Israel declares war on Palestinian civil society
The recent closure of seven civil society organisations in the occupied West Bank has raised serious concerns about how much longer Palestinian and international groups will be able to keep documenting Israeli human rights violations.
On 18 August, Israeli forces stormed the offices of Al-Haq, Addameer, the Bisan Center for Research & Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCIP), the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Health Workers Committees (UHWC).
They issued military orders to shut the groups down, declaring them “unlawful”.
The organisations targeted work in the fields of human rights, prisoner support, children’s rights, healthcare, providing direct services, and monitoring human rights abuses.
"Israel knows that Palestinian civil society is a strong player, and feels that we are making some progress internationally"
The army’s move came months after Israel designated six of the NGOs as “terrorist” organisations in October of last year based on secret dossiers, claiming that they had ties with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a leftist political party that has a paramilitary branch.
Several international NGOs, institutions, and countries, including nine EU states and the US, rejected the classification as unfounded and expressed concern after Israeli troops forced shut the premises of the rights groups.
Just days after the raids, a CIA assessment showed the agency was unable to find any credible evidence substantiating Israel’s “terror” label for six of the groups.
Although UN experts, along with EU and US diplomats, pushed back against the claim by Israeli officials and pointed to a lack of evidence, Israel has seemingly long had intentions to outlaw the Palestinian NGOs.
“Israel knows that Palestinian civil society is a strong player, and feels that we are making some progress internationally, even though what we have achieved is little. They want to stop us from functioning”, Sahar Francis, director of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, told The New Arab.
She referred in particular to the research and advocacy material her organisation submitted earlier in March to the Commission of Inquiry on Palestine, which was established by the UN Human Rights Council in May 2021 to investigate the underlying root causes of Israel’s systematic racial discrimination and repression against the Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel.
The submission found that Israel’s discriminatory laws, policies, and practices in the occupied West Bank are in breach of the prohibition of apartheid under international law.
The Commission, since its establishment, has been under increasing attacks led by Israel, including the smearing of its work and members as anti-Semitic and calls for its disbandment.
For Addameer’s director, the decision enforced by the Israeli government on the seven Palestinian associations has grave implications not just in the occupied territories but also on the international stage.
“This is a dangerous development for the human rights community widely speaking,” Francis said, arguing that if Israel does not annul its orders it will become entitled to decide which rights groups are deemed “legal” to exist and which are not.
“It’s a manipulation of anti-terror laws at the international level,” she said, quoting a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the terrorist designations.
“Israel is persistently attacking and trying to eliminate Palestinian civil society because of the work we do, so it can perpetuate its crimes without being exposed, challenged, or held accountable,” Aseel AlBajeh, a legal researcher and advocacy officer at Al-Haq, Palestine’s oldest human rights organisation, told The New Arab.
She qualified the recent attacks as an “assault on the global rights movement”, observing an acceleration in Israel’s repression of Palestinian civil society and international efforts to seek accountability for Israeli abuses against Palestinian civilians.
"Israel is persistently attacking and trying to eliminate Palestinian civil society because of the work we do, so it can perpetuate its crimes without being exposed, challenged, or held accountable"
The now-closed NGOs blame Israel for seeking to silence criticism and impede the monitoring of human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Al-Haq, a pioneer in the fight against Israel’s apartheid regime, pushes for accountability at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and advocates for the respect of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people and the right of refugees to return.
In March of last year, the ICC announced that it would investigate war crimes that Israel had committed in the Palestinian territory since 2014. Al-Haq played a pivotal role in prompting the investigation by documenting Israel’s violations and building international support.
Ayed Abu Eqtaish, head of the accountability program at Defence for the Children International -Palestine (DCIP), made clear that Israel’s latest step against the seven associations was part of a campaign of pressure it has conducted over the past ten years with the goal of “discrediting”, “de-legitimising”, and “silencing” any group or individual who “criticises Israeli practices against Palestinians”.
He further specified that Israeli authorities have contacted almost all DCPI’s partners and donors over the years, to dissuade them from supporting Palestinian civil society.
“It’s not just Palestinian civil groups that have been pressured but also Israeli organisations, international NGOs and UN agencies even,” the accountability program director told The New Arab.
DCIP provides free legal aid to Palestinian children detained and prosecuted in the Israeli juvenile military court system.
The Palestinian organisations have vowed to continue operating despite the closure of their offices and the threats received by several of their general directors a couple of days after.
Among these, Shawan Jabarin and Khaled Quzmar, directors of Al-Haq and Defence for the Children International (DCI) respectively, were summoned for questioning and threatened with arrest and incarceration if their NGOs carry on working.
“Despite all obstacles, we continue the human rights work we are doing because we believe this is the right thing to do,” Abu Eqtaish said, noting that he expects further Israeli punitive actions against the organisations and their staff, including possible prison sentences, travel bans, or the seizure of funding.
While the UN and EU decried Israel’s actions, with the latter committing to its sustained support for civil society organisations, the Palestinian groups stressed how statements of condemnation have not been backed up by direct action, thus proving insufficient for Israel to reverse course.
Critical of this inaction, AlBajeh places the latest raids in the context of the decades-long failure of the international community to uphold international law and end impunity for Israeli violations.
“It’s really necessary that states abide by their legal obligations and take positive steps to lift these arbitrary and illegal acts against civil society groups, and to stop the systematic violations against the Palestinian people as a group,” the advocacy officer pointed out.
Concrete measures, she suggested, should include severing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, imposing sanctions, ending arms sales, and stopping trade with illegal settlement enterprises.
"As Palestinians, it's part of our struggle for justice that drives us to continue our work"
But despite operating under challenging circumstances with much more limited capacity and a lack of protection, all of the NGOs are firmly resolved to keep going.
“As Palestinians, it’s part of our struggle for justice that drives us to continue our work,” Aseel AlBajeh said, adding that as long as the terrorist labelling and military orders remain in place the NGO staff will have to divert time and resources from their core activities to focus on combatting Israel’s latest measures.
“Putting effort into protecting ourselves to exist as opposed to working on issues within our mandate is very consuming,” Francis admitted.
“We have no other choice but to carry on,” she added, insisting that Addameer and the other six organisations are trying to intensify pressure abroad for the international community to cooperate not only to reopen their offices but also to work towards ending impunity and ensuring legal accountability.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec