UN rights chief slams ‘arbitrary’ Israel decision to outlaw Palestinian groups

Michelle Bachelet says move amounts to an attack on human rights defenders, on freedoms of association, opinion and expression as well as on the right to public participation

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, attends a meeting of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2020. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, attends a meeting of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2020. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Tuesday that Israel’s blacklisting of six Palestinian rights organizations for their alleged ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group was an attack on human rights defenders, on freedoms of association, opinion and expression and on the right to public participation.

She called for the move to be immediately revoked.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said anti-terrorism legislation should not be applied to legitimate human rights and humanitarian aid activities.

“The organizations… face far-reaching consequences as a result of this arbitrary decision, as do the people who fund them and work with them,” said Bachelet.

“The crucial work they perform for thousands of Palestinians risks being halted or severely restricted,” she added.

On Friday afternoon, Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that the six Palestinian civil society groups — including highly prominent ones with significant backing and oversight from the European Union and other international bodies — were being designated as terror organizations, asserting that they worked on behalf of the PFLP.

The list consisted of: Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees; ADDAMEER — Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association; Bisan Center for Research and Development; al-Haq Organization; Defense for Children International — Palestine; and the Union Of Agricultural Work Committees.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bachelet said the decision would have “a chilling effect” on human rights defenders.

“Claiming rights before a UN or other international body is not an act of terrorism, advocating for the rights of women in the occupied Palestinian territory is not terrorism, and providing legal aid to detained Palestinians is not terrorism,” Bachelet said.

Israel has generally been dismissive of the UN Human Rights Council, which has obsessively targeted Israel for investigations, while generally ignoring widespread abuses in other countries.

Last month, for the first time ever, the body voted to create an open-ended international investigation into Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Bachelet, in her Tuesday statement, added that no evidence has been presented to support the allegations against the six groups, nor had any public process been conducted to establish the accusations.

The Defense Ministry has yet to provide concrete evidence to demonstrate a direct connection between those organizations and the PFLP in its announcement on Friday.

The move elicited a swift and fierce backlash, with Palestinians, international organizations and left-wing American politicians slamming the move.

France on Tuesday voiced “concern” over the decision.

“France reiterates its devotion to the vital role that civil society plays in democratic life,” a spokesperson for France’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “We request clarifications from the Israeli authorities.”

The Biden administration on Monday stood by its assertion that Israel did not give it a heads-up before announcing the controversial decision.

“It is to the best of our knowledge accurate that we did not receive a specific heads-up about any forthcoming designations,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price, who was asked at a press briefing to respond to the Israeli claim that it had in fact notified administration officials ahead of time of the decision to classify six Palestinian rights groups as terror organizations.

However, he said the US “looked forward to hearing more details” from an Israeli delegation expected in Washington later in the week.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price speaks to reporters during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AP)

It was the spokesman’s assertion on Friday that “the Israeli government did not give us advance warning” that set off a firestorm in Jerusalem.

On Sunday, in a briefing to reporters, a senior Israeli official said that a Foreign Ministry official traveled to Washington and notified the United States State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism of the impending decision and handed it relevant intelligence ahead of Gantz’s announcement.

However, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that the information likely wasn’t passed on to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, due to an “internal mishap” within the State Department. This led Price to say that there was no advance notice of the move, the official surmised.

The intelligence connecting the the PFLP to the organizations was “ironclad,” the official insisted. He said the material included “unequivocal evidence that includes video footage, photos, payment receipts that tie the said groups to the backing of terror activity.”

Some critics of the designation have likened it to Israel’s 2016 arrest of Muhammad Halabi, who headed the Gaza office of the global Christian aid organization World Vision. Halabi was accused of joining Hamas’ ranks and siphoning off millions of dollars from World Vision’s budget for humanitarian projects and funneling them to the enclave-ruling terror group.

But five years after the dramatic accusations were made, the case has continued to drag on, with over 160 court sessions and minimal concrete evidence provided by Israeli authorities to back their claims against Halabi, who has remained in jail since his arrest.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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