Like Israel, the PA is cracking down on Palestinian civil society

Like Israel, the PA is cracking down on Palestinian civil society

Jessica Buxbaum

The New Arab  /  April 20, 2023 

As Palestinian civil society faces concerted attacks from Israel, the Palestinian Authority is also accused of shrinking civic space.

In 2021, Israel designated six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations, saying they were affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a leftist political party that has a paramilitary branch.

The groups rejected the accusations, saying Israel was smearing them to cover up human rights violations.

Yet as Palestinian civil society faces attacks from Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), the government overseeing parts of the occupied West Bank, is also accused of shrinking civic space.

“The PA is doing the same as what Israel is doing”

In March, the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy informed Lawyers for Justice, a Palestinian legal rights group, that it would not be renewing its registration as a civil company for 2023, under the recommendation of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service (GIS).

The ministry told Lawyers for Justice that the GIS claims the group is receiving foreign funding and is operating like a non-profit organization by offering free legal services, which violates its contract as a civil company.

Lawyers for Justice denies it has received money from abroad and appealed the decision to the Administrative Court of the Palestinian High Court of Justice this month. Without valid registration, Diala Ayesh, an attorney at Lawyers for Justice, says the group can’t hold a bank account or work with local or international organizations.

Additionally, Ashraf Abu Hayyeh, head of the national legal research and advocacy department at Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group and one of the organizations designated as a terror group by Israel, explained that, as a civil company, Lawyers for Justice can accept money from anywhere – including internationally.

The Economy Ministry and GIS did not respond to inquiries from The New Arab on why it is blocking Lawyers for Justice’s registration.

Targeted by the PA

Lawyers for Justice represent individuals detained by the PA. The nature of their work, Ayesh said, is why the PA is targeting Lawyers for Justice.

“Since we were founded in 2011, the General Intelligence and the [Palestinian] Preventive Security [Service (PSS)] didn’t want us to work,” Ayesh told The New Arab.

“They’ve tried many ways to stop our work. They didn’t want us to defend human rights defenders, political detainees, or people who get detained because of their opinions.”

This isn’t the first time Lawyers for Justice has been threatened by the PA. Government authorities have arrested staff – including founder and director Mohannad Karaje several times.

Ayesh was also arrested in 2021 while representing individuals demonstrating against the killing of Nizar Banat, a prominent Palestinian activist and outspoken critic of the PA who was arrested and beaten by PSS forces that same year. He died while still in custody. Ayesh said she was sexually assaulted by police during her arrest.

Karaje is currently being prosecuted by the GIS, PSS, and the Palestinian Public Prosecution, part of the PA’s judicial authority.

In addition to arrests and criminal charges, Ayesh said PA officials have tried to obstruct Lawyers for Justice’s work by telling their clients they will stay in jail for longer if they’re represented by the firm.

“At the end of the day, we are dreaming and hoping to get a real state of law where democracy is the pillar of it”

The PA is also accused of harassing other sects of civil society. Ubai al-Aboudi, executive director of Bisan Center for Research and Development, a human rights group also designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, has been arrested by the PA and alleges authorities torture prisoners.

Al-Haq’s Abu Hayyeh detailed how, in recent years, the PA has tried to reform laws regulating civil society to restrict NGOs’ work.

In particular, the 2022 Bylaw on Non-profit Companies (NPC), under the guise of combatting money laundering and financing terrorism, introduced restrictions on how civil society groups manage their finances.

Now, NGOs must receive prior approval before accepting aid or running crowdfunding campaigns, must submit more financial reports each year, and their stated goals must match with the PA’s mission.

Abu Hayyeh said these measures have affected Al-Haq’s work, but ultimately the main culprit is the Israeli occupation.

“At the end of the day, we are dreaming and hoping to get a real state of law where democracy is the pillar of it,” Abu Hayyeh said. “Under that aspiration, the Palestinian Authority is not seen as an enemy or an opponent.”

“We never see them the way we see the Israeli occupation,” he added.

For Ayesh, though, the PA and Israel are nearly interchangeable.

“The PA is doing the same as what Israel is doing,” Ayesh said, equating the PA’s abuses to Israel’s crackdown on civil society.

Yet despite PA pressure, Ayesh asserted Lawyers for Justice will not give up.

“We are not afraid of the PA,” Ayesh said. “If the PA closes our company, we will continue our work. It won’t be the same, but we will find a way.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel