The new campaign to smear Palestinian human rights defenders as terrorists

A still from surveillance footage taken on the morning of July 29, 2021 inside the Defense for Children International - Palestine office in Ramallah (DfCI-P)

Mohammed el-Kurd

The Nation  /  October 22, 2021

In a move that has been condemned as an effort to discredit Palestinian rights organizations, the Israeli government has designated six as “terror organizations.”

In an authoritarian and repressive move, the Israeli regime has designated six leading Palestinian civil society and human rights groups as “terror organizations.” Citing expansive and characteristically anti-Palestinian terror legislation, the Israeli Defense Ministry accused these organizations of being affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and of plotting “the destruction of Israel.” News of the move, which took place on October 19, began spreading earlier today.

The six organizations are the Palestine branch of Defense for Children International (DCI-P), Al-HaqAddameer for Prisoner Support and Human Rights, the Bisan Center, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, and Union of Agricultural Work Committees. (Notably, the Samidoun Prisoner Solidarity Network was also slammed with a “terrorist” designation in February.) The move effectively outlaws their activities and puts their staffers at risk of prosecution.

Both the Palestinian public and the International Community rely heavily on all of these organizations for data and analysis about human rights abuses faced by Palestinians throughout the region. Al-Haq, for instance, is a human rights organization that, in its own words, “documents violations of the individual and collective rights of Palestinians” in occupied Palestine, “irrespective of the identity of the perpetrator.” It works closely with the United Nations and other international organizations and has received numerous awards, including the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation Prize.

While groups dedicated to protecting Palestinian lives and rights have long endured a pattern of attacks on their right to advocate and even exist—most recently, in the form of the draconian 2016 “Counter-Terrorism” Law, which replaces and expands British colonial anti-dissent legislation—the Israeli occupation authority’s criminalization of Palestinian civil society organizations has intensified in recent months. Specifically, it comes as an extension of the far-reaching crackdown on political organizing and speech following the May 2021 Uprising.

As Adalah, the legal justice organization, said in a statement: “These groups are among the most prominent human rights organizations in Palestine that daily challenge and expose severe violations of human rights before the international community. Their designation as terrorist organizations fits totalitarian and colonial regimes and constitutes political persecution under the pretext of anti-terrorism legislation as it puts thousands of Palestinians in direct and immediate danger.”

Indeed, months before this decision, these organizations and their employees faced repeated attacks meant to stifle all criticism of the Israeli regime, let alone resistance to it. In July, Israeli occupation forces raided the office of Defense for Children International–Palestine in Ramallah, seizing the organization’s computers and vandalizing its security cameras. DCI-P’s work is to provide child protection and accountability against human rights abuses, reporting mainly on the routine Israeli killing of Palestinian children in the Occupied West Bank. In a statement responding to the military order, DCI-P rejected the “terrorist” designation as “another unjust action by Israeli authorities to criminalize and eliminate our lawful human rights and child protection work.” It continued, “We defend Palestinian children in the Israeli military courts and expose grave violations against Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli forces.”

The Israeli occupation forces also raided the offices of the Union of Agricultural Work and ordered it closed for six months. The Palestinian Minister of Agriculture, Riad al-Atari, characterized this raid as “an integral part of the Occupation’s continuous attempt to weaken and ultimately destroy the agricultural sector in Palestine.”

In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International declared this decision, which comes from the Israeli regime’s new “change” government, “an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement.” The statement emphasized the decades of “repressive” Israeli efforts to “systemically muzzle human rights monitoring.”

The absurdity of this decision to criminalize human rights defenders by smearing them as terrorists must not overshadow the real and immediate risk they face as a result. The military order gives Israeli authorities the power to arrest or jail staffers as well close their offices and seize their assets. It also “prohibits funding or even publicly expressing support for their activities,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Diala Shamas, a human rights lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, provided perhaps the most effective “translation of these orders” in a tweet earlier today. “After years of unsuccessful efforts to persuade, or bully European and US donors and allies to defund and discredit Palestinian human rights defenders,” she wrote, “the Israeli government gives up and just criminalized them under Israeli law.”

 Mohammed el-Kurd is the Palestine Correspondent for The Nation; he writes primarily about dispossession in Jerusalem and colonization in Palestine; his debut book, RIFQA (Haymarket Books), will be released in October 2021