I Studied With a Palestinian “Terrorist” Organization. This Is What I Learned.

From Russia to Saudi Arabia and China, authoritarian states are criminalizing human rights work in the guise of a “war on terror.” Terrorism has become the magic label used by fascist governments to suppress dissent. In fact, a United Nations mandate was created to combat this very problem.

Now imagine a self-proclaimed “democratic” government like the U.S. declares that the ACLU, the NAACP and the SPLC are all outlawed by our government and branded as “terrorist” organizations. No evidence to support the claims is ever produced and the organizations are not given an opportunity to defend themselves against the baseless allegations. The situation sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

This is the dilemma that Palestinian civil society has been facing for decades, and it has recently been escalated by an Israeli order designating six of the major human rights organizations in Palestine as terrorist organizations based on secret evidence.

I had the opportunity to visit and study with one of the six designated organizations through the Al-Haq Applied International Law summer program. During my time in the Al-Haq program, I learned about the legal frameworks and strategies used to challenge international law violations in Palestine, heard from Palestinian civil society organizations and visited victims of Israel’s human rights abuses. I also learned about the history of Al-Haq and heard directly from staff about how the designations affected them and made their futures uncertain.

The Beginning of the Baseless “Terrorism” Designations

On March 3, 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it would investigate war crimes that Israel had committed in the occupied Palestinian territory since 2014. One organization that played a key role in spurring this investigation by documenting Israel’s human rights violations and building international support was Al-Haq.

On October 22, 2021, Israel issued an order designating Al-Haq — along with five other Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations — as “terrorist” organizations. The other organizations were Addameer Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association, Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCIP), the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees. These groups work directly with Palestinian women and girls, children, low-income families, prisoners, and civil society activists as they provide direct services and monitor human rights abuses.

The Israeli government did not provide the designated organizations with any evidence supporting its decision, nor were they provided any opportunity for a hearing to dispute the allegations, in violation of the procedural rights guarantees under international law. On April 22, 2022, the American Bar Association issued a letter to the Israeli prime minister demanding that, at the very least, the basis for the designations be disclosed to the parties or their counsel. The letter cites fundamental legal concepts such as the rights to a presumption of innocence, equality of arms, and an impartial and independent tribunal.

History of Al-Haq

Founded in 1979, Al-Haq, Arabic for “the Truth,” was the first Palestinian human rights organization and is an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva. Its mission is to use the rule of law to resist the Israeli occupation. Notably, since its inception, Al-Haq has maintained itself as a politically independent organization.

When the International Criminal Court formed in 2002, Al-Haq immediately began exploring ways in which that new body could seek justice for violations of Palestinians’ human rights. Palestinian organizations are one of the only points of access the ICC has to do the requisite documentation of the human rights violations committed in Palestine, since Israel does not allow any investigative body to access the occupied territory. Al-Haq’s files already contained tens of thousands of detailed testimonies and affidavits documenting decades of Israeli abuses. In April 2020, Al-Haq and three other Palestinian human rights organizations jointly submitted to the ICC detailed case files outlining war crimes committed by Israel in the West Bank and during its attacks on Gaza. These case files spurred the ICC to action under its then-Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

Over the past two decades, Al-Haq and other organizations have documented and demonstrated how the situation in Palestine and Israel qualifies as apartheid according to international legal definitions of that term. The work of Palestinian organizations such as Al-Haq has gained increasing acceptance, even within Israel. Israeli groups like B’Tselem and Yesh Din, as well as international groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, also now describe the situation as apartheid. Al-Haq has fundamentally shifted international discourse about Palestine while bringing into focus ongoing Israeli human rights abuses.

Effects of Designations

The chilling effect that the 2021 terrorist designations have had, particularly in deterring funders, seems to be the Israeli government’s objective at this stage. A high-ranking Israeli security official admitted that “the main objective of labeling them as terrorist organizations was to hamper their fundraising.” On November 4, 2021, a joint investigation from The Intercept got hold of a “secret dossier,” which Israel had loudly alleged contained evidence against Palestinian organizations. Not only did the investigation reveal that the vaunted dossier “did not provide a single piece of evidence” for labelling the Palestinian organizations as terroristic, but the investigation further confirmed that Israel had hoped its “secret dossier” would convince European governments to stop funding these organizations. This effort failed in the European Union as nine EU states have now rejected the designations.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that these designations were a manipulation and misuse of anti-terror laws at the international level. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip stated that “the information presented by Israel fails to substantiate its accusations against the groups.”

The EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF recently concluded an audit on Al-Haq that found no evidence of fraud or suspicions of irregularities. The audit’s finding came after funding was suspended for the organization for over a year.

But the interference and obstruction doesn’t stop at attempts to hamper funding. Through office raids, surveillance and restrictions on travel, Israeli authorities have used the designations to harass and intimidate human rights defenders who support or work with these organizations.

For Ubai Al-Aboudi, executive director at Bisan, this has meant Israeli authorities detaining him without charges, raiding the Bisan office and banning him from traveling to a UN meeting concerning the destructive effects of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian economy. Despite being an American citizen, Al-Aboudi was also banned from traveling to the U.S. to attend a human rights conference. His phone, along with phones belonging to five other colleagues associated with the designated organizations, were also found to be hacked with Israeli Pegasus spyware. Al-Aboudi’s experience is part of an expanding set of repression efforts tied to, and facilitated by, terrorism designations.

“It is psychological torture to me when I know that my colleagues are getting arrested. I try not to think about the fact that I could get arrested for my work,” Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer at Addameer, told Truthout. “Every day I think, I hope, today is not the day they lock me up and take me away. Every time I travel through the airport, I am forced to live in constant anxiety. But at the end of the day, I put that aside. We try our best to remember the people that we serve. The work that we do is important work — our main priority is the protection of our people.”

Wesam Ahmad, director of the Al-Haq Center for Applied International Law, echoed this sentiment. “The designations also aim to create a sense of anxiety among us. Every time I try to travel, I don’t know if I will be turned back, detained for questioning, or worse,” Ahmad told Truthout. “However, … we continue with our work, otherwise they win.”

Indeed, at any moment, Israeli authorities could freeze all of the organizations’ bank accounts, shut down the offices, and leave all of the staff without work. The worst-case scenario coming out of these designations is, of course, prosecution of the staff and/or their families.

Unfortunately, Israel is already experimenting with this next step. Salah Hammouri is a Palestinian and French citizen, human rights defender and lawyer for the designated organization Addameer. In 2016, Hammouri’s pregnant wife was detained and deported. In March 2022, Hammouri was placed in administrative detention. Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the Israeli military to hold prisoners indefinitely on secret information arbitrarily, without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. This process can lead to indefinite detention if the administrative detention order is constantly renewed, as is currently being done to Bashir Khairi, a Palestinian lawyer who served as legal adviser to several Palestinian civil society organizations.

After human rights organizations submitted a memo to the ICC in May 2022 on behalf of Hammouri, detailing the human rights abuses perpetrated on him and his family, Israeli authorities renewed the administrative detention order on him. Recently, other lawyers for the organizations received a threatening letter from the Israeli defense minister, indicating future prosecution.

What I Learned

Despite these ever-present fears looming in the background of its work, Al-Haq continues to inspire hope. In my time within the organization’s summer program, I was surprised to feel an overwhelming sense of impending victory and reckoning. The designations are proof of the organizations’ growing influence and collective impact. “Israel has come to realize that civic space, which they did not give much attention to as they didn’t think could pose a significant risk, has started to shift — and thus might become a potential long-term risk to Israel’s international impunity,” Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, told Truthout. “What has been happening in recent years is that the international narrative has been changing. This is in large part due to civil society in Israel/Palestine connecting with progressive groups internationally and making Palestinian freedom an intersectional cause of global significance. The narrative change is gaining traction, and Israel is trying to shut this down.”

Israel can no longer keep up a facade of democracy, and is now resorting to the common tactic of fascist governments of stifling dissent through criminalization and intimidation. “They try to dehumanize you,” observed Ubai Al-Aboudi of Bisan. “This is a commonality of all repressive systems: They stigmatize us as terrorists, as violent and irrational. They are afraid when we are trying to transfer our stories and connect to those globally.”

How the international community responds to these attacks on human rights defenders is crucial to the future of our civilization. Palestine is the litmus test for international law. What we do in this context represents the standard of what will be accepted and replicated elsewhere. For years, Al-Haq has warned that such shrinking space at the international level will not be exclusive to Palestinian civil society. In fact, if governments — and, in this context, occupying powers — will be allowed to intervene, influence and even outlaw civil society organizations under baseless allegations of terrorism, then we can only expect an increasingly dystopian future ahead for the international human rights movement as a whole.

So, what can we do to fight back?

We can resist the designator’s desired chill by engaging with these organizations, attending their webinars and events. We can visit the region and learn more about their work in person, study with them and work with them. We can cite their work within articles and human rights reports.

Let’s join and promote the campaigns to release human rights lawyers Salah Hammouri and Bashir Khairi, and put pressure on Israel to totally revoke the overtly political and unsubstantiated terrorist designations. We can do that by:

  • Calling on the U.S. State Department to follow the EU’s lead and utterly and unequivocally condemn Israel’s designation.

  • Calling on the U.S. Department of Treasury to publish guidance for financial institutions that instructs them to dismiss as inapplicable or unreliable Israel’s designations.

  • Calling on members of Congress, inviting them to visit the region in order to meet with the organizations and submit testimony on their work.

  • Supporting existing efforts in Congress: Representatives Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) and Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) each issued statements calling for Israel to reverse the designations. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D- Massachusetts) is leading an important letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines requesting an inter-agency briefing to discuss these designations and the secret evidence distributed by the Israeli government. Ask your member of Congress to join Representative Pressley on this important letter.

The “terrorist” designations have had real and material effects, and this is only the beginning. If nothing is done, Israel will continue to escalate these attacks. The human rights defenders that staff these organizations could face indefinite arbitrary detention, like their colleagues Salah Hammouri and Bashir Khairi are currently enduring. Organizations like Al-Haq could be facing complete dissolution and decades of their work could be destroyed.

We must act now against Israel’s attempts to shrink civic space for human rights organizations and to silence human rights defenders. This is a time when it is particularly important to show solidarity with the designated organizations. Collective power can only be suppressed for so long — ultimately, the truth prevails.