Mark Muhannad Ayyash
Al-Jazeera / December 7, 2021
Israel’s designation of Palestinian NGOs as terrorist does not reflect reality but it does much damage.
On October 22, Israel issued a military order designating six prominent Palestinian human rights groups – Addameer, Al-Haq, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees – as “terrorist organizations”.
The Israeli Ministry of Defence said the decision was taken on the basis of “links” they established between these groups and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a left-wing movement with a political party, as well as an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israel.
The Palestinian Authority, many international rights groups and the United Nations swiftly condemned the move. In interviews, comment pieces and statements, officials, analysts and experts expressed their belief that Israel “has gone too far this time”. The most prominent line of argument against the designation was that these six groups are clearly human rights organizations and they cannot be placed in the same “terror” category as groups like the PFLP that consider violence a legitimate means to achieve political ends. “The misuse of counter-terrorism measures in this way by the government of Israel undermines the security of all,” UN human rights experts said in a statement.
For its part, Israel defended its decision by claiming that these groups are “controlled by senior leaders” of the PFLP and that they employ its members, including some who had “participated in terror activity”. The Israeli Ministry of Defence also accused the groups of serving as a “central source” of financing for the PFLP.
In response to these claims, Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli lawyer who often represents Palestinians, said that Israel’s argument “amounts to absolutely nothing” and that its whole case against these organizations is built on “guilt by association”. “Even if it is true that people who work in certain organizations are PFLP operatives, it does not follow that the organization itself is part of the PFLP,” he told the AP news agency.
Sfard’s point of view, shared by many others, helped raise some important questions: So what if people working in these organizations are also members of the PFLP? Does it mean anything that Israel considers the PFLP a “terrorist organization”? What is, after all, “Palestinian terror”?
Why the PFLP cannot be reduced to a mindless terror group
The PFLP lost its prominence in Palestinian politics some time ago, but it still has significant support among Palestinian leftists, and especially among Marxists and socialists.
It is a well-established political organization that provides Palestinians with social services, communal support and a world view that helps them make sense of their reality and find ways to change it.
The PFLP holds the position that armed resistance is a valid path towards liberation from Israeli settler colonialism, but not every member of the group participates, supports or agrees with armed resistance.
The overwhelming majority of the group’s actions are, in fact, unarmed: it organizes strikes, demonstrations and educational activities, provides social services, collects donations, gives economic support to those in need, and so on.
Thus, the PFLP’s complex history and contemporary dynamics, its ever-evolving status and positions, and the role it plays in Palestinian life cannot be reduced to “terror”. Israel’s designation of the group as a “terrorist organization” and labelling of all its members, supporters and associates as mindless terrorists are nothing but political moves that aim to maintain Israeli power and dominance over Palestinian life.
What is ‘Palestinian terror’?
The PFLP carried out violent operations against the Israeli state and society. And some of its attacks harmed and killed Israeli civilians.
Palestinians are not denying this. In fact, many Palestinian activists, journalists, politicians, academics and artists, myself included, have critiqued the group’s path of armed resistance. I find the targeting of civilians in the name of resistance horrifying and I am categorically opposed to it. And I am not alone. There have always been, and continue to be, vibrant debates within the Palestinian society in Palestine and beyond about the use of violence as a means to achieve liberation.
But does the fact the PFLP engages in armed resistance give Israel – and its allies – the right to label the group as a “terrorist organization”? Who is Israel to determine the nature and the label of Palestinian violence?
Israel and its Euro-American backers have unleashed levels of violence and destruction on the globe that no Palestinian armed group can hold a candle to. How can states that established themselves on stolen land, states that engage in ethnic cleansing and states that bombed millions of civilians claim to have the moral authority to label the violence of the colonized and the oppressed against them as “terrorism”?
Why is Israeli, American or European violence not considered “terror”, but Palestinian violence is?
Are drone attacks that eradicate entire families in the blink of an eye not terror? Are Israel’s military attacks on Palestine, that have left thousands of civilians, including many children maimed or dead, not terror? Is the brutal siege of Gaza, that left two million people living in an open-air prison, not a blatant act of terror? Do ethnic cleansing, arbitrary arrests, unlawful evictions not terrorize people?
For any objective observer, it should be clear that Israeli state violence is far more destructive in scale and scope and thus more “terrorizing” than Palestinian violence.
In this context, it is easy to see “terrorism” is merely a political concept for Israel. It arbitrarily designates Palestinian groups as terrorist organizations to add weight to the false narrative that Palestinian violence is somehow more terrifying, more destructive and objectionable than Israeli violence. Israel labels Palestinians as terrorists to conceal its own violence. It uses the legal designation of terror to continue inflicting violence on oppressed and colonized masses with impunity.
The power of Israel
So, what is Israel’s word worth? The short answer is: everything and nothing.
It is worth everything because, by officially designating six prominent Palestinian rights groups as “terrorist organizations”, Israel made it easier for itself to control and destroy Palestinian lives. Now, these six groups that have long been providing important services to the Palestinian population will struggle to carry out their work. Simply put, by labelling these groups as “terrorist”, the Israeli state increased its already substantial ability to violate Palestinian rights without hindrance and accountability, and with little to no political, juridical, economic, or diplomatic consequence.
But, at the same time, Israel’s word is worth nothing. It is worth nothing in the sense that a designation of “terror” made by Israel reveals nothing about the complex reality of violence.
Israel’s word on violence, as it is the case for Euro-American imperial hegemony writ large, is completely shallow and empty, divorced from the reality on the ground. It is a word that is solely guided by the political impetus to conceal Israeli violence – the unspeakable brutality of their own violence.
This, and nothing else, is what the designation of “Palestinian terror” does for Israel. It teaches us nothing about reality, and instead actively conceals it. And therefore, I repeat the critical question that is being buried underneath this latest story from Palestine: So what if members of the PFLP are also members of these six organizations? The reason why Palestinians join any group is simple: They are doing everything that they can in their desperate yet steadfast efforts to resist the Israeli state’s settler-colonial project which kills, maims, dispossesses, and expels them.
Mark Muhannad Ayyash Associate Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada