Inside Israel's Decision to Label Palestinian NGOs as Terror Organizations

Haaretz West Bank correspondent Hagar Shezaf explains in the latest episode of Haaretz Weekly why the roots of this move lie in a 2019 terror attack, how the designated groups are responding, and what happens next

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Shawan Jabarin, director of the al-Haq human rights group, at the organization's offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah last month.
Shawan Jabarin, director of the al-Haq human rights group, at the organization's offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah last month.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Haaretz Weekly

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently designated six Palestinian human rights groups operating in the West Bank as terror organizations.

The decision, which attracted criticism in Israel and abroad, could have a great impact on Palestinian civil society – specifically, on the ability to monitor rights abuses in the occupied territories. On the latest episode of Haaretz Weekly, our West Bank correspondent Hagar Shezaf took listeners inside the designation process and explained what its implications could be.

Listen to the full conversation on the podcast, starting at time code 20:20.

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Who are the six organizations?

Some of them are veteran, well-known human rights organizations like Al-Haq, which has been operating in the Palestinian arena for years, documenting abuses by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or Addameer, which provides support to Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons. Others are less known, such as Defense for Children International – Palestine, an organization that works to monitor abuses of children and minors. The other groups are Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.

What is the Israeli claim against these organizations?

The full details are not available to the public or the media, so we can’t say exactly on what evidence these designations are based. The broad accusation by the Israeli side is that these NGOs helped finance operations of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is a designated terror organization in Israel and other countries. The organizations deny this and accuse Israel of trying to shut down their activities for a political motive, in an attempt to silence them.

It’s important to note that this is not one blanket designation for all six groups: There is a separate designation for each organization and there is some variance between them. Israel is claiming some organizations are basically a money-laundering mechanism for the PFLP, while the designation is less severe for others like Al-Haq, which “supports the causes of the PFLP.” The text makes it clear that even in the eyes of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, the organizations are not all the same.

Have these organization now been outlawed because of the designation?

No, because the designation was made under Israeli law and that doesn’t apply in the occupied West Bank. For an organization to be declared a “banned association” in the West Bank, the commander of the Israeli military’s Central Command must issue an order saying so. But so far, at least as of Tuesday morning, no such order had been issued.

Israeli activists during a demonstration in Tel Aviv last week against the designation of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations. The main banner reads: "Human rights are not terror!"Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

This means the six nongovernmental organizations in question remain legal in the West Bank and are outlawed only in Israel, which suggests that Israel cannot try their employees at military tribunals just for working there, among other things. Sources in the State Prosecutor’s Office have already conceded they do not intend to file indictments against the organizations or their workers.

Why did this happen now?

In order to understand this decision we need to go back to 2019, when there was a PFLP terror attack outside an Israeli settlement that led to the death of an Israeli teenager, Rina Shnerb. After that attack, Israel made dozens of arrests in the West Bank of people who were suspected of having different levels of affiliation with the PFLP.

It was a “wave” of arrests and indictments that included everything from students to members of the Palestinian parliament, to people who worked in some of the human rights groups that have now been designated as terror organizations. When you read those indictments from 2019, they tell a certain story: of a network meant to revive the PFLP in the West Bank. The latest move is presented by Israel as another layer of that story, which the organizations strongly deny.

What have the reactions been in Israel and globally?

Ned Price, the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, said at a press briefing last week: “We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance. We’ll be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis of these designations.”

European governments who have provided support for some of these human rights groups over the years have so far not indicated that this is going to change their continued support of those organizations’ work. It remains to be seen what will happen on that front.

In Israel, the move was denounced by politicians from left-wing parties like Meretz and the Joint List, as well as by Israeli groups that oppose the occupation. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and other members of the government came out in support of Gantz’s decision and said it was taken after consultations with all the relevant legal authorities and intelligence agencies.

Yonatan Gher, the executive director of the joint Israeli-Palestinian organization Combatants for Peace (which, to clarify, is not part of these designations), told Haaretz Weekly: “The decision to issue an order declaring six Palestinian human rights organizations as terror groups is abhorrent. If the violence committed on a daily basis in the Palestinian occupied territories by Israeli soldiers and settlers wasn’t bad enough, now Defense Minister Gantz is seeking to close the organizations that monitor and report these actions and fight to seek justice.”

He added that “Combatants for Peace plans to defy this order and continue to work with these organizations, be the consequences as they may. No one in the current Israeli government seems to set boundaries to this abysmal decision, so we have reached out to the Biden administration in the hope that it acts decisively to protect human rights defenders in Palestine and in Israel, as the U.S. does around the world.”

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