The Israeli Defense Ministry’s unexpected decision to designate six Palestinian human rights and civil society establishments as terror organizations has resulted in swift criticism from Palestinians and several international organizations.
Palestinian civil rights activists, international human rights organizations and have denounced the move, which was first announced Friday. They have accused Israel of trying to silence criticism and of subduing the documentation of alleged human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian Territories.
Some in Israel welcomed the measure as one that counters “terrorist entities,” while others, mainly Israeli rights organizations, criticized it.
Israel has accused the groups of concealing their true aims and promoting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The small secular party, which has a militant wing, is part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
According to Friday’s statement by the Defense Ministry, “Those organizations were active under the cover of civic 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.”
The PFLP is listed as a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the European Union.
The Defense Ministry also accused the groups of raising funds for the PFLP, particularly through aid via European donor countries, United Nations organizations and other entities.
However, it didn’t publicly provide evidence to support the claims.
Prominent rights groups targeted
The institutions named include some of the most prominent Palestinian human rights organizations such as Al-Haq, which has long documented alleged human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian Territories by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Another organization targeted is Addameer, which advocates for the rights of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. The other four organizations are Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.
Al-Haq on Saturday hosted a joint press conference with other civil society organizations in Ramallah, denying the charges and calling on the international community to publicly condemn Israel’s decision.
Shawan Jabarin, Al-Haq’s general director, said: “This is a political decision [by Israel] and not a security one.”
“This decision comes in a series of institutionalized practices aiming at smearing Palestinian human rights NGOs and human rights defenders, silencing them on the international level, targeting their work, and draining their resources,” he added.
Severe consequences at play
Israel’s counter-terror legislation allows the government to outlaw the organizations. It can close their offices, seize their financial assets, arrest staff members and prosecute those funding them.
This not only puts their employees at potential risk of prosecution, but it also carries the possibility of criminalizing the work of civil society groups in general, observers say.
Israel’s decision could also pose a challenge for international donors — among them European and German institutions — that aid Palestinian nongovernmental organizations.
“It creates a lot of uncertainty and raises serious questions,” said an international development worker in Ramallah who works on projects with Palestinian society groups, and who spoke with DW on the condition of anonymity.
European governments could find themselves accused of funding terrorism if they continue to provide financial support to any of those organizations.
The Defense Ministry’s decision came as some EU member states have been trying to rekindle relations with Israel since the new coalition government came into office.
“We take this very seriously, are looking into allegations, and are in touch with Israeli partners to seek clarification,” EU spokesperson Peter Stano said Monday in Brussels. “EU funding to Palestinian civil society organizations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution,” he said, adding that the bloc would continue to “stand by international law and support civil society.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh is due in Brussels this week for a scheduled meeting with European officials.
The UN’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Lynn Hastings also expressed concern on Monday, saying, “These designations add to increasing pressures on civil society organizations across the occupied Palestinian Territory more broadly.”
She further stated an intent to “engage with the Israeli authorities to learn more about the allegations.”
Calls for evidence grow
Israel has previously claimed that the PFLP obtained funds through civil society organizations affiliated with its members, or that employees with alleged ties to the group have been involved in terror attacks against Israeli citizens.
An EU statement on Monday said, “Past allegations of the misuse of EU funds in relation to certain number of our Palestinian civil society organizations’ partners have not been substantiated,” adding that the “EU remains engaged with the Israeli authorities on this issue.”
The announcement also stirred controversy within Israel’s coalition government, which is comprised of parties from the right, center, and left, as well as an Arab party. On Sunday, the left-wing Meretz Party questioned the move by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who signed the order.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of the Meretz Party said he had asked Gantz to present the government with the findings that led to the decision.
Israeli media had reported an unnamed security official as saying there was “clear-cut” evidence against the organizations.
A similar request was made by the US administration. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Friday told reporters that the US had not been “given advanced warning” of the decision, and that it expected “more information” from Israel.
This was refuted by reports in the Israeli media, which quoted an unnamed Israeli official claiming that Israel had informed some US officials of the impending decision.
An Israeli delegation — among them officials from the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service — are expected to travel to the US this week to present classified evidence supporting Israel’s decision.
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