Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz issued an order that put six Palestinian civil society groups on its “terrorism list” last week, under the pretext that they are funding the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The move caused an uproar in Palestinian and global circles and even had repercussions within the Israeli government and society.
The targeted Palestinian groups include the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, the Al-Haq for the Defence of Human Rights Organisation, the Bisan Centre for Research and Development, the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, the Defence for Children International – Palestine, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. All of them operate in the Palestinian Territories and have offices in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem.
The Israeli authorities claimed these groups and institutions are linked to the PFLP and fund its activities. The PFLP said the terrorist designation aimed to tighten the siege on the Palestinian people and their institutions, prevent NGOs from playing their part in Palestinian life, and curb their role in exposing Israeli practices and policies.
Israel also accused the groups of receiving large sums of money from European countries and international organisations, passing the funds on to the families of Palestinian prisoners and martyrs, and promoting PFLP activities in Jerusalem.
Kayed Al-Ghoul, a member of the PFLP politburo, said in a statement that “this decision aims to disrupt human rights groups and divert attention from their work in pursuing the leaders of the Israeli occupation in European courts and of occupation crimes at the International Criminal Court. It is also an attempt to undermine their role in global circles and end the funding to them.”
The decision resulted in a variety of responses, most promptly by the US state department, which did not support the move and said it would continue to investigate the reasons behind it.
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that “we will be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for Tel Aviv’s designation of six human rights groups as terrorist,” adding that the US had not been given advance warning of the designation.
Many observers viewed this as a shift in the US position on Israeli decisions, which at one point saw the full US approval of all decisions by the Israeli government, especially under the administration of former US president Donald Trump.
To avoid tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation reported, Israel has sent a special envoy to Washington carrying “evidence and information” showing that the six Palestinian organisations are involved in terrorist activities.
Meanwhile, the Israeli news portal Walla! quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying that the US administration had been informed in advance about Israel’s intention to designate the Palestinian organisations in the West Bank as terrorist.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh said in a statement that “this designation is a serious violation of international law, since the targeted organisations operate according to Palestinian law and partner with international organisations. There should be an intervention by international groups to condemn the Israeli move and prevent its implementation.”
He called on the international community and human rights groups around the world to condemn a step that he said violated international law.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also rejected the decision, saying that the six Palestinian organisations operate according to Palestinian law and that the Palestinian leadership would continue to support them so they can continue their operations.
The UN Human Rights Office in Palestine expressed “alarm” about the designation of key Palestinian human rights and humanitarian organisations as terrorist, according to Israel’s 2016 Anti-Terrorism Law.
It stated that “the designations by Israel’s National Bureau for Counter-Terrorism Financing cite very vague and irrelevant reasons, including peaceful and legitimate activities such as providing legal aid and campaigning against Israel on the global stage. Counter-terrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work.”
A UN statement added that “these designations are the latest development in a long and stigmatising campaign against these and other organisations, damaging their ability to deliver on crucial work. Some organisations that were designated as terrorist are key partners with us, namely the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Defence for Children International – Palestine, the Al-Haq Organisation, the Bisan Centre, the Addameer Association and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.”
In Israel, the designations further divided the ruling coalition cabinet, especially since it undermined steps by left-wing parties in the government to move closer to the Palestinian Authority and “moderates” on the Palestinian side. The Israeli media reported that Gantz had not informed his coalition partners of the decision, including prime minister Naftali Bennett and foreign minister Yair Lapid.
The Arab minister in the Israeli cabinet, who serves as minister of regional cooperation, Issawi Frej also objected to the decision, quoted as saying that “there is no relationship between these organisations and terrorism,” in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“A strong state must know how to deal with criticism. That is the test of our strength,” he said.
Israeli Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz said Israel must be very careful in imposing restrictions on Palestinian civil society. He said he had asked Gantz to submit the motivations and evidence that had led to this decision to the rest of the government.
Minister of Environment Tamar Zandberg said that three of the six organisations were long-established and well-known human rights groups. Both she and Horowitz are members of the Meretz Party, which supports dialogue with the PA.
The Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported that designating Palestinian human rights organisations as terrorist was part of the “ideological” dispute among members of the incumbent government, threatening its stability.
This is not the first time that Israel has attacked civil society, human rights, and even relief organisations in Palestine. Former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu openly campaigned against funding for these groups and for terminating their operations, and in this he was supported by Trump.
Israel also earlier arrested Mohamed Halabi, director of the international organisation World Vision, and accused him of similar charges of funding and supporting terrorism. This led to the shuttering of his organisation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, denying thousands of beneficiaries of its services.
Despite Israel’s accusations against Palestinian institutions with the aim of agitating against them and preventing them from receiving funds from international human rights groups, Palestinian analysts believe Israel’s move is an attempt to obstruct legal action led by these organisations to prosecute Israel for its abuses against the Palestinians.
Some groups have filed charges, even in Israeli courts, against many Israeli agencies, including the Israeli army. This sometimes investigates crimes against the Palestinians, but mostly finds Israeli soldiers innocent of the charges against them and shields them from prosecution.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly