Outcry as Israel labels Palestinian rights groups ‘terrorists’

The designation effectively outlaws the activities of leading six groups, subjecting their members to raids and arrest.

Palestinian child
Amnesty and HRW says the 'appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement' [File: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images]

Israel has issued a military order designating six prominent Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organisations”, in a move swiftly condemned by the Palestinian Authority, rights groups, and the United Nations.

The Israeli Ministry of Defence claimed on Friday that the groups were linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a left-wing movement with a political party, as well as an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.

The ministry said the humanitarian groups “constitute a network of organisations active undercover on the international front on behalf of the Popular Front.” They are “controlled by senior leaders” of the PFLP and employ its members, including some who had “participated in terror activity”, it said.

It also accused the groups of serving as a “central source” of financing for the PFLP and of having received “large sums of money from European countries and international organisations,” without elaborating.

The designated groups include Al-Haq, a human rights group founded in 1979, the Addameer rights group, Defence for Children International-Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

The PA condemned what it said was an “unhinged assault” on Palestinian civil society.

“This fallacious and libellous slander is a strategic assault on Palestinian civil society and the Palestinian people’s fundamental right to oppose Israel’s illegal occupation and expose its continuing crimes,” it said.

The US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said his office had not been given advance warning of the designation.

“We will be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for the designation,” Price said on a telephone briefing with reporters in Washington.

“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” he said.

‘Appalling and unjust’

In a joint statement, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch noted that the military order “effectively outlaws” the activities of the six groups.

As a consequence, Israeli security forces are authorised to close the groups’ offices, seize their assets and arrest and jail their staff members. Funding or even publicly expressing support for their activities is also prohibited.

“This appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement,” Amnesty and HRW said.

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at HRW, told Al Jazeera that Israel’s move was part of a “systematic assault on human rights advocacy”.

“I think this is a reaction to the Israeli government’s recognition that there is growing awareness about their grave abuses, including crimes against humanity, apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians,” Shakir said.

“It’s really an alarming development and it’s a test of the international community’s resolve to protect human rights defenders in the face of sustained assault.”

Shakir, who now resides in Jordan, said he was the target of punitive action when he was deported by Israel two years ago for his work in documenting human rights abuses.

The United Nations Human Rights Office in the Palestinian territories said it was “alarmed” at the announcement.

“Counter-terrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work,” it said, adding that some of the reasons given appeared vague or irrelevant.

“These designations are the latest development in a long, stigmatising campaign against these and other organisations, damaging their ability to deliver on their crucial work.”

Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said in a tweet that she was alarmed by the news.

Shawaan Jabareen, who heads one of the now-outlawed groups, Al-Haq, told the AFP news agency that the designation was a “political decision” that had nothing to do with security matters but was aimed at “stopping the work of these organisations”.

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has called the government’s declaration “an act characteristic of totalitarian regimes, with the clear purpose of shutting down these organisations”.

“B’Tselem stands in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues, is proud of our joint work over the years – and is steadfast to continue so,” it said.

Hagai El-Ad, the organisation’s executive director, tweeted in support of Jabareen.

The Adalah Justice Project, a Palestinian advocacy organisation based in the US, said it was concerned for the safety of those working for the designated organisations.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies