Summer raids on rights groups foreshadowed ‘terrorist’ designation

People protesting in front of a UN office in Gaza against the Israeli raids on the Union of Agriculatural Work Committees (Youssef Abu Watfa - APA Images)

Kelly Kunzl

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 29, 2021

In the early morning hours of 29 July, Israeli troops stormed the offices of the Bisan Center for Research and Development in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Soldiers broke down doors and smashed windows, and, in the wake of the raid, employees returned to find missing files and numerous laptops and desktop computers seized.

“They didn’t leave any orders or even a paper of the things they confiscated and didn’t give any reason for breaking into the office,” Ubai Aboudi, director of the research institute, which works to empower poor and marginalized communities in Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada.

The ransacking was just one in a string of recent attacks this year on Palestinian rights and grassroots organizations. Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense order, effectively declared war on such groups last week when he issued an order classifying six of them as “terrorist organizations”.

The six are Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Al-HaqDefense for Children International – Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees.

The 19 October order gives Israel the authority to close their offices, seize their assets and arrest employees with impunity.

In a joint statement, the Palestinian Human Rights Organization Council (PHROC) and the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) condemned the move, calling it “a sinister, unprecedented and blanket attack on Palestinian human rights defenders and civil society organizations.”

The US-based Human Rights Watch and UK-based Amnesty International issued a joint condemnation of what they called an “appalling and unjust” decision.

Israel’s staunch backers in Washington and Brussels were less critical.

A US State Department spokesperson said Israel had given Washington no prior warning, while an EU spokesperson pointed out that past Israeli allegations against Palestinian organizations with EU funding have “not been substantiated.”

Long in the making

However, Gantz’s order is only emblematic of measures already used in Israel’s decades-long campaign to suppress organizations that provide vital services to Palestinian communities and work to expose Israel’s violations of international law.

Israel has banned more than 400 Palestinian organizations since 1967, including all Palestinian political parties.

In this summer’s raids, Israeli soldiers were so thorough in their pillaging that, according to Ubai Aboudi – who was arrested in 2019 for his work in human rights – not even a small marble sculpture with the organization’s logo inscribed on it that had stood at the office entrance since its founding in 1989 evaded the soldiers’ looting spree.

Also targeted in the summer were most of the other organizations that have now been designated as “terrorist.”

The Ramallah offices of Defense for Children International-Palestine, for instance, were raided on 29 July. Surveillance footage released by the organization shows a group of seven heavily-armed soldiers entering the office and plucking equipment off employees’ desks.

The headquarters of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees in al-Bireh, had already been raided in July, and a month before that, Israeli soldiers descended on the Health Work Committees Ramallah headquarters.

The latter has so far been spared the “terrorism” label.

The raids came following an allegation made by the Israeli foreign ministry on 6 May that the organizations are funneling money to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist political faction founded in 1967 that is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the US, the EU and other Western governments.

“Crazy” allegations

The organizations rejected the claims in May as they do today.

“The allegations of funneling money are crazy. At Bisan we are talking about a center whose annual budget is just somewhere between $230,000 and $250,000 annually. That mostly goes to researchers’ salaries,” Ubai Aboudi told The Electronic Intifada in August.

The Israeli foreign ministry has called on European countries to cease funding the organizations.

The allegations against the Palestinian rights organizations are based on the work of several right-wing pro-Israel groups that target Palestinian human rights groups and lobby EU governments to withdraw funding.

NGO Monitor, one of the most active lobby groups, has published a series of reports accusing organizations such as the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Bisan and DCIP of having ties to the PFLP.

NGO Monitor was founded in 2002. It promotes itself as an institute that publishes “fact-based research and independent analysis about non-governmental organizations (NGOs), their funders, and other stakeholders, primarily in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

However, analyses of the organization have found that from the start the group published and continues to publish disinformation and false and misleading claims.

A 2018 report by the Policy Working Group, a collective of Israeli journalists and academics, detailed the organization’s board members’ close ties to Israeli politicians and coordination with Israeli ministries. Yosef Kuperwasser, one board member of NGO Monitor, is a former director-general in Israel’s foreign ministry.

“NGO Monitor’s overarching objective,” the report finds, “is to defend and sustain government policies that help uphold Israel’s occupation of, and control over, the Palestinian territories.”

Farmers in the crosshairs

The accusations against the Palestinian organizations have been largely dismissed.

Giovanni Fassina, program director at the European Legal Support Center, which works to empower the Palestine solidarity movement in Europe, told The Electronic Intifada that the accusations were baseless and unlikely to affect EU policy.

“The evidence presented by the Israeli authorities and Israel-advocacy groups have no merit, they are weak and do not meet the standards declared under the EU law framework.”

As for the terrorism designations, Fassina argued that this was an arbitrary decision made precisely because past efforts to criminalize Palestinian rights groups have not succeeded.

“The EU and several member states already made statements suggesting there is no substantial evidence that should make them reconsider their funding.”

However, in one case, the efforts have been at least partially successful.

Israel’s campaign against the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) began years ago, but really took off following a joint campaign launched by UK Lawyers for Israel and NGO Monitor after the arrest of two union employees, Samer Arbeed and Abdel Razaq Farraj, in the fall of 2019 for alleged connections with a bombing attack in the West Bank earlier that year that killed a 17-year-old Israeli settler.

In July 2020 the Dutch government suspended funding for the organization, the largest agricultural developmental institution in Palestine that supports thousands of farmers and fishers in the West Bank and Gaza through various programs and projects.

An external review is ongoing. The union has repeatedly rejected any political or religious affiliation.

On July 7 of this year, the organization’s offices in Ramallah were raided by Israeli forces. Soldiers seized five hard drives, one laptop, a digital voice recorder, and other files and ordered the offices closed for six months.

According to UAWC’s Moayyad Bsharat, the office raids and enforced closures are because of the organization’s work in Area C of the occupied West Bank where Palestinian farmers require the most assistance.

Area C, which spans 60 percent of the West Bank and includes the agricultural hub of the Jordan Valley, is under full Israeli security and civilian control. Palestinian farmers and residents in the area experience constant harassment by army-protected settlers and have to deal with a constantly expanding Israeli military presence.

“This is not the first time Israel has started a campaign against UAWC’s work but this is the most aggressive and effective,” Bsharat told The Electronic Intifada.

Bsharat said that frequent attacks have forced the organization to lay off employees in recent years and cut some vital agriculture projects. He and his colleagues do not plan on returning to the offices for fear of arrest.

“Israel uses any kind of punishment, collective or individual, to stop our work. Even if all of us know that we are just working in the agriculture sector, it is not a secret operation, it is just seeds,” Bsharat told The Electronic Intifada.

Targeting individuals

Funding is only one angle of Israel’s assault on the rights groups. Another is making life as hard as possible for the individuals working there.

Bsharat lives in permanent fear. “It is a psychological thing, each night I have to anticipate that me and my family will go to jail.”

According to Shahd Qaddoura, a legal researcher at the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq – which was also designated a “terrorist” organization by Gantz last week – the summer raids were part of intensifying efforts by Israel to silence people who work to defend the rights of Palestinians.

“Israel’s smear campaigns have been established for a few years now and they target human rights organizations, health, agriculture and development,” Qaddoura told The Electronic Intifada.

But, said Qaddura, they also include threats to individuals through arbitrary arrest, travel bans, residency revocation and deportation.

Shawan Jabarin, Al-Haq’s general director, has been accused of “terrorism” and had a travel ban imposed against him in 2006.

He has long called Israel’s allegations against him “absurd” as he has never been officially charged with a crime nor been allowed to see what evidence the authorities have used to justify the travel ban.

Al-Haq has also filed repeated complaints with the UN Secretary General about death threats received by European-based colleagues at their homes and harassment by pro-Israel pressure groups during sessions of UN Human Rights Council.

Never give up

“It’s quite tough because you are not the only one who will be affected. You also have to think about your family, friends and loved ones who will be targeted if you are detained,” Al-Haq’s Shahd Qaddoura said.

“It’s draining but at the same time it’s a push for us to continue the work.”

Shatha Odeh, director of the Health Work Committees and a veteran human rights defender, was detained in the early morning hours of 7 July by Israeli forces, when she was taken from her home.

Two other employees had been detained earlier in the year.

Some 130 organizations from 40 different countries condemned Odeh’s arrest and called on the World Health Organization to intervene in order to secure her release.

According to Sahar Francis, director of the Palestinian prisoner rights organization Addameer – another group Gantz has designated as a terror organization – and Shatha Odeh’s personal lawyer, Odeh was brought up on five separate charges related to membership in an “illegal organization” and misuse of funds, and is now being held in Damon prison.

“The aim of all these attacks … is to make donors terrified to fund Palestinian rights groups,” Francis told The Electronic Intifada.

On 11 August, Mary Lawlor, a UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, condemned the raids and arrests of Health Work Committees employees as part of “a wider crackdown against those defending the human rights of Palestinians.”

In a letter released by Sahar Francis on 23 September, Shatha Odeh condemned the escalating attacks on Palestinian civil society organizations and vowed to continue her work.

“The case of my detention,” Odeh wrote, “demonstrates the Israeli occupation’s policies that aim to disable the services provided by the Palestinian civil society organizations, and to terrorize and forcibly close their offices only because they serve to reinforce the steadfastness and resilience of the Palestinian people.”

“However, their prisons shall not break us, nor shall their oppressive policies affect the path of our rightful struggle.”

Kelly Kunzl is an American freelance journalist, reporting on Palestine