October 7 survivors are suing pro-Palestinian groups. But what is the aim?

Experts fear lawsuits against pro-Palestine student groups could stifle free speech and deplete resources for activism.

Police arrest a pro-Palestinian protester at USC campus in Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 24, 2024, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Reuters TV REFILE - CORRECTING DATE FROM "APRIL 25" TO "APRIL 24" AND CREDIT FROM "VIDEO OBTAINED BY REUTERS" TO "REUTERS TV
Police arrest a pro-Palestinian protester at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles on April 24, 2024 [Reuters TV]

Nine survivors of the October 7 attacks on southern Israel have filed a civil suit against pro-Palestinian groups in the United States, alleging their advocacy work on college campuses constitutes “material support” for “terrorism”.

But the defendants have pushed back, warning that the case is part of a pattern of legal attacks meant to put pro-Palestinian groups on the defensive and curtail free speech at US universities.

“It is absolutely a threat to free speech, and it’s a threat to free speech on any front, on any issue, not just on Palestine,” said Christina Jump, a lawyer for American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), one of the two defendants in the case.

The lawsuit, filed on May 1 in a federal court in Virginia, describes how the nine plaintiffs dodged gunfire and lost loved ones during the October 7 attacks, led by the Palestinian group Hamas.

It then alleges that AMP and another campus group, National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP), acted as “Hamas’s propaganda division”, targeting US students.

The lawsuit says that AMP and NSJP worked to “recruit uninformed, misguided and impressionable college students to serve as foot soldiers for Hamas on campus and beyond”.

The result, it argues, was “mental anguish and pain and suffering” for the nine survivors. But pro-Palestinian groups and free-speech advocates fear lawsuits like this one seek to silence student protesters by equating nonviolent political activity with “terrorism”.

“There are legal outfits, whether set up as nonprofit or quasi-governmental organisations or private firms, who engage in the use of legal claims to intimidate political opponents,” said Yousef Munayyer, head of the Israel-Palestine programme at the Arab Center Washington DC, a think tank.

“We see this in a lot of different contexts but especially in Israel-Palestine, where it has become part of a strategy aimed at silencing dissent.”

Debate over campus speech

The October 7 attacks killed an estimated 1,139 people, with nearly 250 more taken captive.

In response, Israel launched a war in Gaza, bombing the narrow Palestinian enclave and cutting off critical supplies like food and water.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s assault, many of them women and children, with human rights experts warning of a “risk of genocide”. The United Nations has also declared a “full-blown famine” in parts of Gaza, sparked by Israel’s siege and efforts to block humanitarian aid.

College campuses have been central to the antiwar movement. Schools like Columbia University in New York have seen students erect encampments and occupy buildings to raise awareness for the plight of Palestinians.

A study by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a group that collects data on protests and political violence around the world, found that 97 percent of the college protests have been peaceful.

But the backlash has been intense. Some pro-Israel groups and elected officials have called on universities to use a hard hand against pro-Palestine protestors in the name of combatting anti-Semitism.

Universities like Columbia have responded by calling in police, resulting in the arrests of thousands of protesters across the country. Other students have been suspended or denied diplomas for their participation in the protests.

In at least one case at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), demonstrators were physically attacked with metal pipes and mace by pro-Israel counterprotesters as police largely stood by.

Aaron Terr, the director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), said the backlash has, in some cases, amounted to censorship.

“Free speech on campus has really taken a pounding over the last few months,” Terr told Al Jazeera. “The majority of the cases of censorship we’ve seen have involved pro-Palestine individuals, although there are some cases on the pro-Israel side as well.”

String of lawsuits

Advocates also see this month’s lawsuit as part of a broader trend of using the legal system to stifle media and advocacy perceived as critical of Israel. The case is the latest in a series of lawsuits brought by pro-Israel groups in recent months.

In March, survivors of October 7 sued an American nonprofit that supports the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), alleging complicity in the deadly attack.

Israel, however, has failed to provide evidence that UNRWA was involved, and an independent investigation cast further doubt on those allegations.

Then, in April, relatives of October 7 victims petitioned the court system in Canada to block the country’s government from restoring funding to UNRWA, which provides critical aid to Gaza.

Another federal lawsuit, filed earlier this year, took aim at a journalism organisation: The Associated Press (AP). It claimed The Associated Press hired members of Hamas as freelancers in its news-gathering activities.

The same organisation that sued The Associated Press is also involved in May’s case against AMP and NSJP: the Jewish National Advocacy Center (JNAC). The Associated Press has called the complaint against it “baseless”.

The Jewish National Advocacy Center has claimed that the organisations named as defendants in its lawsuits have ties to Hamas.

“This case is very simple: When someone tells you they are aiding and abetting terrorists — believe them,” Mark Goldfeder, the centre’s director, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit against AMP and the NSJP.

Goldfeder did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera regarding the May lawsuit or the case against The Associated Press.

But Jump, the lawyer for AMP, said the case against her organisation contained misrepresentations and falsehoods.

She said AMP operates entirely within the US — not, as the lawsuit indicates, in conjunction with foreign entities like Hamas. She also added that the NSJP is not a subsidiary of AMP, as the lawsuit claims.

“It’s a lot of talking points, a lot of buzzwords, a lot of generalisations and leaps,” Jump said of the lawsuit.

‘Stress and intimidation’

Some critics believe certain pro-Palestinian groups should be scrutinised for the content of their messaging — although they too dismiss the recent lawsuit as overly broad.

Many pro-Palestinian organisations have called for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the support for Israel’s decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories. The NSJP has voiced support for armed Palestinian groups, which they see as a legitimate form of resistance.

The NSJP, for instance, issued a document in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, calling the violence “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance”.

Dov Waxman, the director of the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA, said he believes the group’s rhetoric seemed to “implicitly support Hamas”.

That, in turn, could alienate others who are critical of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, he added.

“I think that SJP deserves to be condemned for its expression of support for terrorism,” Waxman said in an email. But he drew a distinction between free speech and what was legally actionable.

“Rhetorical support for terrorism — though it is appalling — is not the same as material support for terrorism,” he explained. “In the United States, the former is protected speech; the latter is a crime.”

Munayyer, the analyst at the Arab Center, said that claims of links between pro-Palestinian advocacy groups and “terrorism” often fall apart under scrutiny. But he believes that focusing on the shortcomings of the cases misses the point.

“The purpose of these efforts is to put the targets on the defensive, have them expend time, energy and resources in a legal defence that they could otherwise be using to do activism,” he said.

“Reputational damage — putting stress and intimidation on the organisations — is the point. It’s not really to win.”

Source: Al Jazeera