Demonizing Palestinian NGOs unjustly: a regressive step for Israel
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
In criminalizing law-abiding Palestinian NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations), Israel has gravely miscalculated. Managing an expanding occupation, Tel-Aviv leaders feel increasingly threatened by justice-seeking groups, which are driven by the power of local knowledge.
On October 22 Israel declared that six local Palestinian human rights agencies are classified as “terrorist organizations”.
The following agencies are targeted : Adhamir (Arabic, for The Conscience), Al-Haq (The Right), Defense for Children International, Bisan Center for Research and Development, The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work.
Reactions throughout the globe ranged from surprise to suspicion to condemnation. It is hard to fathom that an important cluster of organized Palestinian groups are being assaulted with politically motivated legislation.
Shockingly, human rights agencies advocating for land rights, drawing attention to violations of conscience, researching issues of development, standing up for women’s and children’s rights, and documenting illegal intervention in agricultural projects, are considered “terrorist threats” to Israel’s national security. Has it become a crime to organize against the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees and land theft?
To illustrate the point, consider Al-Haq, an organization I personally fully supported during my work at the World Council of Churches in the 1980s. I quote Raja Shehadeh, Al-Haq’s co-founder, describing his work in an interview with the editor of New York Review of Books. Shehadeh, a lawyer by profession, is one of the most creative, humane, political writers in the Arab world: Throughout the more than four decades since Al-Haq’s founding, the organization has continued to serve the objectives for which it was established: documenting and resisting through the law Israeli human rights violations, including the mistreatment of prisoners, the economic exploitation of the Occupied Territories’ natural resources, and the illegal settlement building. Click here for more info.
Jewish human rights observers were among the first to respond to this legislation overkill. Lara Friedman, of the Foundation of Middle East Peace (FMEP), reacted with alarm: With this terror designation, the Israeli government has escalated its longtime efforts to crush Palestinian organizations that document Israel’s ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights and seek to hold Israel accountable. FMEPdocumented commentaries of the six leaders of these organizations and the reactions of notable experts on the subject. Click here for more info.
University of Virginia historian Natasha Roth Rowland explained the dynamics underlying the issue and quoted good references: the designation of the six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist groups is not, for Israel, about “justice” or even security. Rather, as Anwar Mhajne and Amjad Iraqi noted in separate pieces last week, it is about domination, and about the decades-long campaign to dismantle Palestinian national identity and “eliminate Palestinian agency,” as Iraqi wrote.”
Instead of expressing firm disapproval, the US State Department has asked Israel to provide “evidence” for the alleged association of terror with the work of these groups. The European Union was markedly more critical than Washington. Brussels expressed skepticism and dismay; one European official described the “evidence” for the ban on these dedicated NGOs as “propaganda”.
On this issue the Monitor reports:
The move sparked criticism by the EU, the Palestinian Authority and international human rights organizations. The EU delegation to the Palestinian territories acknowledged financing activities by some of the groups, stating, “EU funding to Palestinian civil society organizations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution.” It also said past allegations about misuse of these funds were not substantiated. Click here former info
Israel has a long history of ignoring criticism from its closest Western allies. Jerusalem reckons that as long as Palestinian leadership is divided, the Palestinian Authority is co-opted, the Gulf Arab states are neutralized with the Abraham Accords, Egypt is silenced with foreign aid, Israel can do whatever it wants with Palestinians and with Palestine. The entire world is aware that Israel operates two parallel systems of governance, a democracy for seven million Jewish citizens and a colonial rule for seven million Palestinians. Restricting civil rights groups is a constant practice in colonial rule.
The silencing of these domestic rights organizations took place during the same week Israel announced the approval of building three thousand new housing units in the occupied West Bank. One week later Tel-Aviv rejected Washington’s plan to reopen its consulate in the West Bank, a modest facility aimed at reviving some degree of diplomatic relations with the Palestinians. The silencing of NGOs also mirrors and compliments a process of intimidation of rights groups abroad. Over the past few years Israel has managed to indirectly inhibit the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israeli products made in the West Bank). Israel’s friends in the US and in Europe have successfully lobbied to sanction BDS by labeling it anti-Semitic.
Palestinian rights organizations are major conduits of valuable information on Israel’s abuses of human rights in the occupied territories. The more successful NGOs are in exposing Israel, the more they are treated as “enemies of the State” or as “anti-Semitic” organizations. Palestinian rights organizations submit damning evidence to the International Court of Justice, to United Nations related agencies and to the rest of the world, including the US Congress.
It is hard to know if this objectionable law will survive, given its severe implications and baseless rationale. It has already caused enough harm to the Palestinians and to the Israelis as well. Outlawing the work of Palestinian intellectual resistance may make the pen more effective than the gun. In battling with Palestinian fighters Israel has the advantage, for it has the mighty arsenal. But in confronting Palestinians who are armed with local knowledge- the law, the facts and the figures- Israel will eventually become the weaker side.
Desperately searching for regional resources and external legitimacy, Israel has forged a questionable peace treaty with some Arab states through the Abraham Accords. The ban on rights groups is not likely to serve these Accords. With this regressive law, Israel has undermined the position of Arab state leaders who argue that the Abraham Accords pave the way to the resolution of the Palestinian conflict.
Should Washington decide to spend political capital on this issue, most likely Israel will have to yield and cancel this law. However, if President Biden looks the other way- as Obama did on the issue of building new settlements in the West Bank- through this law Israel would be encouraging destabilizing acts of despair from the Palestinians.
The new Law on NGOs was written with the discredited and universally outlawed South African mentality that prevailed during the Apartheid era. Miscalculating, Israel is crossing a grave red line with a new blame-the-victim policy.
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