Israel Holds No Space for Palestinian Rights Organizations

Israel is on a mission to defund Palestinian non-governmental organizations. If Palestinian rights are to be protected, the international community must support Palestinian NGOs politically and financially.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz designated six Palestinian non-governmental organizations as terror groups, upon allegations of their affiliation to the Marxist-Leninist faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The designations, in accordance with Israel’s anti-terrorism law of 2016, claims that Al-Haq, Addameer, Defense for Children International – Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, use human rights work as a veneer behind which they further the PFLP’s alleged “terror activity.”

According to Gantz, “Those organizations were active under the cover of civil society organizations, but in practice belong and constitute an arm of the [PFLP] leadership, the main activity of which is the liberation of Palestine and destruction of Israel.”

The PFLP was formed in 1967 by George Habash and is a designated terror organization by Israel, the EU, the UK, and the US, on account of its earlier resistance against Israeli occupation. While considered the second-largest Palestinian faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PFLP has long ceased using the armed struggle tactics of its earlier years.

Far more plausible than grassroots’ alleged terror activity and Israel’s destruction – a myth that the Israeli government keeps perpetuating to uphold its security narrative – is the Israeli intention to stifle evidence and criticism of the government’s human rights and international law violations.

The key issue is not links to the PFLP, but rather the fact that Palestinian NGOs are playing a prominent part in seeking to hold Israel accountable in the international arena.

During the Jerusalem Post Conference held in October, the former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren and NGO Monitor Vice President Olga Deutsch, alongside other speakers, outlined the strategy to hit back at “delegitimizing” Israel through defunding human rights organizations. The key issue is not links to the PFLP, but rather the fact that Palestinian NGOs are playing a prominent part in seeking to hold Israel accountable in the international arena, notably the investigations of Israel’s war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A group of human rights organizations submitted a joint report to the UN Secretary General in May this year, detailing Israel’s long-term, orchestrated attempts to silence their work. Referring to the ICC investigations, the report states that “staff of Palestinian human rights organizations actively engaged in seeking justice at the ICC for Palestinian victims of suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity have even received death threats directed at themselves and their families because of their work.”

In line with the observation regarding the role of human rights organizations seeking justice for Palestinians at the ICC, the joint report further expounds on how Israel’s smear campaigns often happen after “publicized acts of cooperation between Palestinian civil society and UN human rights mechanisms.”

Gantz’s decision elicited considerable criticism. Within Israel, the decision has the potential to further the debate about Israel’s totalitarian actions, as described by the human rights group B’Tselem, which was targeted by the Israeli government for declaring Israel an apartheid state earlier this year. Gisha, an Israeli NGO that focuses on Palestinian freedom of movement, described Gantz’s move as “a grave and shameful attempt to delegitimize human rights work.”

Palestinian NGOs are mobilizing against the decision, as announced by Miftah, an independent Palestinian civil society institution. The group emphasized the importance of a collective effort between the Palestinian Authority (PA), Palestinian society, and the international community to combat Israel’s latest assault on human rights and free speech.

The US is not particularly pleased with Israel’s decision either, although it will likely avoid escalating criticism.

The US is not particularly pleased with Israel’s decision either, although it will likely avoid escalating criticism. US President Joe Biden explicitly stated he had no prior knowledge of the decision, while the State Department’s spokesman Ned Price admitted the US was seeking further information. An Israeli delegation will be visiting Washington to provide purported evidence to support its claims.

Israel, of course, is not concerned about its destruction. Its existence is highly secured, the Israeli government receives billions in funding from the US annually, and boasts of a significant qualitative military edge, which the US granted Israel to secure its military advantage. In addition, Israel’s involvement in EU research programs, as well as the marketing of its surveillance systems, have placed the country at a distinct and dominant point.

Article 2 of the EU-Israel Association Agreement stipulates, that cooperation “shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles.” The EU had threatened to exclude Israel from its Horizon framework which funds research programs, in response to Israel’s annexation threat last year. Upon the signing of the Abraham Accords, the EU withdrew its stance and turned a blind eye to the violations committed through de-facto annexation.

Palestinian NGOs, on the other hand, are dependent upon funding which is likely to be conditional. Their funding, like that allocated to Israel, comes from a neoliberal framework. However, the NGOs are coerced into difficult positioning in terms of human rights protection. Since the EU’s main concern is the PA’s preservation, NGOs are impacted in terms of how far they can voice their criticism.

Diplomacy prioritizes allegiances over human rights, while it restricts human rights organizations to secure funding, which the EU in particular ties to promoting the illusory Palestinian state-building.

Governments around the world perceive no contradiction in funding Israel’s terror, even as they seek to further limit the few avenues Palestinians can resort to for merely achieving their human rights. This is all the more reason to not only fund such organizations, but to also facilitate their work and outreach. After all, NGOs have stepped in where the international community has repeatedly failed Palestinians.

With funding withheld, which is Israel’s aim, the NGOs would face considerable obstacles in highlighting Israel’s violence against the Palestinian people.

With funding withheld, which is Israel’s aim, the NGOs would face considerable obstacles in highlighting Israel’s violence against the Palestinian people. Israel’s security narrative would run against scant opposition, and the international community, however reluctant it is to involve itself in holding Israel accountable, will have much less incentive to evaluate the ample evidence available.

Such a scenario is already taking place between the international community and the ICC. The latter has clearly designated Israel’s actions as war crimes, while governments around the world have either opposed the decision to investigate Israel or emphasized their normalization of Israel’s violence. Israel has long ago driven a wedge between the ICC and the UN. Human rights organizations, such as the ones sanctioned by Gantz, are the remaining bulwark standing between human rights accountability and impunity.

Each NGO performs an important role in documenting Israel’s human rights violations, which are often discussed as normalized routine defensive actions. So valuable is their work, that Israel has harassed and seized equipment from Palestinian NGOs, to the point of forcing the organizations to deconstruct the isolation Israel is enforcing. This adds to the obstacles NGOs face while working under occupation. If their structure is threatened, so is the ability to disseminate the truth about Israel’s violations.

Governments have long held the position that human rights should not be politicized. In the case of Palestinians, the humanitarian paradigm has become the only acceptable framework from which human rights violations are discussed. Decades have passed since the 1948 Nakba in which the international community refused to hold Israel responsible. To even out the scales, Palestinian NGOs must not only be assured of funding, but their services must also be politically protected.

Israel Holds No Space for Palestinian Rights Organizations

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