Make no mistake, Israel's crackdown on Palestinian NGOs is a pre-emptive war on truth
On October 22, in a move typical of authoritarian regimes, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz designated six leading Palestinian civil society organizations as "terrorist organizations." The organizations named by Israel are among the most prominent human rights groups working in Palestine.
One of the organizations, for example, is Defense for Children International-Palestine, founded in 1991 as a branch of the international organization Defense for Children, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The organization provides legal aid to Palestinian children in military courts in Israel, and conducts research on children imprisoned by Israel, as well as the occupation’s impact on children’s rights.
Another organization is Al-Haq, founded in 1979, and compiles reports on human rights violations in the Palestinian territories by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Al-Haq has special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, and is one of the organizations bringing Israel before the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.
The other four organizations are Addameer rights group, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.
"Herein lies the point: Israeli leaders are trying to evade the inevitable accountability that will occur over their actions"
To criminalize them, Israel ludicrously claimed that these human rights organizations serve as "arms" for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular, left-wing movement that is barely active in the Palestinian arena today.
Israel provided no evidence to its "terrorism" designation for these six organizations, and when asked to provide such evidence, the Israeli defense ministry conveniently said that all the documents related to this file are "classified."
The UN Human Rights office in the occupied Palestinian Territory brushed aside Israel's allegations, describing them as "vague or irrelevant," and denounced the decision as a series in a "long-stigmatizing campaign" against the organizations. Similarly, the EU said that allegations that Israel made in the past against these organizations "have not been substantiated."
To put it plainly, this declaration by the Israeli government seeks to punish and stifle human rights organizations for their work in challenging Israel’s apartheid project, monitoring its flagrant human rights violations, and advocating for Palestinian rights.
For years, Israel and its advocates have launched numerous disinformation and delegitimisation campaigns against these organizations, and exerted huge efforts to persuade and pressure European and US bodies to defund and discredit these Palestinian human rights groups, under the same dubious claims with limited success.
Now, the Israeli government has decided to escalate its repressive campaigns by formally labeling these organizations as "terrorist," and criminalising their activities under Israeli law, thereby authorising the Israeli military to ban their activities, shut down their offices, seize their assets, arrest their staff, as well as criminalise any public expressions of support for these groups.
This is an extremely dangerous escalation of the Israeli decades-long crackdown on Palestinian civil society organizations, and must be met with decisive punitive measures against Israel.
Seeking total domination
As the Israeli government outrageously designated human rights groups as "terrorists," it continues to practice daily acts of state-terrorism through its occupation, such as home demolitions and dispossessions of Palestinian families in favor of Israeli settlers.
Israel continues to build and expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; these settlements are deemed war crimes by the United Nations. Israeli settlers persist, unabated, their violent barbaric attacks on Palestinians from throwing stones, setting fire or cutting Palestinian farmers’ olives trees, destroying Palestinian properties, and more.
Moreover, Israeli soldiers continue to arbitrarily attack and arrest Palestinians in the West Bank, especially children. For example, from 8 to 18 October alone, a Palestinian child was killed by Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem and 41 children were arrested in East Jerusalem.
Herein lies the point: Israeli leaders are trying to evade the inevitable accountability that will occur over their actions. They are trying to escape justice by silencing groups that are documenting the criminal actions of its apartheid regime and highlighting them to international organization.
While Israel imposes a brutal military occupation on the Palestinian people, its aim is always to prohibit any Palestinian response against the occupation.
#UK unions have released a statement calling on the British government to oppose #Israel's criminalisation of six Palestinian human rights organisations.https://t.co/bratStrrim— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) October 29, 2021
This recent move regarding Palestinian civil society organizations proves that Israel accepts nothing less than total submission to the occupation, anything else will be viewed as "terrorism" - whether it is Palestinian popular resistance, Palestinian diplomatic endeavors, or economic boycotts, and now the work of Palestinian civil society organizations.
A long, vicious campaign against Palestinian civil society
For Israel, Palestinian civil society organizations represent a major obstacle in maintaining its apartheid regime, and for a long time, the Israeli military launched a series of organized and vicious campaigns against them.
Almost all of these organizations have endured repeated attacks, such as: routine raids on their offices, seizure of their assets, the destruction of their equipment, and being forced to provide their documents for Israel to review.
The Israeli regime is caging millions in an open-air prison, desecrating graves, expelling natives, stealing lands, arresting children, torturing detainees, committing war crimes, yet it has the audacity to criminalize human rights defenders.. delusional at best #StandWithThe6— Mohammed El-Kurd (@m7mdkurd) October 28, 2021
The staff were often subjected to punitive measures by Israel such as travel bans, revocation of their residency status, and worst of all, imprisonment such as Khitam Saafin, chairwoman of the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, who was arrested by Israel in 2020 and placed in administrative detention for six months.
The decision to designate these groups as "terrorist organizations" is the most recent and dangerous escalation in this practice by Israel.
Even if Israel does not shut down these organizations' offices as a result of this designation, the allegations by Israel hampers the organizations' work by forcing them to re-focus from their crucial work regarding human rights, and spend a massive amount of time, effort, and capacity battling these allegations, defending their reputation, or clarifying to donor requests.
The urgent need for an international respond
The Israeli totalitarian measure was met with widespread condemnation from Israeli human rights organizations, US-based Jewish organizations, and international human rights organizations.
However, neither the US nor the EU has outrightly condemned the move by Israel, even though some of them have said they were well aware that the Israeli allegations are baseless and unsubstantiated. Yet, the silence enables impunity for Israel to allow the continuation of its policies of apartheid and its mounting violations of Palestinian human rights.
On their part, Palestinian NGOs smeared by Israel have called for international support to reverse the decision. Both the US and the EU – with their self-proclaimed liberal values – are once again at the crossroads regarding what should be a very easy decision: Either stand with an authoritarian apartheid regime that assaults, stifles, and criminalizes human rights organizations or stand with organizations that are dedicated to fighting for human rights and justice. It is a very simple choice.
"This horrific Israeli action against these Palestinian human rights organizations can only be perceived as a declaration of war against the entire human rights community"
The ideal reaction Palestinians are hoping in response to the Israeli decision is for international NGOs and various world governments to increase their engagement, support, and cooperation with these Palestinian organizations. Ideally, the next step would be for the international community, led by the US, to take all the political and legal measures available to hold Israel accountable for its numerous violations of Palestinian human rights.
This horrific Israeli action against these Palestinian human rights organizations can only be seen as a declaration of war against the entire human rights community.
If Israel enjoys impunity over this totalitarian measure, then this decision will be a prelude to more vicious violations against human rights defenders, with the ramifications on both Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike. Ultimately, if Israel goes unpunished for this action, its behaviour will undoubtedly encourage other totalitarian regimes worldwide to silence human rights defenders.
Ahmed Zed is a journalist and researcher whose work focuses on issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.