Israel Designates Palestinian Human Rights Groups ‘Terrorist Institutions,’ Drawing Int’l Criticism
Israel says NGOs are linked to the PFLP
Israel has classified six Palestinian civil society groups as “terrorist organizations,” accusing them of funneling donor aid to terrorist organizations. The move was met with swift rejection by Palestinians as well as criticism from the United Nations and human rights watchdogs.
Majed al-Arouri, a Ramallah-based legal and human rights expert, told The Media Line the decision is political. “These are not terrorist or armed organizations; we are talking about organizations that provide legal aid,” he said.
Arouri added that Israel has no legal basis for the move. “Most of them receive funds from Western institutions, some of which are American, European or international institutions that support the Palestinian community, and from the United Nations.”
Israel’s defense ministry justified its move by saying the organizations had links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a left-wing faction with an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.
The PFLP has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and the European Union.
“[The six] declared organizations received large sums of money from European countries and international organizations, using a variety of forgery and deceit,” the defense ministry said, alleging that the money had supported PFLP activities.
The groups targeted include Al-Haq and the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, which document alleged rights violations by both Israel and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Yoni Ben-Menachem, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line that Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s decision was “correct because it is based on accurate intelligence information obtained by the Israeli Shin Bet from investigations with PFLP activists.”
Ben-Menachem says the reaction was surprising.
“Gantz did not expect that this decision would cause a problem with the Americans, especially since Israel informed the American administration before the decision was published,” he said.
However, the US said it was surprised by the move.
“The Israeli government did not give us advance warning” that the groups would be designated, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Friday. Washington would engage its ally Israel for more information about the basis for the designations, he told reporters.
“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” Price said.
Ben-Menachem said, “This [being surprised] is not true for the Pentagon and the State Department. There is an internal American chaos in the transmission of information. They were fully aware of the decision. There is an American-Israeli understanding that there will be no surprises on the Palestinian issue.”
Israel disputed Price’s statement, saying the US had been informed in advance on its move. An official in the defense ministry said “officials in the US administration were updated ahead of time,” and that “some intelligence was shared on the subject.”
Several Israeli NGOs, including Zulat – Equality and Human Rights, which is led by former Meretz party head Zehava Galon, and the Mossawa Center – The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel, joined in the criticism of the move.
Rights groups fear that the new classification will allow Israel to shut down the six groups’ offices, seize their assets and arrest their staff in the West Bank.
The organizations, at a hastily organized press conference in Ramallah on Saturday, rejected the Israeli allegations, describing the move as an “attempt to eliminate Palestinian civil society.”
“Counterterrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work,” the UN Human Rights Office in the occupied Palestinian territory said in a statement.
It also said it was “alarmed” by the announcement, as the justification given appeared vague or irrelevant.
“These designations are the latest development in a long stigmatizing campaign against these and other organizations, damaging their ability to deliver on their crucial work,” the statement continued.
Arouri said this was part of a “systematic campaign by Israel,” which has applied enormous pressure against the groups’ donors, especially the European Union.
Nour Odeh, a member of the steering committee for the Democratic National Assembly movement and a former spokeswoman for the PA government, told The Media Line that Al-Haq has been around for decades and commands international respect.
“Gantz’s decision is [part of] a concerted effort by the Israelis for years now, and they’ve spent millions of dollars on smear campaigns against these organizations, and against the people that help them, and they have been engaged in an intimidation campaign on an international scale against them, and the purpose is clear: These are effective civil society organizations that are respected around the world and have an impact on international public opinion, and on international lawmakers,” she said.
Odeh said that some of these organizations, with the help of international groups, have been successful in exerting pressure on Israel and questioning its policies toward the Palestinians.
“DCI [Defense for Children International-Palestine] is working on legislation in the US Congress with Congresswoman Betty McCollum and other progressive Congress members, and when the Israeli campaign to defund these organizations failed, they decided to use this black card to criminalize these organizations and their work,” she said.
Despite the outcry, Odeh said the international reaction so far “is the bare minimum, and at best lukewarm; I would expect more. If this happened anywhere else the reaction would have been a lot more severe.”
Arouri explained that the targeted groups have scored several victories against Israel in the international arena. International solidarity is growing thanks to these and similar organizations, he continued.
But Palestinian observers are sounding the alarm, saying the move by Israel is dangerous.
“This step against these entirely legitimate organizations will make everybody look bad. We have to remember that this classification will carry with it major consequences, and we’re not sure how far these consequences will go,” Odeh said.
She wonders what Israel will do next.
“Are the Israelis going to raid Ramallah and close their offices? Are they going to arrest the staff of these organizations? Are they going to put them on trial? Are they going to threaten the Palestinian banks that work with them? We don’t know but the direction is not good.”
Ben-Menachem said, “I expect after this commotion, that the Israeli intelligence will carry out a wave of administrative arrests against members and activists of the Popular Front, as well as activists and members of these organizations. This is a matter of time.”
Arouri said the Palestinians must respond swiftly to Israel’s move.
“Palestinian diplomacy must act aggressively. I hope that the Palestinian attack this time will be different and that it will take advantage of the state of solidarity and the shock that afflicted international institutions,” he said.
Ben-Menachem doesn’t think the current uproar will influence Israel’s decision-making.
“International pressure has a simple and temporary effect. Israel’s decision to close these organizations and arrest their staff may be postponed for a month or two, but after things calm down, the decision will continue.”
Gantz’s decision comes after he met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas late last August. It was the first high-level meeting between an Israeli and Palestinian official in more than five years, and several economic understandings were reached, giving hope that peace talks would be revived.
But Gantz’s latest move is sure to cause great embarrassment to Abbas.
“I don’t think anybody had any illusions about Benny Gantz or anyone in this government. In my opinion, the meeting between Abbas and Gantz was wrong. It was futile, it gave Israel the opportunity to score public relation points over nothing,” Odeh said.