Criminalization of Palestinian Civil Society Will Have International Implications
November 10, 2021

On October 19th, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz designated six Palestinian human rights groups as “terror organizations.” This classification has grave and immediate effects on the organizations, their staff members, property, and supporters inside Palestine, especially as the Israeli military declared this past weekend that the decree applies to the West Bank - indicating that soldiers could use this as grounds for incursions.  The impact of targeting these civil society organizations could have implications on the work of pro-Palestine advocacy and solidarity groups abroad.

The six organizations are Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Al-Haq, Defense for Children International – Palestine, Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Bisan Center for Research and Development, and Union of Palestinian Women Committees. These organizations are central in documenting Israel’s occupation of Palestine, making this yet another Israeli attack on Palestinian human rights, political life, and the right to self-determination. Some of these organizations have been at the forefront of the international struggle - their reports submitted as evidence in the International Criminal Court’s investigation of Israel’s war crimes. 

What are the global consequences of this criminalization?

A possible result of this designation is for North American and European governments to follow Israel’s lead, criminalizing international advocacy and solidarity groups. All six organizations receive funding from North American and/or European donors, and some have either offices, or a presence outside of Occupied Palestine through coalitions and advocacy work.

Israel has attempted to tie these organizations to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - a Palestinian political party that has been designated a “terror organization” by Israel, the US, Canada, and the EU. Through this manufactured connection, it is clear that Israel seeks to convince these countries to follow suit, and/or end funding to these organizations, by claiming that funds are being diverted to the PFLP. 

Immediately after Gantz’ announcement, Israeli officials flew to Washington to justify the designation and “provide evidence” - evidence that no media outlet, nor the six organizations have been privy to. On November 4th, The Intercept, +972 Magazine, and Local Call revealed information from the secret dossier distributed by Israel to European and American governments to  “justify its terrorist designation,” albeit, it did not. According to the three publications, at least five European countries found no “concrete evidence” tying named organizations to terrorism and thus there was no reason to cut their funding.

Following an EU meeting with delegates from the six organizations, Israel’s most widely distributed newspaper published an article titled: “EU officials meet with groups designated by Israel as terrorist entities.” The EU immediately released a statement asserting that it takes Israel’s designation “very seriously,” and “has never and will never finance or support any terrorist organizations.”

Another possible result of this designations directly threatens these organizations’ access to finances. Private banking institutions have abstract processes around “de-risking.” This process is highly politicized, with a 2021 Report by the Charity and Security Network highlighting the role of banks in criminalizing Palestinian civil society organizations through closing their accounts. 49 of the 50 largest banks in the world use the same “World-Check Risk Intelligence” record, which lists approximately 2.7 million names and organizations, with 93,000 designated as “terrorist.” If the US alone follows Israel’s suit and takes steps to criminalize these organizations, global banks will likely close pertinent overseas accounts. 

Israel lobby eager to smear Palestinian groups: a Canadian example

There has been no indication by North American or EU governments to criminalize these six organizations, especially as “evidence” presented to these governments did not indicate a reason for concern. The Israel lobby, however, is unlikely to cease hateful rhetoric.

Zionist institutions like NGO Monitor are central in targeting Palestinian organizations even in the absence of “terror” designations. NGO Monitor, which has been advocating for the criminalization of human rights organizations operating in Occupied Palestine for years, works in collaboration with the Israel lobby around the world - and is even co-sponsoring an upcoming event with B’nai Brith Canada (a Canadian Zionist institution responsible for repeated attacks on Palestinian organizers), featuring former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. 

In the months to follow, these groups are likely to allocate resources into lobbying their respective countries to criminalize these institutions. We can look to Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network - which was criminalized by Israel in February 2021 - for alleged and unproven ties to the PFLP - to better understand the broad reach of Israel’s criminalization of Palestinian civil society. 

Following Israel’s criminalization of Samidoun, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – a central actor in the Canadian Zionist lobby, called on the Canadian government to follow Israel’s lead. CIJA launched a smear campaign around this call, which argued that “Samidoun has direct affiliation and ties to the PFLP.” This campaign was included in CIJA’s foreign policy priorities for the 2021 Canadian election.

In response to this campaign, Palestinian-Canadian institutions and solidarity networks launched a counter-campaign to support Samidoun’s crucial work. International Coordinator of Samidoun, Charlotte Kates, told Palestine Square via Facebook messenger that organizations like CIJA use criminal law in an attempt to coerce Palestinian communities and allies.

“[Samidoun’s] designation appears to have been the first act in a series of escalating steps regarding the use of these designations against groups primarily engaged in forms of advocacy, legal work,” Kates said. “We are not the first, and not the first in the recent era either.” 

Delegitimization and discipline

International groups and individuals concerned about the situation in Palestine are now at risk of losing a primary source for reports on prisoner rights, child detention, and settlement expansion. Israel’s criminalization may also impact the use of previous reports produced by these institutions. Students, journalists, and international bodies may be concerned about legal repercussions. Through this chilling reality, decades-long reporting on Israeli abuses may be contested and delegitimized.

Israel’s strategy of criminalization aims to discipline and detract. Unaffiliated organizations and individuals will reconsider working with and supporting ‘criminalized’ institutions in fear of persecution by association. Human rights attorney Diala Shamas writes that lawyers are often sought out for legal advice by individuals hesitant to participate in advocacy campaigns, academic conferences, and even journalism where a ‘criminalized’ organization may be involved. Through collective fear, Palestinians and their institutions are driven away from their historic model of solidarity organizing, and into a fear-based structure that engages in internal policing and surveillance - thus perpetuating Israel’s apparatus of oppression. 

Remaining steadfast

Globally, colonial and imperialist governments have weaponized allegations and designations of “terrorism” as a tool to suppress and instill fear in those who organize for freedom and liberation. Kates notes that these “terror lists” often “include both reactionary and revolutionary organizations, in order to create confusion,” as well as to manufacture legitimacy and broad support for the lists themselves.

Israel’s designation of the six Palestinian civil society organizations is no different - it serves to delegitimize, discipline, and redirect the energy of Palestinian institutions. The only way forward for Palestinians and their institutions in the diaspora, is to reject the legitimacy of these lists, and remain steadfast in our principles of global solidarity.

About The Author: 

Yara Shoufani is a Palestinian organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement, Toronto chapter. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from York University, with her research focused on colonization and gentrification in Palestine.

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