Israel’s recent designation of several prominent Palestinian groups as terrorist organizations should be easy for liberal democracies to condemn.
The designations were handed out based on secret evidence and came without any due process. The organizations in question are highly respected locally and well integrated into the international human rights scene.
But the EU, US, Canada and UK have yet to explicitly reject Israel’s “shabby attempt” – in the words of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – to “sully the reputations” of Palestinian human rights defenders.
None of these governments appear convinced by Israel’s accusations. But they have not even given their ally a deadline to present credible evidence justifying the designations aimed at starving those groups of international funding.
And in its attempt to isolate and marginalize these groups – some of which provide key services to Palestine’s most vulnerable communities – Israel is profoundly upending the lives of the human rights and social service providers in its crosshairs.
One of those human rights defenders is Khitam Sa’afin, the president of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.
In February, Sa’afin was sentenced to 16 months imprisonment by an Israeli military court.
She was already in Israeli detention and had been since November 2020. Half of that time was spent in administrative detention, without charge or trial.
When Israel finally did level charges against Sa’afin, they alleged that she was helping to oversee the transfer of funds from the now outlawed Palestinian groups, including the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The PFLP, a leftist political party with an armed wing that has engaged in resistance against the occupation, is banned as a terrorist group by Israel and many of its Western allies.
As is typical of its cases against Palestinians dragged through its military court system, Israel’s case against Sa’afin relied on secret evidence to which neither she nor her lawyer were privy.
Like many Palestinians denied due process in Israel’s military court system, Sa’afin agreed to a plea deal that dropped the money laundering charges. She was convicted of membership in the PFLP and to being president of the now illegal Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.
The Palestinian human rights group Addameer observes that Israel initially leveled a “long set of inflated charges” against Sa’afin – “well beyond any singular, specific act” she allegedly carried out.
This is another time-worn Israeli tactic.
Inflating the number of charges is a practice “widely used by the Israeli military prosecution to extend detention and trial procedures as a punitive and coercive measure against the detainee,” Addameer adds.
In other words, Israel throws a spaghetti pot of charges at the wall and very little sticks. But deprived of anything resembling a fair trial, Palestinian detainees agree to plead guilty to lesser offenses they did not commit to curtail their ordeal and time away from their families.
Israel also pressures Palestinians to accept plea deals in order to avoid having to prove their case against them in court.
When Palestinians don’t accept the plea deals, the process drags on.
Mohammad El Halabi, a charity worker living in Gaza, is a case in point. On seemingly unending trial, El Halabi has been detained for more than half a decade and his case has gone to court some 170 times.
El Halabi has turned down numerous plea deals, refusing to admit guilt for a crime he insists he did not commit.
That is the hellish ordeal that Sa’afin, 60, was facing.
And it was what Juana Rishmawi, 63, was up against when she took a similar plea deal that saw her sentenced to 13 months in prison for her work with the Palestinian Health Work Committees, a group declared illegal by Israel in early 2020.
The Health Work Committees was not informed of the designation until Israel began “an escalated campaign” against the organization, arresting its director, Shatha Odeh, and closing its headquarters in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Odeh, 60, has been in Israeli detention since occupation soldiers stormed her home in July last year.
The charges against Odeh primarily revolve “around her leadership role” in the Health Work Committees, according to Addameer.
Odeh is also the chair of the Palestinian NGO Network, a coalition of dozens of Palestinian civil society groups.
Addameer argues that the arrest of Odeh indicates Israel’s “increasing brazenness … in clamping down on and criminalizing Palestinian human rights defenders and civil society organizations that challenge Israel’s regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid.”
Ultimately, the terror designations and Israel’s longstanding campaign against Palestinian human rights defenders is aimed at preserving its impunity.
Israel’s moves against these individuals and groups is also a sign of desperation that it is losing its grip on the narrative, with a growing consensus among international human rights groups that Israel is practicing apartheid against Palestinians.
“We removed the mask from their faces,” Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq, one of the targeted organizations, told a panel recently convened by the Carter Center. Global human rights consensus now holds that Israel’s “is a colonial regime, this is an oppressive regime.”
“We crossed the red lines when we came to the issue of accountability and going after the Israeli criminals,” he added.
During that same event, Wesam Ahmad, also with Al-Haq, noted that the terror designations and other moves against the Palestinian groups are being issued by the same Israeli officials being investigated by the International Criminal Court.
“The movement at the level of the International Criminal Court is something that the Palestinian civil society organizations such as Al-Haq have been heavily involved in pushing forward and despite Israel’s attempts to stifle the progress towards this investigation, it has continued to move forward.”
Ahmad said it comes as no surprise that Israel would take such action during the process of investigation at the ICC.
“It’s very much a reflection of the apartheid tactics to persecute those organizations and individuals that are seeking to challenge that regime.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s repression of human rights workers will only escalate as the investigation progresses and with no pushback from Israel’s allies, who seem happy to uphold international law when it suits them.