‘We’re succeeding in changing the paradigm’
After being outlawed as ‘terrorist organizations’ overnight, Palestinian human rights groups talk to +972 about why Israel’s allegations are not just unfounded, but amount to an act of political persecution.
Sahar Francis, Director of Addameer, seen at the organization’s offices in Ramallah, the West Bank on February 19, 2019. (Photo: Mohannad Darabee for +972 Magazine)
When Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed an executive order last week declaring six Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organizations,” the government did not even bother with putting on a facade of due process. With the swift stroke of a pen, the NGOs — Al-Haq, Addameer, Bisan Center, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union for Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees — were instantly outlawed with neither a trial nor the opportunity to respond to the accusations against them.
Yet rather than question the dubious nature of this move, the vast majority of Israeli media outlets simply cribbed the Defense Ministry’s official statement on the matter, which accused the six organizations of serving as “arms” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — a secular, Marxist-Leninist party and movement deemed a terrorist group by Israel.
The government claimed that the NGOs whitewashed funds intended for humanitarian reasons and transferred them for military purposes instead, further accusing the organizations’ employees of belonging, either in the past or present, to the PFLP. Right-wing Israeli groups, too, have for years tried to draw connections between these organizations and the PFLP in an effort to cut off their funding abroad.
The Defense Ministry’s decision was based on intelligence gathered by the Shin Bet, which it has not revealed to the public. But according to sources with knowledge of the legal case, the agency’s evidence is reportedly based on the testimony of a sole employee who was terminated from one of the organizations for corruption.
Evidence that contradicts the Shin Bet’s account, however, exists in spades. Over the past five years, under pressure from the Israeli government and pro-Israel NGOs, multiple European governments and private foundations that provide funding to Palestinian civil society have conducted extensive audits of each of the six organizations. None found any evidence of foul play.
Moreover, the targeted organizations themselves paint an entirely different picture from the allegations meted out by the Shin Bet — with much evidence to back them up.
I spoke to the heads or senior members of five of the NGOs, all of whom are prominent activists, lawyers, and thinkers who harshly criticize both the Israeli regime and the Palestinian Authority [the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees declined to speak to Local Call, +972’s Hebrew sister site, where a version of this article was first published]. Vehemently rejecting Israel’s accusations, they describe these latest attacks as part of Israel’s years-long political persecution of Palestinian civil society in order to silence their work.
‘We have nothing to hide’
“We are the only human rights group that focuses on children in Palestine,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, the Accountability Program Director at Defense for Children International-Palestine, which was founded in 1991.
“Our job is twofold,” he explained. “The first is legal: we represent around 200 children a year in Israeli and Palestinian courts. The second is policy-based: since 2000, we have documented the killing of over 2,200 Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli military forces, particularly in Gaza.”
The Defense Ministry briefing that was distributed to journalists following Gantz’s announcement did not specify the specific reason for labeling DCI-Palestine, a highly-respected organization that is active in the UN committees and on Capitol Hill, as a “terrorist organization.”
“We have been attacked in the past, but it has happened through right-wing groups such as the NGO Monitor,” Abu Eqtaish added, referring to the organization that tracks the activities of Palestinian and left-wing civil society organizations that criticize Israeli policy in order to drain them of financial resources. NGO Monitor claims that DCI-Palestine “leads the campaign exploiting children to promote demonization of Israel, and is linked to the PFLP terror group. Many of its allegations are false and part of attempts to smear Israel with allegations of ‘war crimes’ and promote BDS.”
Abu Eqtaish calls the accusations against DCI-Palestine “absurd,” emphasizing there is no proof his group funds the PFLP. “Israel and right-wing organizations have approached all the governments and foundations that fund us to challenge our legitimacy as an organization. Instead of worrying about exposing the violations of the occupation against children, we’ve had to defend ourselves.”
According to Abu Eqtaish, all the bodies that fund DCI-Palestine — including the governments of Italy and Denmark, as well as the European Union — have conducted independent investigations regarding Israeli claims in the past. “They asked us for proof that the allegations were baseless, and we provided it to them. We have nothing to hide. All our financial reports are public.”
A British court also found the allegations to be false. In 2020, the court ordered UK Lawyers for Israel, an organization that operates in a similar manner to NGO Monitor, to retract its claim that DCI-Palestine supported the PFLP or transferred funds to it. The court also required UK Lawyers for Israel to publicly declare that DCI-Palestine does not have “close current links, or provides any financial or material support to any terrorist organisation.”
“They were unable to reach their goals using this strategy, which is why they moved on to another one,” Abu Eqtaish said. “In July, army forces raided our organization’s offices in Ramallah and confiscated computers and legal files pertaining to children. We turned to the military court to demand the files be returned. The court refused.”
He concluded: “Right now, we in the organization are trying to understand what next steps we should take. We know these allegations have no basis. The attack on the organization is mainly an attack on its purpose: exposing the crimes of the occupation against children, and calling on the international community to punish Israel for them.”
‘Everyone knows where every single shekel goes’
Established in 1979, Al-Haq is the oldest and largest Palestinian human rights and advocacy NGO in the occupied territories. According to Hisham Sharbati, a field worker for Al-Haq who has worked with the organization for 12 years, the reason for Israel’s recent designation is entirely political.
“Al-Haq has a large role in providing information against Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” he explained. “Due to our activities, many in the world are clearly calling Israel an ‘apartheid state.’ This is why we are being persecuted.”
Sharbati mentioned that Gantz had met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah earlier this month and that they spoke about “building trust.” “What kind of trust-building is there when [Gantz] attacks civil society organizations in this way? This move seeks to deprive the Palestinian people of one of the most important organizations they have to defend their rights against the occupation and against the Palestinian Authority.”
The Israeli Defense Ministry’s statement, and even the slightly more detailed document that was later sent to reporters, made no reference to Al-Haq despite it being the largest of the six organizations. It is still not at all clear on what basis Al-Haq has been outlawed.
The allegations against Al-Haq may have derived from another source. In 2015, as international pressure against Israel mounted, the government allocated tens of millions of shekels to the now-defunct Ministry of Strategic Affairs to lead a “campaign against the effects of delegitimization and boycotts against Israel,” with Gilad Erdan, who is now Israel’s U.S. ambassador, appointed as the head of the body.
One of the ministry’s central activities was to label Palestinian civil society groups as affiliated with terrorists in order to pressure European governments to cut their funding. According to official reports published by the ministry, the six organizations blacklisted last week were a major target.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry published reports with titles such as “Terrorists in Suits,” “Blood Money,” and “Network of Hate,” echoing the messaging of various right-wing groups. NGO Monitor in particular has accused Al-Haq’s general director, Shawan Jabarin, of being active in the PFLP. And yet, the ministry still failed to provide any evidence to prove the NGO’s ties to violence.
“I’ve been with the organization for 12 years, and not a single person from Al-Haq has been arrested during this period,” Sharbati said. “Our work is entirely legal and transparent. Our funders receive detailed reports. We are under tight oversight, and everyone knows where every single shekel goes.”
Regarding the allegations that some of the organization’s operatives were members of the PFLP, Sharbati said: “If someone was active with the PFLP, sat in prison, and was released a few months later — then what? Does this mean they should not work anywhere? If someone has done something illegal, arrest them. But there is no evidence of wrongdoing.”
The Bisan Center is a small, left-leaning Palestinian research center. It is staffed by eight academics and is headed by Ubai Aboudi, who writes about economics and sociology.
“We were founded in 1986 by a group of scholars and scientists,” explained Aboudi. “We support the rights of marginalized communities, apply pressure against global warming, promote gender equality, and oppose Israel’s occupation policies.”
Aboudi has been detained twice in the last two years: once by Israel, and again by the Palestinian Authority. During his first arrest in late 2019, Israel’s military court accused him of membership in the PFLP. “They had no proof, and the judge determined that there were evidentiary issues,” he remarked.
However, Aboudi eventually agreed to a plea bargain and was locked up for four months (Israel’s military courts, which operate as an integral arm of Israel’s control over Palestinians under occupation, has between a 95 to 99 percent conviction rate, according to various human rights groups).
“I have no ties to the PFLP, but I’m a father, and I wanted to return to my three children as soon as possible — so I took the deal,” he explained. At the time, Aboudi’s administrative detention sparked an international campaign, and about a thousand scientists and scholars signed a petition for his release.
This year, Aboudi was arrested twice by the PA, after protesting the killing of Nizar Banat, an activist and government critic, who was beaten to death in June under the custody of Palestinian security forces.
A month later, the Israeli army raided Bisan Center’s offices in Ramallah and confiscated their computers. According to the Defense Ministry’s press release, Bisan was declared a “terrorist organization” because PFLP members held meetings in its offices. Furthermore, the statement claimed, the center’s previous director, I’tiraf Rimawi, was a member of the armed wing of the PFLP. Rimawi was convicted to three and a half years in prison for membership in the student extension of the PFLP — when he wasn’t an employee of Bisan Center.
“This [Israeli] perspective is absolutely manipulative,” said Aboudi. “How can an entire organization be responsible for the actions that one person allegedly committed outside of work? If a person works for a bank in the United States, and breaks the law, do you then shut down the bank?”
Regarding the use of Bisan’s offices for PFLP meetings, Aboudi said: “Our office does not serve any purpose that isn’t related to our research. It was never used by armed forces, and the center has no connection to any violent actions. Read our research, our worldview is based on equality and social justice.”
Like the other organizations, Aboudi said that Israel’s claim that the groups acted as a “lifeline” and as fundraisers for the PFLP was a complete fabrication, and that “the center’s budget is open and transparent for all.”
In May, Aboudi noted, Israel invited representatives from foreign embassies and demanded that they stop their funding to Palestinian human rights groups. As a result, the Belgian government conducted an audit of the funding it provides to Bisan, and it determined that there is no basis for the government’s accusations. “All our funding, about NIS 800,000 a year, goes toward research and salary payments,” he said.
As with the other organizations, Bisan’s employees are now worried that, following Israel’s declaration, funders around the world will hesitate to support the center, and that it will collapse financially. “This was always [Prime Minister] Naftali Bennett’s and [Interior Minister] Ayelet Shaked’s main struggle: to persecute Palestinian human rights organizations,” Argued Aboudi. “Their relations with far-right settler groups, such as NGO Monitor and Regavim, are deep. They have been thinking for years to outlaw Palestinian human rights organizations. Now they were presented with the opportunity to do so, and they took it.”
‘The occupation is the source of the violence’
The Union of Agricultural Work Committees was established in 1986. Among other areas of work, it assists Palestinian farmers in cultivating their land in Area C — the two-thirds of the West Bank which is under full Israeli control, where Israeli settlements are built and expanded, and where Israel systematically prevents Palestinian development. This work, according to UAWC’s director Fuad Abu Seif, is the reason they were outlawed.
“Israel wants to annex Area C,” he said. “Our work strengthens Palestinian presence there, in an area it’s not wanted. This is why they’ve been going after us for years.”
Abu Seif continued: “Regavim [a right-wing Israeli organization] has been inciting against us daily, because we help Palestinian farmers cultivate about 3,000 dunams of land a year, and open agricultural paths that connect between Areas A, B, and C. All our work is done on private land, to help the farmers. Israel prevents them from developing their land for political reasons, to expel them.”
Israel accused two former UAWC employees of involvement in the murder of Rina Shenrab, a 17-year-old Israeli, in the West Bank in August 2019. The Defense Ministry cited the teen’s murder as the reason for the union’s designation as a “terrorist organization.”
“They were two individuals out of an organization of 120 employees, an organization that thousands have worked in over the years,” said Abu Saif regarding the allegations. “It’s not that the organization decided to act this way. As an organization, we reject violence, and say that the occupation is the source of the violence.”
For years, according to Abu Saif, Israel has been looking for security reasons to use as an excuse for shutting down various Palestinian organizations that operate in Area C.
In late 2020, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee met to discuss the government’s struggle against these organizations. At the meeting, MK Zvi Hauser noted that the discussion was “a national interest of the first degree,” because “it is what will determine the state’s future borders.”
“It is not just a struggle over land and enforcement, but also a diplomatic struggle,” Ghassan Alyan, the former head of the Civil Administration — the arm of Israel’s military government that rules the occupied territories — said at the committee meeting. Alyan added that when Bennett was Defense Minister in 2020, he met with ambassadors and attachés from European countries and demanded that they halt their funding to Palestinian organizations that operate in Area C.
“We warned everyone: we will not tolerate any international project without Israeli approval… and we managed to decrease the number of projects over the last two years,” Alyan said at the meeting. “There were about 12 projects in 2019, when in 2015 there were approximately 75 conducted projects.”
“Israel is attempting to distort these organizations’ reputation with our funders,” said Abu Saif. “If the Europeans end their funding, all these groups will disappear. And it’s working.
“They are focusing on two types of organizations: ones that act at the international level, like Al-Haq, and those that operate in Area C, like us,” Abu Saif added. “This didn’t start two days ago — it has been going on for years.”
In the early morning of July 7, Israeli forces broke into UAWC’s offices and shut them down. Abu Saif arrived that morning to find that the computers were confiscated and the doors were sealed. A closure order was also attached to the doors, issued by the Israeli military governor.
“You have to understand, our organization only deals with agriculture. Most of us are engineers. I, too, am an engineer. Will Israel now arrest us all? This organization has existed for 35 years,” said Abu Seif.
Still, the declaration of six veteran organizations as “terrorists” is unprecedented, said Abu Saif. “It has been made possible only because of the new government,” he argued. “As bad as Netanyahu was, he did not go for such a drastic move. In my assessment, he was more cautious. The settler lobby and Regavim can apply pressure more easily on the current government, which is much more extreme.”
‘The roots of this attack’
Sahar Francis heads Addameer, which provides legal support to Palestinian prisoners and detainees locked up in Israeli and PA prisons. “Most of the work our organization does is with Israeli authorities,” said Francis. “I’m waiting to see what they will tell our lawyers in the military courts.”
Francis continued: “This is a political decision, which stems from the incessant persecution against us. How can one publish such a statement in the press without hearing what these organizations have to say? Without a trial or the right to a hearing?”
According to Francis, the government’s decision is part of a broad, long-term move against Palestinian civil society. “It started with attacks from right-wing organizations such as NGO Monitor, who were in direct communication with the Israeli government,” she explained. “Later, in 2015, Gilad Erdan’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs was launched, and they tried to dry up our funding without end.”
According to the Defense Ministry’s press release, Addameer was designated as a “terrorist organization” because it was formed by senior members of the PFLP to deal with political prisoners and their families. Yet Addamer was established in 1991, which, if the allegation was even true, would make Israel’s recent designation 30 years late.
The ministry’s statement also claimed that meetings with senior PFLP members were conducted at Addameer’s offices, and that the organization delivers messages to prisoners on behalf of the PFLP. However, no further explanation was provided.
“These allegations are simply false,” Francis said in response. “The organization does not belong to the PFLP. We only deal with legal representation, and lobby on the local and international level. We have been targeted for years, for one reason: we’re succeeding in changing the paradigm around the world by speaking of apartheid, and not only occupation, and we are providing materials to The Hague.
“We must go back to the roots of this attack,” she emphasized. “Since the start of the occupation, Israel has been acting against civil society organizations. It announced labor and student unions as illegal. During the Second Intifada, there was a massive attack on charities under the claim that they’re associated with Hamas. I think we made a mistake then, for not taking it seriously enough. The Palestinian Authority was happy at the time, because it promoted its interests — hurting those who oppose it.
“Our message, along with the other organizations, is that we will not stop working. We will not stop providing services to those who need us. We refuse to fall silent on the occupation’s apartheid rule.”
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.