An Israeli decision to label six Palestinian rights groups and civil society movements as “terror organizations” elicited a swift and fierce backlash Friday, with Palestinians, international organizations and left-wing American politicians slamming the move.
Representatives of at least two of the groups denied the charges, with international organizations accusing Israel of trying to silence criticism of alleged human rights abuses on shaky pretenses.
“Counter-terrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work,” the United Nations Human Rights Office in Ramallah said, accusing Israel of predicating the decision on “extremely vague or irrelevant reasons, including entirely peaceful and legitimate activities.”
“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,” it added.
The backlash was sparked after Israel’s government issued military orders alleging that the six organizations were fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israel, the United States and the European Union consider the PFLP, one of several member parties of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to be a terror group.
“Those organizations were active under the cover of civil society organizations, but in practice belong and constitute an arm of the [PFLP] leadership, the main activity of which is the liberation of Palestine and destruction of Israel,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office said in a statement.
The six organizations named by Gantz’s office are some of the most prominent rights groups in Palestinian civil society. Many have received considerable funding in grants from European Union member states and the United Nations, among other donors.
Israeli authorities named Addameer, which defends Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli courts; Al-Haq, which tracks alleged rights abuses committed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Defense for Children-International, which advocates on behalf of Palestinian children.
The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, the Bisan Research and Advocacy Center and the Union Of Agricultural Work Committees were also declared to be terrorist organizations.
Both Israeli military and civilian law ban supporting or joining a terror group, and violators can face years in prison. Israeli law enforcement can also seize assets belonging to terror organizations and forbids funding their activities; donors may also be subject to significant jail time.
Israeli authorities have charged before that the PFLP has pilfered millions of euros from civil society organizations affiliated with its members to fund terrorist activities. In May, the Shin Bet arrested four suspects, including a Spanish citizen, who were believed to have channelled European funds to the PFLP.
Last year, the Dutch government halted its funding of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, after it determined that some of the money was going to pay two PFLP members standing trial for their role in a terror attack that killed Israeli teenager Rina Shnerb.
In late July, Israeli forces raided the offices of the one of the organizations, Defense for Children-International. The Israeli army said it had acted on intelligence to fight “terror funding.”
Two days ago, Israeli occupation forces raided the office of Defense for Children International in Ramallah at about midnight. They confiscated computers, laptops, and client files. pic.twitter.com/ewjAbVNAoc
— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) August 2, 2021
The European Union, which said some of the groups receive its funding, questioned Israel’s reasoning and said it would continue to back the groups.
“Past allegations of the misuse of EU funds in relation to some of our Palestinian [civil society organization] partners have not been substantiated,” a spokesperson said. “EU funding to Palestinian civil society organisations is an important element of our support for the two state solution.”
Al-Haq director Shawan Jabarin, whom Israeli authorities have accused of being a PFLP member, said the move was an attempt to crack down on criticisms of alleged Israeli human rights violations.
“They may be able to close us down. They can seize our funding. They can arrest us. But they cannot stop our firm and unshakeable belief that this occupation must be held accountable for its crimes,” Jabarin told The Times of Israel.
Jabarin denied that his organization was a PFLP front: “I challenge any of them — the defense minister, the Shin Bet, anyone — to prove as much.”
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh denounced Friday’s announcement as a “grave violation of international law.”
“This fallacious and libelous slander is a strategic assault on Palestinian civil society and the Palestinian people’s fundamental right to oppose Israel’s illegal occupation and expose its continuing crimes,” the PA foreign ministry said in a similar statement.
In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemned the move as “appalling and unjust.”
“This decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations. The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner,” the two organizations said.
In Washington, several progressive Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Mark Pocan, also condemned the decision.
“There must be immediate consequences from the US and the international community for this brazen act,” Omar wrote on Twitter.
“Israel should rescind their blanket decision to label Palestinian civil rights organizations as terrorist groups. Many of these organizations are working to bring peace in the region and are vocal critics Hamas & the PA,” Pocan tweeted.
J Street, an American organization that lobbies the United States to act for a two-state solution, called for US President Joe Biden’s administration to censure Israel over the decision.
“This is a deeply repressive measure that seems designed to outlaw and persecute important Palestinian human rights groups,” it said in a statement. “The Biden Admin[istration] should make clear to the Israeli government that this is totally unacceptable and anti-democratic, and call on them to reverse the decision.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the head of progressive rabbinical group Truah, called the move “alarming” and warned that it would harm attempts for Palestinians to build a robust democratic society.
“By falsely labeling Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist groups, the Israeli government reduces transparency and violates the basic rights of Palestinians in ways that can have life-threatening consequences,” she said in a statement.
Israeli and international rights groups also slammed the move, including B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“Israel’s ‘change’ government’s designation, earlier today, of Palestinian human rights organizations as ‘terror organizations’ is not merely declarative. It is an act characteristic of totalitarian regimes, with the clear purpose of shutting down these organizations,” said B’Tselem.
As of Friday evening, most Israeli politicians had yet to comment on the matter. MK Ayman Odeh, who leads the Arab-Jewish Joint List bloc, criticized the decision.
“Day is not night, and Palestinian rights organizations are not terrorist organizations. The occupation is the terrorism,” said Odeh.