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US Anti-Terror Law Has Stigmatized Palestinians as “Terrorists” Since 1969

A new report outlines how Palestinian dehumanization is foundational to decades of US anti-terrorism law.

Locals conduct search and rescue operations among the rubble of buildings destroyed by an Israeli attack on Nuseirat camp in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on February 20, 2024.

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The word “terrorism” first appeared in a U.S. federal law in 1969. Introduced by a Zionist congressman from New York who claimed “terrorists” were training children in refugee camps for the Palestinians forced from their homes by Israel, the provision banned U.S. humanitarian aid from benefiting any refugee who received military training from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or “has engaged in any act of terror.”

While the law did not define “terrorism,” it established a decades-long pattern of stigmatizing Palestinians — and especially refugees — as “terrorists,” according to a new policy analysis from Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Israel had responded to the revival of the Palestinian national movement in 1967 by characterizing armed resistance to displacement as “international terrorism,” and the racist trope of Palestinian refugee children as brainwashed killers was born. Later, the first government-issued terrorism blacklist would be championed in Congress by Israel’s supporters and overwhelmingly used to target governments viewed as supporters of a liberated Palestine.

Fast forward to 2024. UNRWA, the same United Nations refugee aid agency targeted by the 1969 law, is once again under fire for alleged connections to “terrorists.” UNRWA is still the major administrator of the humanitarian aid in Gaza, where an Israeli campaign of bombardment and mass displacement in retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attacks has left more than 29,000 people dead and a majority of the population homeless in horrific conditions.

Israel recently accused a small number of UNWRA employees of participating in the October 7 attacks but provided little evidence. UNWRA immediately fired the employees and launched an internal investigation, but the U.S. and several other wealthy nations suspended support for UNWRA while aid for the desperate people starving and dying in Gaza slows to a trickle.

A foreign policy that denies Palestinian humanity is foundational to decades of U.S. anti-terrorism law and is once again being weaponized by the Israel lobby against nonviolent antiwar and Palestine liberation activists across the U.S., according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. Since the word “terrorism” first appeared in federal legislation in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, anti-terrorism statutes have undermined free speech rights by criminalizing opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, including the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“Understanding the ways that Israel and its allies have shaped anti-terrorism laws is essential to challenging their use today as a weapon to shut down both humanitarian lifelines to Gaza in furtherance of this genocide, and the movement in the U.S. that is trying to stop it,” said Dima Khalidi, director of the U.S.-based legal aid group Palestine Legal, in a statement.

The Center for Constitutional Rights previously filed a federal lawsuit against the Biden administration for failing to prevent genocide in Gaza. While a federal court in California dismissed the case on a jurisdictional technicality, the judge agreed with the International Court of Justice that Israel’s siege and destruction of Gaza “plausibly falls within the international prohibition against genocide” after hearing testimony from experts and Palestinian victims.

The U.S. court urged the Biden administration to reconsider its “unflagging support” for the war. Israel flatly denies the allegations, arguing that its only goal is to eradicate its enemy, Hamas, which continues to hold about 100 Israelis hostage in hopes of striking a deal to free Palestinian political prisoners in an exchange.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military is annihilating life in Gaza with U.S. weapons and resources. From President Joe Biden’s unconditional support for Israel to the anti-Muslim animus embedded in President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” modern U.S. policy toward the Middle East is rooted in a long-standing hostility toward the Palestinian cause in the form of a growing body of anti-terrorism law. Here’s a consolidated timeline from Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights’ analysis:

  • The first government-issued terrorism blacklist was championed by Israel’s supporters in Congress and has been overwhelmingly used to pressure governments accused of supporting Palestinian resistance.
  • The first and only time Congress has labeled a nonstate group a terrorist organization was in a 1987 law aimed at the Palestine Liberation Organization.
  • The first immigration law [passed in 1990] to include terrorism as a basis for exclusion and deportation singled out the PLO in its definition of terrorist activity.
  • The first law [passed in 1992] authorizing private terrorism lawsuits was drafted to target the PLO and has been heavily used by dual citizens of Israel and the United States.
  • The first financial sanctions blacklist of terrorist organizations was created in response to Israeli demands to crack down on Hamas and other Palestinian factions.
  • Although the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by domestic extremists, the anti-terrorism provisions passed in its wake — including the material support statute — targeted only foreign groups, with Palestinian organizations being a primary concern.

The Palestine Liberation Organization is an interesting case. Founded in 1964, the PLO is an umbrella group that for decades embodied the Palestinian national movement and was broadly seen Palestine’s representative on the international stage.

However, in 1987, the PLO also became the first and only nonstate actor to be declared an “terrorist organization” in a law passed by Congress after a rogue faction known as the Palestine Liberation Front killed a U.S. citizen during a 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship. The law directed the U.S. government to remove the PLO’s observer mission from the offices of the United Nations, an effort only stymied by international outcry and legal intervention.

For much of the 1990s, former PLO leader Yasser Arafat was the architect for the Palestinian side of the U.S.-backed peace negotiations with Israel. “Terrorist” designations are typically made by the State Department, which removed the PLO from its nonstate “terrorist” list in 1993 after Arafat renounced violence and began a decade of peace negotiations that fell apart in the early 2000s.

While Arafat worked for peace, he was also criticized for failing to stop acts of violent resistance by militant factions perceived to fall under the PLO umbrella. However, Israeli state violence is a fact of everyday life for thousands of Palestinians living in refugee camps and occupied territories.

While not representative of the Palestinian population and diaspora, the armed wing of Hamas and smaller militant groups are currently waging guerrilla resistance against Israel, a much more powerful foe. Hamas is broadly seen as engaging in terrorism when its fighters attacked and abducted civilians during the “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation on October 7.

Israel retaliated by terrorizing the entire population of Gaza, leaving tens of thousands of civilians injured or dead, and entire communities reduced to rubble. Israeli propaganda exploits the trope of the Palestinian “terrorist” to justify the slaughter in Gaza as well as the mass incarceration of Palestinians accused of “supporting terrorism,” a broad charge often levied against young men and teenagers who spend years in jail for attending street protests and throwing stones.

Back in the U.S., the foreign policy establishment — along with the Israel lobby and its allies in media — instrumentalizes Islamophobia and attempts to redefine “antisemitism” in order to defuse opposition to Israeli military operations, according to human rights scholars. By conflating criticism of Israel with “antisemitism” and the fight for Palestinian rights with support for “terrorism” and Hamas, right-wing and Zionist groups leverage anti-terrorism and anti-boycott laws in the U.S. to shut down campus protests and punish peaceful BDS activists.

Many Arab and Muslim Americans see a double standard. For example, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) — the only Palestinian American in Congress — was censured by her colleagues for sharing a video of Palestinian rights activists at a protest and agreeing with international human rights groups that many Palestinians live under apartheid conditions imposed by Israel.

Would another member of Congress face such a rebuke and public shaming for calling out human rights abuses in a Muslim country? Probably not. But take a look at just about any corner of social media, and you’ll find bigots claiming that Tlaib is not a peaceful lawmaker but a “terrorist.”

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