Palestinian Return Centre vows to carry on despite Israeli attack

PRC Director Majed al-Zeer at the organization’s office in London. (Matthew Cassel)

The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), a London-based advocacy organization, has become the latest target of defamation and attempted sabotage in Israel’s ongoing campaign against groups and individuals active in promoting the issue of Palestine and Palestinian human rights.

According to a 27 December 2010 statement by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, PRC “is involved in initiating and organizing radical and violent activity against Israel in Europe, while delegitimizing Israel’s status as a nation among the European community” (“European Hamas Affiliate Deemed Illegal by Minister of Defense,” 27 December 2010).

Israeli security agencies accused the PRC of being a “Hamas affiliate,” which was followed by a decree signed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak stating that the organization is “illegal” in Israel.

The attack on the PRC appears to be the latest installment in a campaign by supposed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Israel, coordinated with the Israeli government, to accuse groups advocating for Palestinian rights in Europe, the US and elsewhere of “delegitimizing” Israel. Last month, two such organizations released reports accusing London, and the UK as a whole, of being hubs of “delegitimization.”

In early December The Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute called London the “Mecca of delegitimization,” which weeks later was followed by a report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, stating “Britain has become the main leader of an international effort to deny Israel’s right to exist in its current form.”

The Reut Institute first called for an Israeli campaign of “sabotage” and “attack” on so-called “delegitimizers” — groups working for justice in Palestine — in February 2010, as The Electronic Intifada reported.

The Electronic Intifada visited PRC’s offices in northwest London on 31 December to learn more about its work and speak with Director Majed al-Zeer. Al-Zeer, a Palestinian refugee whose family was driven from their Jerusalem home in 1948 by Zionist forces, explained the PRC’s work.

“The PRC is a pro-Palestinians and Palestine organization advocating for the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands … [which] they were evacuated from by force in 1948,” al-Zeer said. “We consider ourselves as a lobby group communicating with British officials, British [Members of Parliament]; we are trying to illustrate the situation of the Palestinian refugees … and trying to make the right of return some sort of mainstream theme for the British public and British officials.”

“We consider ourselves part of a big campaign among Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, in the US and in Europe, working with each other, coordinating for the sake of the right of return,” al-Zeer added.

Al-Zeer said the Israeli government’s accusations are a reflection of the pro-Palestine movement’s growing influence in the US and Europe due to the fact that this is the first time since the PRC’s founding in 1996 (not 1966 as is incorrectly stated in the Israeli defense ministry’s statement) that Israel has made a stir over the group’s work. For al-Zeer and the PRC, this is a positive indication of the movement’s progress and signals that the group’s “message has been received successfully by the Israelis.”

But the fact that the statement was issued by the defense ministry attempting to tar PRC with the stigma of association with Hamas, so soon after the Reut Institute report on London, indicates that Israel’s attacks against legal advocacy for Palestinian rights are being fully coordinated between the Israeli government and NGOs, including the Reut Institute and the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor. On 9 December, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, of the far right Yisrael Beitenu party, hosted a press conference on “delegitimization” featuring, among others, NGO Monitor’s director Gerald Steinberg who has been a spearhead in the “anti-delegitimization” campaign.

When asked about Israel’s claims that the PRC is affiliated with Hamas and organizing “violent activity,” al-Zeer, who himself is singled out in the statement as a “Hamas activist,” responded laughingly: “[These claims] are nonsense. The statement hasn’t named any single incident or activity which refer to violence … We have hundreds of activities which were organized by PRC publicly and openly; it’s all there on our website with photos and everything.”

Israel’s accusations against the PRC seem to stem from an event which the PRC organized in May 2006 entitled the “Fourth Palestinians in Europe Conference.” The conference, which took place in Malmo, Sweden, was hosted by that country’s Adalah (Justice) Centre, and brought together Palestinians from Palestine and across Europe, as well as European groups and individuals campaigning for Palestinian rights.

According to the PRC’s site, approximately 5,000 participants in total took part in the conference, where Palestinian youth from Europe discussed new and “innovative” ways to “serve their cause” while Europeans in attendance “reviewed several aspects of the Palestine Question and its evolution, confirming the growing understanding and support by significant sections of European society for the Palestinian cause” (See PRC’s report on the conference).

Among the speakers were the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas who wrote a letter read by a delegate on his behalf, then newly elected Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh representing Hamas, along with other Palestinian dignitaries and religious leaders who addressed the crowd in person or by telephone link from their respective locations.

Despite Hamas taking a majority of parliamentary seats in 2006 elections monitored by international observers, the US and EU still consider the party a “terrorist organization” and have refused to deal officially with the group even when it has adhered to ceasefires negotiated with Israel and offered Israel a long-term mutual truce which Israel has adamantly rejected.

However, European officials often meet with members of Hamas. The party’s exiled leader based in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, was invited to address dozens of parliamentarians from Britain’s House of Commons in 2009. Highlighting this point, al-Zeer asked, “would you consider all the British House of Commons as terrorists?”

“You can trace our activities since we’ve started; it’s hard for you to recognize any [particular affiliation with a single party],” al-Zeer said. “The only theme which we have is Palestine and the right of return.”

Israel’s accusations against the PRC, placed in the context of attacks on other solidarity groups around the world, show a concerted effort to silence a growing movement in defense of Palestinians and their rights. In November, The Jerusalem Post published false accusations from NGO Monitor about The Electronic Intifada, among them that The Electronic Intifada was publishing “anti-Semitic” material. NGO Monitor criticized the Dutch-government supported independent foundation ICCO for funding The Electronic Intifada, and the Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal made public comments criticizing the publication as well. The Electronic Intifada refuted the allegations, but the attack appeared to follow a very similar pattern to the current efforts to discredit PRC.

By claiming — though without offering a shred of evidence and against all the ample documentation of what PRC actually does — that PRC is a “Hamas affiliate,” Israel may be trying to cripple the group’s ability to raise funds.

While attacking solidarity and justice groups abroad, Israel is also zeroing in on domestic groups working to end the country’s human rights violations against Palestinians. In Israel recently, the right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman passed a law in the country’s parliament allowing the state to investigate sources of funding of Israeli organizations that “aid the delegitimization of Israel through harming IDF [Israeli army] soldiers” (“Left-wing NGOs mad Knesset to probe foreign funding,” The Jerusalem Post, 5 January 2011).

The New Israel Fund, an Israeli NGO critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, responded to the law, saying that “The political persecution of human rights groups causes great damage to Israel across the world, and that is precisely what will lead to the delegitimization [of Israel] and the representation of it as a McCarthyite state in which a witch hunt is taking place” (“Leftist groups: ‘Witch hunt’ against us will destroy democracy in Israel,” Haaretz, 5 January 2011).

When asked if the PRC was surprised by Israel’s accusations against them, al-Zeer told The Electronic Intifada “We are not the first organization to be attacked by the Israelis and we will not be the last.” He added that anyone dealing with the issue of Palestine in the West should prepare themselves to come under attack for their work.

Al-Zeer, who says he’s “optimistic” about the PRC’s work, dismisses the Israeli accusations as a “campaign of lies.”

He said of the attempts to stop the group’s work: “[the PRC is] ready for that, and we will keep going without hesitation. We have done nothing wrong, nothing under the table, nothing behind the scenes. It’s Palestine, and we will keep supporting the issue of Palestine.”

Matthew Cassel is an independent journalist and photographer based in the Middle East.

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