The Guardian / January 20, 2023
Jewish National Fund seeks to fight US Campaign for Palestinian Rights’ support of boycott movement.
One of the world’s oldest Zionist organizations with close ties to the Israeli government, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), is using American anti-terrorism laws to sue a major Palestinian rights group in the US over its support for the international boycott movement.
The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a coalition of groups seeking to end the decades-long occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, said the lawsuit is a part of a broader, Israeli-led strategy to harass organizations critical of the oppression of the Palestinians.
The JNF and a group of American Israelis are seeking damages from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights over its support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, led by Palestinians to mobilize non-violent international pressure on Israel. The JNF claims the BDS movement is a front for terrorist groups.
The Israeli government has banned support for the BDS movement, saying the it wants Israel to cease to exist as a Jewish state and is therefore antisemitic. But the JNF has itself faced accusations of racism for refusing to let Israelis who are not Jewish live on its considerable land holdings.
Diala Shamas, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights representing the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, describes the legal action as part of a broader Israeli-led strategy to discredit and criminalize the Palestinian cause, alongside measures such as laws in more than 30 US states penalizing support for boycotts of Israel.
“The goal here is to harass the US Campaign [for Palestinian Rights]. This is something that we’re seeing more broadly: smearing human rights advocates with accusations of terrorism, and efforts to drag human rights advocates and protesters into court, into extended litigation that distracts them from their advocacy. In the Palestine context we see that happening a lot, both in the United States and by Israel,” she said.
The JNF lawsuit was brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which permits victims of attacks by groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the US government to sue for damages in US courts.
The lawsuit claims that the BDS movement is in large part controlled by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups banned in the US and Israel as terrorist organizations. The legal action argues that by raising money for BDS and backing the boycott movement, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights is materially supporting terrorism. Along with the JNF, the plaintiffs include American Israelis who claim to have suffered trauma living in communities that have come under rocket attack from the Gaza Strip.
A federal court in Washington DC dismissed the lawsuit in 2021, saying that the JNF and other plaintiffs had made “threadbare assertions” of financial support for terrorism. The JNF appealed and told a court hearing last week that the decision to dismiss had been wrong in the face of “very gross violations of the anti-terrorism statute”.
Lawyers for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights say that the BDS movement is not an illegal organization and that it was founded by an array of legitimate Palestinian groups as a peaceful means of fighting for their rights.
The lawsuit also seeks damages from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights over its support for the “Stop the JNF” movement because of the fund’s controversial policies, including discrimination against non-Jews.
Founded by the early Zionist movement in 1901 to buy land for Jewish settlement in what was then part of the Ottoman empire, the JNF took control of large amounts of territory confiscated from the 700,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled during Israel’s 1948 war of independence.
The JNF is now a quasi-governmental body that works closely with the state-run Israel Land Authority.
For decades the fund refused to lease its land, covering about 13% of the country, to Israelis who were not Jewish. In the face of legal action in 2009, a compromise was reached involving land swaps with the government so that the JNF would not have to own property lived on by non-Jews. The fund has also been involved in moves to expel Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.
Ahmad Abuznaid, director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said that given the JNF’s close relationship with the Israeli state, he has little doubt that the lawsuit has official sanction and is an attempt to “criminalize the boycott movement”.
“We see this case as an attack on the Palestinian rights movement and an infringement on our ability to utilize our constitutional right to free speech,” he said.
“The Israeli government has been extremely involved not only in the targeting of Palestinian rights activists in Palestine and abroad, but the Israeli government, as it proudly proclaims, has also had a role in shifting US policy, enacting legislation to be to be utilized at the state level, at the national level.”
The Israeli government is increasingly concerned about the threat posed by a popular international boycott movement in support of the Palestinians, modelled on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. It is also alarmed at the growing acceptance of allegations by respected human rights groups that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory amounts to a form of apartheid.
The ministry of strategic affairs in Jerusalem is leading the government’s push against the BDS movement, including through funding groups such as the International Legal Forum, based in Tel Aviv, which has pursued lawsuits to close bank accounts and block financial support in the US for Palestinian rights groups by alleging ties to terrorism. The ministry has also backed anti-boycott laws in US states, an issue that may be headed for the supreme court.
In August, Israel banned six Palestinian rights organizations, accusing them of links to terrorist groups. Nine EU countries said Israel failed to provide evidence to back up the accusations and that they would go on funding the organizations.
The United Nations accused Israel of using counter-terrorism legislation “to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work”.
The banned groups said the Israeli move was an “attempt to eliminate Palestinian civil society”.
Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem