Israel declares war on Palestinian rights groups

Palestinians walk through a neighborhood in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in May 2021.

Mohammed Zaanoun ActiveStills

Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz declared six prominent Palestinian human rights groups to be “terrorist organizations” on Friday.

The defense ministry order accuses the groups of serving “as an arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” a leftist political party banned by Israel, the US and the European Union due to its opposition to normalization with Israel.

Some of the six targeted groups – Al-Haq, Addameer, Defense for Children International Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Bisan Center for Research and Development – have cooperated closely with the International Criminal Court in its war crimes probe in the West Bank and Gaza.

Gantz’s conduct may come under ICC scrutiny as he twice perpetrated major massacres of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, as army chief of staff in 2014, and as defense minister earlier this year, when he vowed that “no person, area or neighborhood in Gaza is immune.”

Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, reacted to the “disturbing news” on Friday by saying that “human rights defenders are not terrorists and should never be smeared like this.”

The targeted groups include “key partners” of the UN Human Rights Office in the West Bank and Gaza.

That UN office said that the terror designation lists “extremely vague or irrelevant reasons, including entirely peaceful and legitimate activities such as [the] provision of legal aid and ‘promotion of steps against Israel in the international arena.’” The designation stands to seriously disrupt the work undertaken by these groups and may jeopardize the safety of their staff and the victims and witnesses on whose behalf they advocate.

Palestinian groups defamed and sabotaged

Israel has long sought to defame and sabotage the work of Palestinian human rights groups seeking an end to Israeli impunity while senior Israeli figures and lobby groups baselessly accuse these groups of “weaponizing” the ICC against the US and Israel.

In late July, Israeli occupation forces raided the West Bank offices of Defense for Children International Palestine, confiscating computers and client files.

Defense for Children International Palestine investigates and reports human rights abuses against Palestinian children by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities and provides “legal services to children in urgent need.”

Israeli forces have killed more than 80 Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza so far this year, and Israel is currently detaining around 200 Palestinian children.

Also in late July, occupation forces raided the offices of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, confiscating equipment and files.

That same month Israel violently arrested Shatha Odeh, the director of the Health Work Committees, a group providing health services to thousands of Palestinians. Odeh is also chair of the Palestinian NGO Network, an umbrella organization representing dozens of Palestinian groups.

The charges brought against Odeh center around her “leadership role in the Health Work Committees, deemed ‘unlawful by Israeli military orders,’” Addameer stated in August.

Odeh, 60, has been “subjected to ill-treatment and medical negligence” while in Israeli detention, according to Addameer.

Addameer, which advocates for the rights of the thousands of Palestinians held as political prisoners by Israel at any given time, has been a primary target of the state’s repression.

Its offices were most recently raided in 2019, with soldiers “seizing computers, hard drives, files and equipment” as “part of a wider crackdown on Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations and their staff,” Amnesty International said at the time.

Israel recently released Khalida Jarrar, a lawmaker with the PFLP, after two years of imprisonment based on her membership in the group.

Jarrar helped formulate Palestine’s application to the ICC. Throughout her years of political and human rights work, “she has been systematically harassed and targeted by the Israeli occupation regime,” according to Addameer, where she has served as general director.

“Authorities never claimed that she had any personal involvement in armed activities,” Human Rights Watch has said.

Israel meanwhile plans to exile Salah Hammouri, a Palestinian-French human rights defender and Addameer lawyer born and raised in Jerusalem over his “breach of allegiance” to the apartheid state.

“Attack on Palestinian existence itself”

The terror group designation will only escalate the repression long endured by Palestinian human rights defenders and “effectively outlaws the activities of these civil society groups,” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated on Friday.

“It authorizes Israeli authorities to close their offices, seize their assets and arrest and jail their staff members, and it prohibits funding or even publicly expressing support for their activities,” the rights groups added.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, said the designation was “characteristic of totalitarian regimes, with the clear purpose of shutting down these organizations.”

Adalah, a group advocating for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, said that the move is “an attack on Palestinian existence itself and Palestinians’ right to self-determination.”

The group added that the designation “constitutes political persecution under the pretext of anti-terrorism legislation as it puts thousands of Palestinians in direct and immediate danger.”

US Congressional representatives Ilhan Omar, Mark Pocan and Betty McCollum also condemned the move:

Concerted smear campaign

The terror designation is Israel’s latest step in an effort coordinated with lobby groups to try to dry up international sources of funding for organizations that defend Palestinian rights.

Last year, lobby groups waged a smear campaign in the Netherlands against the United Agricultral Work Committees and Al Mezan, a Palestinian human rights group based in Gaza that also cooperates closely with the ICC.

Much of the information came from far-right Israeli organizations, especially NGO Monitor, which even the Dutch government has acknowledged deals in “vague” accusations aimed at putting pressure on human rights organizations and donors focused on Palestine.

Despite this, the Dutch government caved into the smears and last year suspended its funding to the United Agricultural Work Committees pending an external review.

As of February, that funding had not been restored even though the Dutch foreign ministry admits that withholding the money was harming Palestinian farmers and workers in so-called Area C.

Area C is about 60 percent of the occupied West Bank that remains under full Israeli military control and is the major focus of Israeli colonization efforts and annexation plans.

But from the perspective of Israel and its lobby groups, starving the United Agricultural Work Committees of money and hurting the ability of Palestinians to remain on their land is a major success – one they undoubtedly want to repeat by further targeting UAWC and other Palestinian organizations.

There is a precedent for this tactic: In 2010, the Israeli defense ministry declared the Palestinian Return Centre to be “illegal.” It alleged that the London-based advocacy group was “involved in initiating and organizing radical and violent activity against Israel.”

But Israel’s sensational public accusations were not backed up by any proof.

“The Israeli government has not raised with the Foreign Office any concerns regarding the Palestinian Return Centre,” a UK government spokesperson told The Jerusalem Post at the time.

“If they [Israel] were to raise their concerns or pass any evidence to us of illegal activity, we would of course look into the issue, working with the relevant authorities in the UK,” the Foreign Office said.

More than a decade later, there’s no indication that such an investigation ever occurred.

The Palestinian Return Centre continues to do what it has always done: organize educational activities, including events in the British Parliament, focusing on Palestinian rights.

“Occupation must be held accountable”

Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq who has been subjected to travel bans by Israel and death threats, challenged Israeli authorities to prove their claims on Friday.

“They may be able to close us down. They can seize our funding. They can arrest us. But they cannot stop our firm and unshakeable belief that this occupation must be held accountable for its crimes,” Jabarin told Israeli media.

Prior to serving as director of Al-Haq, which was founded in 1979 and is one of the oldest Arab human rights organizations, Jabarin was imprisoned and tortured by Israel, with former US president Jimmy Carter and Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen intervening on his behalf.

While global solidarity with Palestine has swelled, the relationship between Tel Aviv and Washington and European states has strengthened through arms deals and research and development grants, consolidating an atmosphere of impunity.

Israel’s attack on Palestinian human rights organizations, therefore, comes at a time when Tel Aviv can be even more than usually confident that it will get away with it.

Following Israel’s change of government earlier this year – a game of musical chairs that involves no alteration in policy – European states appear to be in a competition to cozy up to Israel.

Even Sweden, which has long posed as a champion of Palestinian rights, says it wants to “turn the page and write the next chapter” in its increasingly cozy relationship with Israel.

Meanwhile, at home, Sweden is moving to crack down on the Palestine solidarity movement under the pretext of fighting anti-Semitism.

Gantz’s order outlawing the human rights groups – including the previously Dutch-funded United Agricultural Works Committees – comes just days after he inked a “security cooperation” agreement with the Netherlands defense ministry. Just months ago, the Dutch government signed contracts for more than $100 million worth of Israeli weapons systems that were likely tested on Palestinians.

The order also comes as warplanes from the US, Germany, Britain, France, Greece and India are in Israel for joint exercises.

They are training alongside the same Israeli air force that just months ago annihilated entire Palestinian families in deliberate bombing attacks on their homes in Gaza.

The chief prosecutor of the ICC said at the time that individuals involved in those suspected war crimes may be targeted in the tribunal’s investigation.

Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada and worked for Al-Haq from 2004-2006.