleged existential threat to Israel at the center of the international debate and automatically calling any criticism of Israel anti-Semitic. This Israeli aggressive behavior towards critical and principled civil society organizations is increasingly threatening. Israel has stopped arguing for years the actual content of human rights reports or allegations directed at its own conduct. Israel’s strategy is to simply attack the organizations’ reputations. Civil society must respond to such attacks through the mobilization of allies and formulation of a counter strategy. Civil society, globally, must stand in solidarity and label Israeli defamation and intimidation campaigns as what they are: a blatant promotion of the principal “survival of the fittest”. Israel uses its might to dispossess and displace Palestinians and to silence any criticism of it. Therefore, civil society must be unconditionally shielded from such attacks and supported in its efforts to seeking accountability and promoting rule of law and international principles.
- Decree Amending the Law on the Judicial Authority Law No. 16 and on the Formation of a Transitional High Judicial Council No. 17, both issued in July 2019.
- Al Haq (2019). ‘Executive Summary: A Legal Treatise on the Laws by Decree Amending the Law on the Judicial Authority Law and on the Formation of a Transitional High Judicial Council’; See also Al Haq (2019). ‘Position Paper by Palestinian human rights organizations: The Law by Decree Amending the Law on the Judicial Authority and the Law by Decree on the Formation of a Transitional High Judicial Council’.
Amjad Alqasis holds a LL.M. in international public law and is a legal researcher and a member of the Legal Support Network of BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights