Israel’s escalating war on Palestinian civil society and basic rights

Yara M. Asi

Dawn  /  October 28, 2021

In May 2010, Defense for Children International-Palestine, a prominent NGO in Ramallah known as DCI-P, submitted a report to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture that recounted the sexual assault, or threats of sexual assault, of Palestinian children between the ages of 13 and 16 by Israeli soldiers and police. In 2016, Addameer, which advocates for Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian jails, released an extensive legal analysis of Israel’s policy of administrative detention of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, meticulously documenting how it violates international humanitarian law and international human rights law. In 2014, Al-Haq, along with several other Palestinian human rights organizations, led the charge to submit evidence to the International Criminal Court of war crimes committed by Israel during its 2014 assault on Gaza.

Last week, these three Palestinian civil society groups, along with three others—the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Bisan Center for Research and Development—were designated as “terrorist organizations” by Israel, a move that threatens both their work and their workers. It came through a military order signed by Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, invoking a 2016 counterterrorism law and vaguely accusing the NGOs of being affiliates of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, the small leftist political faction that Israel and the United States, as well as many of their allies, consider a terrorist organization due to past attacks attributed to its members.

Israel has long used accusations of terrorism and incitement to deprive Palestinians of their basic rights. It applies supposed standards about “hostile,” “unlawful” and “terrorist” activities and associations against Palestinians that it would never apply to its own population, like an Israeli member of the Knesset who recently told his Palestinian Arab colleagues, “You are here by mistake—because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948,” or the settlers committing increasingly flagrant and destructive violence across the West Bank, often in the clear presence of Israeli soldiers.

These six Palestinian human rights organizations provide on-the-ground data and analysis that is otherwise not available to journalists and academics trying to report on the West Bank and Gaza. They advocate for the most marginalized Palestinians, working with governments and other NGOs around the world, and have received international awards and accolades for their advocacy and service work. They also provide critical analysis in righting the imbalanced narrative adopted by many observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict, including many Western media outlets. As the Israeli executive director of Parents Against Child Detention noted in Haaretz, “If DCI-P is a terrorist organization, what should we call armed militias that hurt children? What should we call organizations that deny children their rights and endanger their welfare and their safety?” These organizations do the work that a functional, legitimate Palestinian government might do, if the Palestinian Authority were not shirking its duties and using repression of its own people to maintain its power.

The Israeli government based its designation of this civil society work as an apparent front for terrorism on information that it almost immediately deemed classified. Gantz, who as chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces had commanded the IDF during the 2012 and 2014 wars on Gaza—where tens of thousands of homes were destroyed and thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed, including journalists and medical personnel—provided no details about the NGOs’ alleged PFLP connections. He also apparently neglected to share whatever evidence Israel had with his American counterparts, who claimed they would ask the Israeli government for “more information” about the seemingly sudden move. The European Union Delegation to Palestinians said it was “seeking clarifications” from Israel, too. “Past allegations of the misuse of EU funds by certain Palestinian CSO partners have not been substantiated,” it said in a statement on Twitter. Notably, no specific transactions by these Palestinian organizations have been questioned yet, and no individual from any of these NGOs has been arrested for an alleged crime related to the “terrorism” designation.

The backlash came quickly. More than two dozen Israeli NGOs that work with these six Palestinians organizations called the designation “an act of cowardice, characteristic of repressive authoritarian regimes.” The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the decision to be immediately revoked, noting the unsubstantiated justification and the fact that Israel considers actions like “promoting steps against Israel in the international arena” as tantamount to terrorism. In an editorial headlined “A Stain Upon Israel,” Haaretz declared, “There is a straight line from defining the nonviolent struggle against the occupation as ‘diplomatic terror’ and designating human rights groups as terrorist organizations. The literal meaning is clear: All resistance to the occupation is terror.” Even the conservative Jerusalem Post warned, “It is easy to make announcements and declare that an NGO is part of a terrorist enterprise. It is harder to prove that,” referring back to Muhammed el-Halabi, the former head of a Gaza-based NGO accused by Israel of diverting millions of dollars in aid money to Hamas, even though Israel still hasn’t presented any credible evidence of his supposed crimes. He has been held in Israeli prison for more than five years, denied bail and dragged through 165 court sessions in a trial declared secret.

Indeed, this story unfortunately does not start or end with these six Palestinian NGOs, or with Halabi—or, for that matter, with the arrest of Shatha Odeh, the director of the Palestinian Health Work Committees, this past July, or the deportation of Omar Shakir, the director for Israel and Palestine at Human Rights Watch, in 2019. This is just the latest development in an ongoing and increasingly open Israeli campaign against Palestinian civil society—against the backdrop of the ceaseless expansion of West Bank settlements, the continued restrictions on Palestinian movement, and the many brazen statements from Israeli politicians that they have no interest in a Palestinian state. That includes current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has said in the past, “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state.” The same critics of Israel’s “terrorist” designation last week have issued dozens of similar condemnations on Israeli repression of Palestinian civil society for decades. Impunity and an unwillingness to hold Israel accountable for its 54-year occupation of Palestinian territory and all its manifestations have led to this escalation. And left unchecked, it certainly won’t be the last.

These same attacks on civil society are made by repressive regimes in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China and Russia, among others. Some of those countries, like Israel, are close U.S. allies; others enjoy lucrative economic relationships with the U.S. and Europe, and even sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Many of the Gulf states, among the least representative and most repressive countries in the world, have been lauded as downright progressive because of their newfound normalization with Israel, which in practice looks less like a diplomatic accord and more like an investment and arms deal. This normalization comes as international and Israeli NGOs like Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and Yesh Din have formally recognized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians across the occupied territories and Israel as indicative of apartheid.

This latest sign of democratic backsliding exposes nothing new about Israel. The threat these six Palestinian NGOs posed, in Israel’s view, was challenging and disrupting its oppressive system. As the head of Addameer, Sahar Francis, said, “We have been targeted for years, for one reason: We’re succeeding in changing the paradigm around the world by speaking of apartheid, and not only occupation, and we are providing materials to The Hague.”

“Our message, along with the other organizations, is that we will not stop working,” she added. “We will not stop providing services to those who need us. We refuse to fall silent on the occupation’s apartheid rule.” It remains to be seen whether the forces enabling and fostering Israel’s suppression of Palestinian rights, most of all the United States, have the capacity for self-awareness to meaningfully support what they say they support, rather than perpetuating the current reality in which human rights are merely a talking point.

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is the Fall 2021 Al-Shabaka visiting U.S. fellow, a 2020-2021 Fulbright U.S. scholar to the West Bank, and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC