Dark Mode
Wednesday, 22 May 2024
Are Palestinian NGOs really ‘terrorists in suits’?
Ian Black
In the last week of October, Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz declared six Palestinian human rights groups to be “terror organizations” - accusing them of operating as an arm for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Representatives of both the targeted groups and international organizations angrily denied the charges and accused Gantz and his coalition government of trying to silence criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.

“Those organizations were active under the cover of civil society organizations, but in practice belong and constitute an arm of the leadership, the main activity of which is the liberation of Palestine and destruction of Israel,” Gantz’s office said. Like virtually everything else connected to this most intractable, divisive and toxic of conflicts this decision generated a good deal of furious controversy – and that is a very English understatement!

The Palestinian organizations included the award-winning Ramallah-based rights organization Al-Haq; Addameer, which represents security prisoners in Israeli military courts; and Defence for Children-International, a group that advocates for Palestinian minors. The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, the Bisan Research and Advocacy Centre and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees were also declared to be terrorist organizations.

Taken together, these groups – normally defined as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) - are some of the best-known in Palestinian civil society in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Many have received generous funding in grants from European Union member states and the United Nations.

“Those funds served the Popular Front for payments to security prisoners’ families and martyrs, wages for activists, enlistment of activists, promotion of terror activity and strengthening, promotion of the Popular Front activity in Jerusalem, and distribution of the organization’s messages and ideology,” said Israel’s Defence Ministry.

Shawan Jabarin, director of Al-Haq, riposted: “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.”
Right-wing Israeli watchdogs have long accused these groups of having PFLP ties - “terrorists in suits.” After Jabarin was banned from travel by the Shin Bet security service in the 2000s, he appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court, which upheld the opinion of his PFLP membership. Once one of the most powerful Palestinian factions, the PFLP has receded in importance in recent decades. The left-wing movement has been eclipsed by increasingly authoritarian Fatah and Hamas, which rule the West Bank and Gaza respectively. But to all intents and purposes, it has ceased to be a serious political force since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

International human rights groups immediately slammed Gantz’s decision. In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemned the move as “appalling and unjust.” It was an “alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations.” The left-wing Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem also condemned the move.
All six of the NGOs are affiliated with the political left, and some have criticized the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the past. For example, last March, Al-Haq published a report on the state of freedom of expression under the PA. Al-Haq is also one of the organizations who are advancing proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague against Israel's settlement actions in the occupied territories.
Gantz's designation effectively outlaws the activities of the NGOs and authorises the Israeli authorities to close their offices, seize their assets, and arrest and jail their staff. It prohibits funding and expressing support for their activities.

Liberal Israelis and other Jews also condemned the move as “shocking”. Americans for Peace Now said: ”We also state unequivocally that Palestinians have a right to non-violently resist and oppose the occupation. The organizations targeted by the Defence Ministry are doing just that. While we may not agree with every single statement and objective of these groups, we cannot afford to be silent in light of this naked attempt at suppression.”

Democrats in the US House of Representatives condemned Israel’s actions and the Biden administration has publicly raised concerns about Gantz’s move, as well as the lack of transparency and communication prior to it. Israel has insisted that it did indeed provide its US counterparts with advance notice and evidence legitimizing its actions.

It was criticised in liberal Israeli media as an “ill-timed, badly planned, clumsily explained and poorly marketed decision” as well as drawing “more unwanted attention and criticism to Israel’s ‘occupation’” Alon Pinkas, a former senior diplomat elaborated in Haaretz. “Even if the legal justifications are solid and they are supported by incontrovertible intelligence, incriminating evidence and are irrefutably accurate, it does not absolve the decision-makers from the political imprudence of the act.”

Deemed by critics to be part of the short-term strategy of “shrinking the conflict” by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government, in which Gantz plays a key role, it should be clear to everyone who cares about the future of both Palestinians and Israelis that criminalizing human rights groups on the basis of classified information is completely unacceptable.