Israeli Raid on Seven Human Rights Groups Is Attack on Palestinian Civil Society

On August 18, Israel conducted armed raids in the occupied West Bank, ransacking and shuttering the offices of seven leading Palestinian human rights organizations. Three days later, the directors of two of those groups were summoned for interrogation by the Israeli Occupying Forces.

The raids began more than a week after the Israel Defense Forces had killed dozens of Palestinians, including 17 children, during airstrikes on Gaza.

Most of the Palestinian human rights groups that were ransacked on August 18 have been in Israel’s crosshairs since last October, when Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz baselessly declared that Israel had designated six of those groups under its 2016 Counter Terrorism Law as “terrorist organizations” — with links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a leftist Palestinian political party with a military wing. On November 3, 2021, the six groups were declared “unlawful associations” by the Israeli military commander in the occupied West Bank. But in the 10 months since the “terrorist” designations, the Israeli government has failed to provide competent evidence linking the six groups to the PFLP. A classified CIA report says it could not find any evidence to support the designations.

Israel’s Raids Pose “Existential Threat” to Palestinian Civil Society

The day after the Israeli raids, the six designated organizations issued a joint statement saying, “Israel’s unlawful and aggressive incursion poses an existential threat to Palestinian civil society. The attack seeks to dismantle crucial mechanisms that work to uphold human rights and end Israel’s settler colonial and apartheid regime, which systematically denies the Palestinian people their right to self-determination and the right of refugees to return.” The groups decried the “failure of the international community to take meaningful concrete actions to hold Israel accountable for designating the organizations as grave violations of international law.”

Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, said the raids constituted “an attack on the global human rights movement,” adding, “Palestinian civil society today faces an existential threat.”

“The raid on the seven Palestinian organizations’ offices — confiscating files and stealing computers and other equipment, breaking furniture and sealing the doors — is … a political message to the Palestinian Authority that the Israeli military commander is still the sovereign in the occupied Palestinian territory,” Sahar Francis, general director of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, one of the six designated groups, wrote in an email to Truthout.

“It sends a message as well to the EU countries who showed their support and decided to continue their relationship with the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that we do not care for your decision so we will implement our ‘terrorist’ designation,” Frances added.

Addameer provides legal support to and works to end Israel’s torture of Palestinian prisoners. The other designated organizations include Al-Haq, which works to hold Israel accountable in the International Criminal Court (ICC), Bisan Center for Research and Development (which creates youth programs and works for socioeconomic rights), Defense for Children International — Palestine (which exposes human rights violations against children held in Israeli military detention), Union of Agricultural Work Committees (which confronts illegal Israeli settlement expansion and land theft), and Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (which helps empower Palestinian women to become economically independent and combat gender discrimination).

The seventh group raided by Israeli forces is Health Work Committees (which provides health services and helps the poor and marginalized obtain social rights). Mazen Rantisi, head of the board of the Health Work Committees, said Israel’s closures of the groups were aimed at “destroying Palestinian society.”

Al-Haq called on the international community to implement “concrete measures, such as trade restrictions and arms embargoes, to ensure that Israel is held internationally responsible for its ongoing systematic inhumane acts of apartheid, including the persecution of Palestinian human rights defenders.” In addition, Al-Haq urged the States Parties and Prosecutor of the ICC to intervene and submit evidence to the Court.

Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which represents the six designated organizations, said, “After 10 European states [Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden] rejected Israel’s declarations of the groups as ‘terrorist organizations,’ pronounced in the absence of any evidence, Israel continues to persecute Palestinian human rights and civil society groups with the clear aim of silencing any criticism against it.”

Adalah noted, “The effort is led by a Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, suspected of committing war crimes, in an attempt to terrorize those who will testify against him and his actions,” adding that the groups’ appeals were dismissed with no opportunity to present a defense against the “secret evidence” on which their designations were based.

“This attack on Palestinian civil society is an attack on the entire Palestinian people and their right to self-determination,” Adalah stated. “Standing aside or staying silent constitutes active cooperation with the persecution and oppression of human rights defenders.”

B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, said in a statement that it stands in solidarity with the raided organizations. “We will continue to work with our colleagues in the Palestinian NGOs to dismantle the apartheid regime,” it pledged. “This regime considers violent repression a legitimate tool to control Palestinians, yet defines non-violent civil activity as terrorism.”

The foreign ministries of France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden issued a joint statement saying that “no substantial information” has been received from Israel that would justify designating the groups as “terrorist” organizations. The raids “are not acceptable,” they asserted in the statement. “We stand firm with NGOs to uphold the right to freedom of expression and association in the [occupied Palestinian territory].”

Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Middle East and North Africa stated, “These organizations have contributed enormously to human rights in the [occupied Palestinian territory] and across the globe, yet Israeli army boots trample all over their work. Amnesty International stands proudly in solidarity with our Palestinian partners and calls on all governments to condemn the Israeli army’s attack on Palestinian civil society.” Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians constitutes grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention (which amount to war crimes) and form part of the system of apartheid that oppresses the Palestinians, according to Amnesty International.

Biden Administration Refuses to Condemn the Raids

On July 18, 22 members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, urging them to “publicly reject” Israel’s terrorist designation of “the six prominent Palestinian human rights organizations” and “call on the Israeli government to reverse course.” Their plea was ignored.

The Biden administration also refuses to condemn Israel’s illegal raids. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the United States was “concerned” about the raids, stating in a press briefing that “independent civil society organizations in the West Bank and Israel must be able to continue their important work,” adding that civil society groups are “an integral element to thriving democracies the world over, and of course that applies here.” But, he stated, they are awaiting further information from Israel. Price said “Israel cites security concerns, Israel cites terrorist threats, we will be looking to the information that they provide to us, as we form our own judgment regarding these organizations and recent actions.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) said in a statement, “[The raids] are a direct result of the Biden administration’s complete failure to defend Palestinian human rights against racism and ethnic cleansing. The silence by our country is enabling more death and violence. We must hold Israel accountable.”

Progressive organizations in the United States urged the Biden administration to condemn Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian NGOs. The Center for Constitutional Rights said that Israel’s “physical assault” on the “prominent Palestinian civil society organizations must be urgently condemned by the Biden administration in the strongest terms, with concrete actions in response to the criminalization of human rights defenders to follow.”

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) expressed solidarity with the targeted groups, saying in a statement, “Silencing human rights organizations will put millions of Palestinians in even more danger.” JVP Executive Director Stephanie Fox said, “This egregious attack by the Israeli government on human rights defenders is the latest in decades of attacks on Palestinian civil society. Silencing and intimidating human rights organizations is a classic tactic of states trying to avoid accountability for their war crimes. We stand with, and will continue to work alongside, the brave groups that are working to support Palestinians and expose Israeli apartheid.”

JVP urged congressional action: “The Israeli government is openly and blatantly working to erase documentation and exposure of its violent apartheid regime. A regime that the U.S. funds with $3.8 billion every single year. We desperately need members of Congress to start speaking out NOW.”

“The U.S. must act immediately to stop Israel’s rapidly advancing attack on Palestinian civil society. … Much of the work of these organizations involves monitoring and documentation of human rights violations. This work is vital given Israel’s policy of prohibiting international investigative bodies from accessing the occupied territory,” the National Lawyers Guild wrote in a letter to Blinken on August 22. “The State Department must comprehensively review the entirety of Israel’s human rights records in light of the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits providing assistance to a country that engages in a systematic pattern of human rights violations.”

UN High Commissioner, Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Experts Decry Lack of Evidence for Designations

On February 23, Michele Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported that the terrorist designations “raise serious concerns” that they are “being used to halt, restrict or criminalize legitimate human rights and humanitarian work.” The designations, she wrote, “were based on vague and unsubstantiated reasons” and her office “was not aware of any credible evidence to support those accusations.” Bachelet said they “constitute an attack on human rights defenders and seriously inhibit freedoms of association, opinion and expression and the right to public participation.”

On March 30, the UN Human Rights Committee, which administers the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), said the use of secret evidence for the terrorist designations violates the right to a fair trial.

On April 25, 12 UN human rights experts called on the international community to: publicly conclude that Israel had not substantiated its terrorism allegations against the six groups; resume, continue and increase financial support to those groups; and demand that Israel retract the designations and cease harassment of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations.

As of August 18, when Israeli forces raided and shuttered the offices of the seven Palestinian human rights organizations, Israel still had not come forward with evidence to support its “terrorist” designations. If President Joe Biden told Israel to lift those designations, it would have to comply because the United States financially enables its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. But like his predecessors, Biden will continue the U.S.’s uncritical support for the brutal Israeli regime.