‘You will pay the price’: Shin Bet threatens Palestinian NGO directors

Oren Ziv

+972 Magazine  /  August 22, 2022

Undeterred by foreign criticism, Israel warns heads of two human rights groups of imprisonment and prosecution days after raiding their offices.

On Sunday, the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, made threatening calls and summoned for interrogation the heads of two Palestinian NGOs whose offices were raided by the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank last week.

Khaled Quzmar, the director of Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), was warned by Shin Bet agents during his interrogation that any work he does within the organization from now on will be considered unlawful and may result in legal actions against him. Shawan Jabarin, director of Al-Haq, was warned over the phone that he was “a member of a terror organization,” and that he would “pay the price” if he continued his activities in the organization; Jabarin has not yet appeared for interrogation.

Last October, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared that these two organizations along with four others — Addameer, Bisan Center, the Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC), and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC) — are “terrorist organizations.” Israel accuses them of serving as “arms” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist political party with a military wing, but has failed to provide any serious proof to the public and to foreign governments justifying its claims.

Until last week, the Israeli authorities had not taken major actions against the staff in these organizations, save for blocking the directors of Addameer and Bisan from traveling abroad a few months ago. But before dawn on Thursday, the army raided the Ramallah offices of the six organizations plus a seventh, the Health Work Committees, which was outlawed in 2020. Israeli forces confiscated equipment, welded shut the doors of the offices, and left military orders declaring the organizations illegal.

The escalation against the Palestinian NGOs comes around a month after nine European countries publicly reaffirmed their rejection of Israel’s allegations, saying they they are not backed by substantial evidence, and that they would continue financially supporting and working with the organizations. On Thursday evening, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price similarly stated that the information provided by Israel had not “caused us to change our position.” On Monday, it was also revealed by The Guardian that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been unable to corroborate Israel’s allegations of links to terrorism. 

By issuing its warnings and summoning the directors for investigation, Israel has demonstrated that it has not been influenced or deterred by the words of concern and support that the organizations received from foreign diplomats and senior Palestinian Authority officials after last week’s raids, and has signalled that it has no intention of stopping its crackdown. 

‘This is your last warning’

 At noon on Sunday, DCI-P’s Quzmar received a phone call summoning him immediately to the Ofer military facility near Ramallah. When he arrived, his lawyers were prevented from entering with him. Quzmar said that after waiting two hours in a small room, he was taken to another room for questioning.

“The interrogator opened a computer, and asked me technical and personal questions about my family,” Quzmar told +972. “After that, he closed the computer and said, ‘Look, I only invited you to inform you, in case you don’t know, that it has been decided that your organization is illegal, and that from now on, your work in the organization — inside or outside the country — will be grounds for legal actions against you.’”

Quzmar asked the investigator if there was any evidence against his organization. “I told them that if they had proof, they would prosecute me in a military court. But their case [against the organizations] is full of lies, and no one accepted their claims. I know my organization well, I have been working there since 1995. We have never broken the law or misused funds. We have no connection to other organizations except human rights groups.”

According to Quzmar, the interrogator replied: “This is the information I have, and this is your last warning. It is up to you to decide what to do.”

The conversation lasted only 15 minutes, and Quzmar was released without conditions. “The message was clear: not to be involved in any activity with the organization. I will now consult with our lawyers on how to act,” Quzmar said.

Jabarin of Al-Haq received a similar call at the same time as Quzmar, but he did not go to the military facility. He told +972 that he will continue his work as usual: “We will open and work from the office. They can do what they want. We do not respect military orders. We are a civilian organization, registered with the Palestinian Authority.”

Jabarin recounted the threatening call he received. “I thought it was a journalist, so I answered. The person on the line identified himself as ‘Fahad’ from the Shin Bet in Ofer. He said he wanted to interrogate me there, so as not to come to my house. I told him that’s not the legal way, and that he should come in an official way.”

Fahad then said, “‘Look, Shawan, if you continue your work in an organization that has been declared by military decree to be a terror organization, then you are a member of the PFLP, you are active there.’” Jabarin told Fahad that “these are lies, that he is a liar and his country is a liar. I have no connection to the PFLP.”

The Shin Bet officer, Jabarin continued, then said: “‘If you continue, you will pay the price, personally.’ I asked him if that was a threat, and he said: ‘Yes. Investigation, imprisonment, or other measures.’ I got angry, I said some not nice things, and he hung up.”

Jabarin strongly believes that he will soon be arrested by the Israeli authorities. “To be straight with you, I do expect that. They don’t respect the law, they don’t respect any democratic value, they don’t respect any fair procedure. This is how they threaten people. They want to enforce their decision, to enforce their claims and narrative, against the conclusions of the European countries.”

‘They think like a dictatorial regime’

Quzmar and Jabarin believe there are several factors that have led Israel to intensify its actions against the NGOs in the past week. Chief among them, they say, is the fact that several European donor countries have openly rejected Israel’s claims regarding their connections to terrorism, as well as political motivations ahead of the Israeli election on November 1, which was triggered by the recent collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government.

“As Palestinians, we are always used in election campaigns,” Quzmar stated. “I’m glad that they are using us, the organizations, and not our blood, like they did in Gaza [with “Operation Breaking Dawn” earlier this month]. They are threatening, but at least they are not killing people.”

Quzmar continued: “Our work regarding the arrests of Palestinian children has become well-known, and I believe that this caused Israel to act. They can’t contend with the facts that we present in our reports, so the easy way, as usual, is to make claims about antisemitism and terrorism. For the first time in my life, I can see that the international community has rejected those claims, and is continuing to publicly support us.”

In Israel, too, there have been expressions of support for the Palestinians NGOs: on Sunday, over 50 Israeli civil society organizations published a joint message of support and solidarity, adding that criminalizing human rights groups “is a deplorable act characteristic of repressive regimes.”

Jabarin echoed these sentiments. “The goal is to show that they [the Israelis] do not listen to anyone. Even after the European countries [rejected Israel’s claims], they will not admit that they failed in promoting their lies. They want to threaten people, to push us back. They don’t know that this is not a job for us, this is our faith — in justice, in international law, in the right of Palestinians to have rights. They think like a dictatorial regime, that you must accept what they say.” The current officials in the coalition led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Jabarin added, “want to show the public that they are more aggressive than [former Prime Minister] Netanyahu and his government.”

After Gantz’s declaration in October, the six Palestinian organizations demanded to see the evidence behind the decision, but were refused. Since then, +972 and Local Call have published two investigations revealing that Israeli dossiers sent to foreign diplomats did not present any real evidence that substantiated its claims, as confirmed by multiple European governments and now the United States.

Attorney Michael Sfard, who is representing Al-Haq against Israel’s charges, told +972: “Gantz has decided to eliminate the organizations at all costs, in order to thwart the [International Criminal Court’s] investigation at The Hague. His resounding failure to convince the donor countries to stop supporting the organizations has made his dictatorial and repressive actions against them even more extreme.”

Sfard continued: “Now it is clear that it is not enough for the European countries and the American government to declare that they do not agree with Israel, or even to criticize the raids on the organizations’ offices and the threats against their directors. The Israeli government is not influenced by words, and sees Europe transmitting ‘business as usual.’ To protect Palestinian human rights defenders, the international community must make it clear to the Israeli government that there will be a significant price — diplomatic and otherwise — for continuing to harm them.”

Oren Ziv is a photojournalist and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective