Israel's long battle against Palestinian civil society

Political and social mural paintings on the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem on 10 April 2014. [Getty]
8 min read
01 November, 2021
Analysis: Palestinian civil society plays a fundamental role in documenting Israel's military occupation, empowering local communities, and advocating for Palestinian rights. Israel has long viewed it as a threat.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz’ military order to designate six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organisations” has stirred up a storm of condemnations.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the decision “an attack on human rights defenders and freedom of expression, and should be immediately revoked”.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), who worked closely with the targeted organisations, said in a joint statement that “the decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner”.

Twenty Israeli human rights NGOs, led by B’Tselem, jointly denounced the decision as “not merely declarative, but a characteristic act of totalitarian regimes”.

"The role played by Palestine's civil society organisations, especially human rights groups, is seen by the Israeli state as counteractive to its interests in the occupied territories and globally"

The Palestinian Authority (PA) called it an “unhinged assault” on Palestinian civil society meant to deny Palestinians the right to “oppose Israels illegal occupation and expose its continuing crimes.”

As outrageous as it might be, Gantz’ decision is nonetheless contextual. It fits Israel’s meta definition of “terrorism” and re-emphasises the grim reality of Palestine’s civil society under military occupation.

Meta definition of terrorism

“Terrorism,” according to the US Department of State, is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” The UN special rapporteur, Martin Scheinin, noted in his 2007 report on the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel that counter-terrorism “should be restricted to the suppression and criminalisation of acts of deadly or otherwise serious physical violence against civilians”.

A clear definition of terrorism entails a commitment to some norms of consistency; as such, it gives rise to counter-terrorism practices in line with the norms and rules of international law and proportionate to the assumed act of terrorism.

The Israeli state’s conceptualisation of terrorism, however, is fluid and comprehensive. It disregards the conflict power asymmetry and the causal relation between Israel’s occupation and Palestinian anti-occupation activism, violent or otherwise, against civilians or soldiers alike.

Former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has long implied that the disapproval of Israels policies stems from anti-Semitism and the hatred of Israel being the default mode in the region.

Likewise, the Israeli Foreign Ministrys website describes the relationship between Palestinian “terrorism” and the occupation as “historically flawed,” arguing that “Palestinian terrorism” existed long before the 1967 War, since “…the beginning of the renewed Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel over a century ago”.

This rationale suggests that resolving the conflict begins by ending Palestinians’ “irrational hostility”, not by ending the occupation that created that hostility. It frames most Palestinian dissidence against Israel’s policies as unjustified or anti-Semitic, consequentially as “acts of terrorism.”

Even with this comprehensive conceptualisation of terrorism, labelling six Palestinian rights NGOs as “terrorist organisations” seems to have crossed the line.

Israel separation wall - Getty
Palestinian civil society plays a key role in documenting Israeli human rights violations. [Getty]

Shawan Jabarin, the head of Al-Haq - Palestine’s oldest human rights organisation and one of the newly outlawed organisations - said that the Israeli designation was surprising and that the groups had not been given a heads up.

US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price denied that Israel gave the US a heads up about the [then] forthcoming designations. Even Israeli Ynet News described the step as a “surprise move.”

Within the Israeli government coalition, criticisms were fired at Gantz. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing party Meretz, warned on Israel’s Channel 13 of the “political, diplomatic, and human rights consequences” of the decision. He demanded clear evidence that the organisations were involved in terror activities.

Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am, the only Arab party in the coalition, remained silent on the matter.

Armed with the State Prosecutor Amit Aisman’s support, Gantz refused to back down. He argued that Israel’s internal security, Shin Bet, presented “extensive and convincing” evidence linking the six organisations to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The evidence has not been presented.

"Since 1967, Israel has banned over 400 local and international Palestinian organisations and political parties as being 'unlawful' or 'hostile'"

Palestinian civil society as punishable dissidence

The step might be surprising, but it is by no means in contradiction with Israel’s general policies toward Palestinian civil society since 1948.

Palestinian civil society emerged in the absence of a state, sovereignty, or national independence, and took on the socio-political character of the historical eras in which it formed.

In the three decades preceding the 1948 Nakba, Palestinian nationalism had evolved from community farmers and religious groups to political parties and social clubs to resist illegal Jewish immigration and the British Mandate.

From 1948 to 1965, Palestinian civil society inherited the disorientation and political stagnation that characterised the era and was therefore ineffective. The newly displaced Palestinians, however, were permitted to join trade unions or political parties in their host countries - mainly Jordan, Syria, and Iraq - provided they did not clash with the local governments’ agendas. Egypt banned civil society groups in the Gaza Strip during that period.

From 1965 onwards, the inception of the PLO followed by Israel’s 1967 occupation of the rest of historic Palestine, reinvigorated Palestinian nationalism and, with it, civil society. In the 1970s, groups began to focus on advocacy and the delivery of services, and during the First Intifada (1987-93) were instrumental in fostering international solidarity with Palestine.

Maale Adumim settlement
Over 600,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, in violation of international law. [Getty]

Since Oslo in the mid-1990s, the civil society sector has grown significantly and its role has diversified. The Palestinian Authority’s limitations made local groups more influential, acting as key players in state-building efforts.

Today, these organisations are amongst the best-funded globally, obtaining most of their funding from donor states and playing a key role in social and economic development in the 1967-occupied territories. They increasingly fill the gap in government provision, as well as empowering local communities.

That is, despite the PA’s scrutiny and funding being sometimes contingent upon adhering to the donors’ political and social agendas.

The Palestinian civil sector, in other words, is the direct product of Palestinian historical and socio-political circumstances. It reflects the complexities and challenges faced by Palestinians, thus, representing an extension of the Palestinian national consciousness.

Because of that, the role played by Palestine’s civil society organisations, especially human rights groups, is seen by the Israeli state as counteractive to its interests in the occupied territories and globally. Much of the work is deemed dissidence on par with other Palestinian forms of anti-occupation activities and, therefore, subject to Israel’s counter-terrorism procedures. 

Israel’s new counter-terrorism law in 2016 allows the authorities to use their extensive powers over organisations and residents of the occupied Palestinian territories. They can block funds for these organisations and detain their workers or anyone providing professional or moral support for them, as well as seize and confiscate equipment and documents.

Ultimately, the Israeli army and police took it as a matter of operational and tactical necessity to routinely storm Palestinian NGOs in the occupied West Bank, arresting their employees, confiscating their content, and shutting them down temporarily or permanently.

"Israel's new counter-terrorism law in 2016 allows the authorities to use their extensive powers over organisations and residents of the occupied Palestinian territories. They can block funds for these organisations and detain their workers or anyone providing professional or moral support"

In 2002, 2012, and 2019, Israeli forces stormed Addameer’s premises in Ramallah - currently one of the six outlawed NGOs - arrested staff members, destroyed filing cabinets, and confiscated computers and documents. The Israeli military said the NGOs were linked to the PFLP.

In June this year, the Israeli army shut down the Ramallah-based Health Work Committee for six months, citing security reasons for the closure.

Since 1967, Human Rights Watch noted, Israel has banned over 400 local and international Palestinian organisations and political parties as being “unlawful” or “hostile.” In occupied East Jerusalem, between 1967 and 2019, Israel shut down or listed as “possible closure” over 100 media and civil society organisations.

Among them is Bayt Al-Sharq (Orient House), Palestine’s prominent archival organisation, the former home of the Palestinian negotiation team, and previously the Jerusalem headquarters of the PLO. The organisation was closed in 2001 and, ever since, the closure has been automatically renewed every six months.

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Burying the evidence

Expanding the definition of terrorism to include Palestinian NGOs may be rooted in ideological convictions, but it is also aimed at achieving certain political objectives. Most significant of which is blocking the collection of data on Israel’s human rights violations and military activities in the occupied territories.

By using Israeli domestic criminal law against Palestinian organisations, Gantz may also be aiming to transcend the military rule governing the area in order to extend the Israeli state’s powers to the NGOs’ international donors and supporters. 

This comes on top of new legislation targeting international and local Israeli NGOs. Among them is Israel’s 2016 NGOs law, which burdens rights groups that criticise the government with onerous reporting requirements about foreign donations.

Internationally, the Israeli government coordinates with pro-Israel lobbying groups to wage defamation campaigns to label Palestinian and Jewish human rights organisations and their supporters as anti-Semitic or terror-affiliated.

Whatever the final goal, Gantz’ decision stands out as a significant shift in Israel’s policies targeting the Palestinian civil society sector and, more importantly, ushers a new age of Israeli impunity.

With the threat of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opening a probe into Israel’s war crimes, burying the evidence becomes ever more critical. 

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa