They are the criminals, we believe in justice

Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq (Majd Mohammed - AP)

Adri Nieuwhof

The Electronic Intifada  /  November 16, 2021

Some members of the European Union treat Israel like a “spoiled baby,” Shawan Jabarin, the director of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, told The Electronic Intifada during a visit to The Hague last week.

Jabarin is touring European capitals to meet with officials, lawmakers and activists, following Israel’s decision last month to declare Al-Haq and five other esteemed Palestinian rights groups “terrorist organizations.”

The main message he is bringing to Europe is that words are not enough: Tel Aviv must be held accountable.

“Israel can live with condemnations forever,” according to Jabarin. “But they can’t live with actions even for days or weeks.”

Three of the groups Israel banned, including Al-Haq, have been working closely with the International Criminal Court to gather evidence for its investigation of war crimes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel has claimed – without showing any credible evidence – that the six organizations are channeling funds to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which like virtually all Palestinian political parties, Israel considers to be a “terrorist” group.

Jabarin forcefully rejects Israel’s attempt to criminalize human rights work and Palestinian politics.

All Palestinian political parties have “a right to exist, a right to act, a right to defend their people’s rights,” Jabarin affirms.

“They are the criminals, they are the terrorists, they are the oppressors who commit international crimes,” Jabarin says of Israeli leaders. “They have no right to give us labels – you are good and you are bad.”

“Their right place is to be in The Hague behind bars,” he adds.

According to Jabarin, Israel is growing “nervous about the common narrative” among human rights activists and others “that Israel is a colonial apartheid regime.”

But he says that failing to act against it sends a clear message to young Palestinians that all peaceful routes to achieve justice are closed and “you have to look for your own ways to protect yourself.”

Jabarin alludes to what happened in May, when Palestinians in every part of their homeland, including occupied East Jerusalem and what is now Israel, rose up together for the first time in generations – and Israel sought revenge with a savage bombing campaign in Gaza.

“They saw what our young generation did in Sheikh Jarrah,” Jabarin says, “our people everywhere, inside 1948, and everywhere.”

Moment of truth

This is a “moment of truth” as to whether the EU will translate its declared support for Palestinian civil society into effective action, in Jabarin’s view.

Israel and its allies within the EU are pressing for a resumption of the EU-Israel Association Council, a joint body established by the agreement that gives Israel special privileges within the European Union.

The council has not met for almost a decade, but there is mounting pressure for it to be reconvened as a way of demonstrating the growing warmth between Tel Aviv and Brussels. There is talk of such a meeting early next year.

Jabarin says that the meeting should not go ahead and Israel must enjoy no more rewards from Brussels. He contrasts the EU’s lack of action to hold Israel accountable with its swift imposition of sanctions on other countries – most recently Belarus.

It is time for the EU to move from merely labeling products from Israel’s colonial settlements in the West Bank to banning trade in such goods altogether, Jabarin adds.

Failure to act

The EU failed to act when Israel informed it in advance that it was going to designate six Palestinian rights groups as “terrorist” organizations.

The EU’s statements so far, according to Jabarin, fall far short of what should be expected of people who claim to believe “in international law, justice, freedom and rights.”

Despite his strong criticisms of the EU, Jabarin is convinced that the “Europeans can make a difference.”

He notes that some European governments, including Norway, Ireland and Italy, issued “good and strong” statements about Israel’s attack on the Palestinian rights groups.

And he points to “encouraging” messages he’s received from several countries.

Those include assurances of continued funding for the work the Palestinian groups are doing and an understanding of “the hidden goal” behind Israel’s actions – as Jabarin puts it, that Israel is “trying to silence us, to shut us down and not allow us to do our work in the international arena.”

“Individual states don’t have to put themselves under the mercy of a dysfunctional system,” Jabarin states, emphasizing that there is no need to bow to the pro-Israel consensus in Brussels.

Engineering Palestinian society

Israel’s attack on the six Palestinian rights groups is not only about shutting down those who seek accountability but an attempt at “engineering Palestinian society,” Jabarin says.

Israel wants to impose fear on everybody that “we are here, we can stop you, we can kill you, we can assassinate you, we will not allow you to do this.”

Jabarin warns that Israel aims to “build a culture of self-censorship for individuals, for organizations and for political parties.”

“They want us to follow their policies and to be happy with the crimes they are committing against our people,” he says. “It will not happen like that.”

“We count on our friends”

Whatever frustrations and obstacles Palestinians face in getting official and institutional support for their just struggle, Jabarin is heartened by the overwhelming grassroots support within Palestine and internationally.

The printer, the graphic designer, the caterer who provides services when there are visitors, all offered to work for free, Jabarin says. Trade unionists and even the Palestinian Authority offered their support for the banned groups.

“It refreshed our energy as a people in general and pushed us to stand in the right square – to defend the rights of the people against the occupation and the occupying power,” Jabarin states.

“We count on our people, our friends all over the world,” Jabarin adds, lauding bar associations, students and academics, parliamentarians and others who are pushing back against Israel’s attack on the rights groups.

“They can destroy houses, they can kill, they can arrest, they can shut down, they can close this or that office, they can blow up the office,” Jabarin says of Israel. “But they can’t change our belief in justice. We have to go after the criminals.”

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa