Background on Israeli Military Order Against Palestinian Civil Society Organizations

This is a living document that we will continue to update as further information is received. Last update: 11/1/21

On October 22, 2021, six prominent Palestinian organizations were labeled “terrorist organizations” under a military order issued by Benny Gantz, the Israeli Defense Minister. He alleges they are part of “a network of organizations” operating on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). This represents the latest in an ongoing string of unsubstantiated allegations against Palestinian human rights organizations by the Israeli government.

Such claims have been refuted by multiple due diligence processes time and again, as captured by the response of a representative of the European Union that “Past allegations of the misuse of EU funds in relation to certain of our Palestinian CSO partners have not been substantiated…The EU will continue to stand by international law and support civil society organizations that have a role to play in promoting international law, human rights, and democratic values.” As detailed below, numerous others are similarly speaking out against a blatant attempt by the Israeli government to silence and punish those who are exposing its ongoing human rights violations.

What are the targeted organizations and what do they do?

Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association was founded 1991 to provide legal support for prisoners, collect data on arrests and administration detentions, and to work to end torture and violations of prisoner rights. Recently, it has been highlighting a prisoner hunger strike, which in the case of one prisoner has lasted for more than 90 days.

Al Haq, the oldest Palestinian human rights organization, was established in 1979 “to protect and promote human rights and the rule of law in the occupied Palestinian territory.” It has played a primary role in bringing Israeli violations of international law before the International Criminal Court, which opened its formal investigation into Israel’s alleged war crimes in March 2021.

Bisan Center for Research and Development was founded in 1989 “to contribute to building an effective democratic society.” Through its programs, the Bisan Center advocates for civil rights, human rights, and socio-economic rights.

Defense for Children International - Palestine is the national section of the Geneva-based international child-rights movement. Since 1991 it has “investigated, documented, and exposed grave human rights violations against children” and provided them with legal services. Its research informed the drafting of Rep. Betty McCollum’s ‘Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living under Israeli Military Occupation Act’ (H.R. 2590).

Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the largest agricultural institution in Palestine, was established in 1986 to improve the situation of Palestinian farmers and fisherfolk. It has played a critical role in confronting Israeli settlement expansion and displacement of farmers from their land, a process that has accelerated in the past few years. UAWC received the prestigious Equator Prize in 2014 by the United Nations Development Agency for its outstanding work on sustainable agriculture and preservation of local seeds through its seed bank. (Israel just announced plans to build over 3,000 new settlement units in the West Bank)

Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees was established in 1980 as a feminist organization to empower women to play an enhanced role in social, political and economic life, and advance the struggle for dignity and liberation.

What law has been used in the designation of “terrorist organization” and is that designation final?

Israel’s 2016 Counterterrorism Law gives the Minister of Defense the power to declare a group a ‘terrorist organization’ on the basis of secret (classified) evidence – a practice that the Israeli government also uses to hold Palestinians in prison under administrative detention for an indefinite period of time. Such a designation means that the personnel of these human rights organizations can be imprisoned and the organization’s property seized, forcing it to cease its operations. Penalties can extend to those who assist or are in contact with the designated organizations. 

Under the law, there is no hearing prior to the designation during which the organization is presented with specific evidence or can refute its being labeled in this way. Furthermore, once the designation is made, it is extremely difficult to rebut - either with the Minister of Defense himself or through a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court - because any supposed evidence would likely remain classified and the criminalized organizations would have no access to know what it is in order to refute it. Two Israeli law professors recently wrote, “To sum up this point, the Counterterrorism Law provides a vestige of due process but in fact allows Israel’s security apparatus almost unfettered discretion.” “Taken together, the defective law and the political context must lead the international community, including the United States, to firmly reject this new declaration.” (Please see the full article for a more detailed legal analysis.)

The six organizations who have been criminalized under this declaration are considering how best to respond given this context. In the meantime, some legal experts have expressed a clear view that due to the unjust nature of this law and the Israeli military court system, one of the best paths to reverse the decision may come from external pressure - namely, for people and organizations who value democracy, human rights, and social justice to call on our governments to stand by these principles and demand that the Israeli government rescind Gantz’s declaration.

What is the broader context of this designation?

The attacks on these six organizations are part of a much broader trend on the part of the Israeli government and its supporters to criminalize Palestinian civil society. As meticulously documented in a 2021 report by the Charity and Security Network, recent years have seen a rise in the use of legal forums for political purposes, known as “lawfare,” in an effort to “silence and shut down the work of civil society organizations that support Palestinian rights and operate humanitarian, peacebuilding and other programs.” Connected to a broader global trend of shrinking civil society space, the report details “a concerted effort to deprive NPOs [nonprofit organizations] working in Palestine of the resources necessary to do their work.” 

Civil society is successfully fighting back against these tactics, however. For example, following repeated accusations by the lawfare group UK Lawyers for Israel that Defense for Children International – Palestine was supposedly funding a terrorist organization, a defamation lawsuit brought against the UK Lawyers for Israel culminated in its being forced to recant these allegations. On March 9, 2020, it published a statement on its website that read: “In 2018 we wrote about Defense for Children International – Palestine and referred to links between some past board members and a designated terrorist organisation, the PFLP. We would like to clarify that we did not intend to suggest that the organisation has close current links, or provides any financial or material support to any terrorist organisation.” 

What has been the reaction from the international community to the designation?

The designation has sparked a major outcry from a great diversity of voices internationally. Manu Pineda, chair of the European Parliament, expressed his “full support” for the work of the targeted groups, adding: “This is the last step in a campaign to delegitimise Palestinian human rights organisations and civil society. Human rights defenders have long been subjected to detentions, raids in their offices, and other attacks on their work by the Israeli occupation authorities, but the repercussions of this new declaration can have an extremely damaging impact on Palestine's civil society.”

The US State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed cautious but pointed criticism (“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance”). Meanwhile, a number of US Members of Congress have spoken out vocally, including but not limited to Rep. Mark Pocan, Rep. Betty McCollum, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Chuy Garcia, and Rep. Andre Carson.

The UN Human Rights office has declared that “Counter-terrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work” and that “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.” A group of 17 UN human rights experts (UN Special Rapporteurs) issued a powerful statement condeming the designation, underscoring that “This designation is a frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere...Silencing their voices is not what a democracy adhering to well-accepted human rights and humanitarian standards would do. We call upon the international community to defend the defenders.”

International human rights organizations have uniformly condemned the Israeli government’s action. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued a strong joint statement condemning it as a “brazen attack on human rights.” Jewish Voice for Peace has initiated an action alert, stating that “This latest move from the Israeli government is an attack on all Palestinian rights and an obvious attempt to evade accountability by targeting the organizations that are most effectively exposing Israeli apartheid at the United Nations and in U.S. Congress.” US Campaign for Palestinian Rights has put together an online action guide, emphasizing that “This strategy is textbook repression, which apartheid Israel is employing to intimidate and silence Palestinian human rights defenders who dare to hold it accountable for its crimes.”

Inside Israel, 24 Israeli human rights groups have signed onto a strongly worded front page ad in Haaretz newspaper (October 25) calling the terrorism designation “a draconian measure that criminalizes critical human rights work. Documentation, advocacy, and legal aid are fundamental activities for the protection of human rights worldwide. Criminalizing such work is an act of cowardice, characteristic of repressive authoritarian regimes. Civil society and human rights defenders must be protected. We stand in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues, and call on members of the Israeli government and the international community to oppose this decision unequivocally.”

These are but a sampling of responses to the designation that continue to multiply as additional voices from across the world join in.

Why is it urgent to take a stand now?

“The shameful declaration says nothing about these organizations – but speaks volumes about the violence, brutality and arrogance the Israeli regime has been routinely employing against Palestinians for decades,” writes Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Israeli human rights group B’tselem in an emailed message. “Over the years, Israel has consistently framed any Palestinian move that was not a surrender to apartheid and occupation as ‘terrorism.’ Appealing to the International Criminal Court? Legal terrorism. Enlisting the UN? Diplomatic terrorism. Calling for a consumer boycott? Financial terrorism. Protesting? Popular terrorism.”

By clamping down on Palestinian civil society organizations even as it accelerates its illegal settlements and colonization of Palestinian land and water, the Israeli government is desperately attempting to wipe out all opposition. But Palestinian people have shown that they will continue to stand up for justice and freedom with courage and steadfastness. In response, the international community has a responsibility to show our support and solidarity.