Let's call the EU's wishy-washy support of Palestinians what it is: Complicity with Israel
Civil society organisations (CSOs) are watching the ground shrink beneath their feet in Palestine today. October 22 marked the most recent attempt by the Israeli government to further marginalise civil society organisations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) with a military order declaring six prominent groups as "terrorist organisations".
Each of these targetted organisations - Addameer, al-Haq, Defense for Children Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees - are engaged in grassroots efforts to hold the Israeli state accountable for ongoing human rights violations.
This latest blow to their work effectively criminalises the six organisations based on classified documents, outlawing their activities, and puts staff at risk of persecution. One does not have to look far to understand why Israel has adopted increasingly authoritarian tactics to stifle civil society: they are succeeding in documenting and challenging the Israeli discourse on Occupation within an international arena.
"One does not have to look far to understand why Israel has adopted increasingly authoritarian tactics to stifle civil society: they are succeeding in documenting and challenging the Israeli discourse on Occupation within an international arena"
As part of my own research into civil society in the OPT, I interviewed organisational representatives across the cultural, educational and human rights sectors of civil society (including some mentioned in the October 22 ruling) about the work they conduct and the barriers they face operating in such a complex and militarised environment.
Human rights organizations in particular spoke about how their data gathering has resulted in exposing Israeli war crimes to the world. Alliances with international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, for example, have helped move the needle on international recognition that Israel's occupation constitutes a case of ongoing and systematic apartheid.
Such grassroots successes have not come without a cost. From the organisational representatives I interviewed in the midst of the latest escalation in May 2021, several emphasised how the work they conduct occurs within an ever-shrinking institutional and civic space.
Ismail (pseudonym), a Program Manager in a human rights organization, described how his organization is targeted for their success in exposing Israeli war crimes, with defamation, hate speech and smear campaigns, especially when they are abroad on advocacy tours. These findings adhere to Israeli strategy in recent years to defame organisations by tying them to groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a listed terrorist entity in the EU. Smear tactics include attacks in the media as well as lobbying at the EU and UN.
All told, six civil society organizations I interviewed across the human rights and cultural sectors had to defend themselves from mischaracterizations as terrorist entities by Israel.
Nadia (pseudonym) an Advocacy Officer at another human rights organization noted that this strategy succeeded in pressuring some partners to halt support while limiting access to higher-level officials who could not risk political capital over meetings with an organisation that had been labelled a 'terrorist'.
In the material sphere, Israeli strategy to defund civil society has also met with success. These efforts culminated in 2020, with the EU deciding to condition all aid on fulfilment of 'anti-terror' conditions, which obligates organisations to screen individuals for their political affiliation. Such conditions coerce Palestinian organisations to choose between access to multimillion-Euro grants or disavowal of a process that criminalises political affiliation and past arrests.
Several of the organisational representatives I interviewed admitted they had lost valuable grants that would have assisted their community work due to a refusal to accept 'anti-terror' clauses on their contracts. As Nadia said, "We are against terrorism, but we cannot accept these conditions because it criminalizes our political parties and the history of our resistance."
My research revealed the impacts of a political lobbying strategy that challenges the EU narrative of the clause being a typical case of conditional aid, due to the ongoing effect it is having on the ability of civil society to raise funds and operate in the OPT.
The recent designation of six civil society organisations as 'terrorist' entities demonstrates that earlier defamation and defunding efforts have not had their intended effect, in Israel's eyes. Reports continue to be published documenting abuses, and as my research has documented, barriers only served to motivate adoption of tactics to overcome challenges.
After years of pushing a message of national security in an effort to persuade EU donors to limit funding, the State finally took matters into its own hands and criminalised the organisations under Israeli law.
Now is the time for the EU to act. Complacency has contributed to an untenable situation of occupation that subjugates Palestinians to a multi-layered system of land-appropriation, settlement construction, home demolitions, mobility restrictions and human rights violations. The EU needs to recognise the opportunity presented by this recent designation, criticised as "an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement", by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and as "a draconian measure that criminalises critical human rights work", by 21 Israeli human rights groups.
Lest moralistic arguments are not convincing enough, how about a strategic one? The EU stakes its reputation as a promoter of universal human rights, as the basis for its legitimate involvement in humanitarian situations around the world. As more heads turn towards Israel-Palestine and the broader public begins to decipher policies of ethnic-cleansing, through the haze of Israeli hasbara - surely the EU would retain more credibility were it to be viewed as a more neutral actor in the conflict?
An actor which acts impartially and in honour of its own treaty and guidelines, rather than one which shrinks the already minute space within which Palestinian civil society exists.
"It is time the EU honours the work of human rights defenders and community organisers on the ground while it is still possible; to act, before civil society is not only criminalised but disappears altogether"
This is an opportunity for the EU to amend the anti-terror clause as part of its funding contracts with civil society, removing provisions which force organisations to choose between their political principles and their access to aid – provisions which are ill fitted to the complexities of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and ignorant of power asymmetries which subject Palestinians to military occupation. In choosing to act, the EU will breathe new life into civil society, supporting the work of community building and human rights documentation, which are now more critical than ever.
Recent developments do offer some hope when it comes to the international community’s acceptance of occupation. The April 2021 Human Rights Watch report on the crimes of apartheid perpetuated by Israel have opened a slim window within which support for Israeli actions has become less defensible both for Israel's most strident supporter the US, as well as the EU.
Ongoing discussions on decolonial frameworks propelled by movements such as Black Lives Matter are shifting the narrative to one of racial discrimination, settler-colonialism and asymmetric power relations. The current EU anti-terror clause is out of step with global shifts towards more critical attitudes towards the Occupation. Funding contracts should reflect the colonial context within which civil society operates, refrain from securitizing aid and allow for the provision of impartial and transparent access to funding.
It is time the EU honours the work of human rights defenders and community organisers on the ground while it is still possible; to act, before civil society is not only criminalised but disappears altogether.
Tariq Azeez is a Masters Researcher at the European University Institute – School of Transnational Governance in Florence, Italy.
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