Israel Demands Lawyers of Outlawed Palestinian NGOs Request Government Approval

Israel's Defense Ministry ordered representatives of three of the six organizations designated as terror groups to obtain a special permit to represent them or face a penalty of seven years in prison. One attorney says this is an unprecedented 'government threat'

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
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Al-Haq's offices, one of the six Palestinian NGOs outlawed under terrorism charges, in October.
Al-Haq's offices, one of the six Palestinian NGOs outlawed under terrorism charges, in October.Credit: Majdi Mohammed / AP
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Israel's Defense Ministry is demanding that lawyers representing six Palestinian NGOs designated as terror groups and outlawed earlier this year receive official permission from the finance and defense ministers to represent the organizations, or face a prison sentence of up to seven years.

The new requirement comes just two days ahead of a hearing on the legality of the decision to outlaw the organizations. Michael Sfard, the attorney representing Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, said it was "extremely difficult to avoid interpreting it [the demand] as a government threat made against a lawyer engaging in entirely legal work."

The Ministry sent the attorneys a letter under the subject line "receiving funds from a recognized terror organization" in which it referred to a clause in the counter-terrorism law that stipulates permission must be granted in order to legally receive payment from a "terror organization." The attorneys said it was the first time they have received such a demand, even though they have represented other organizations declared terror groups in the past.

The Defense Ministry's legal advisor, who sent the letter, is also representing the defense system in proceedings currently taking place in regard to the legality of the organizations' designation as "terror organizations".

Attorneys Avigdor Feldman, who represents the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and Jawad Boulos, who represents Defense for Children International-Palestine, both received similar letters in recent days.

Attorney Michael Sfard speaking at a conference last year.Credit: Hadas Parush

The legal aid organization Adalah, which represents two of the outlawed NGOs, Addameer and Bisan Center for Research & Development, did not receive a similar demand.

Sfard received the letter, signed by Deputy Legal Advisor to the Defense Establishment Adv. Gal Cohen, less than a week before he is due to represent Al-Haq in front of a committee advising the Defense Ministry on the terror designation's legality.

According to the counter-terrorism law passed in 2016, all activity funded by a terror organization is considered illegal. Offenders face a prison sentence of up to seven years. In order to be exempted from the clause, special permission must be granted in advance by the finance minister in consultation with the defense and homeland security ministries. However, representing an organization in a process such as the hearing about the validity of the demand for governmental approval is not considered to be offering an illegal service, according to an explanation attached to the bill in 2016.

Feldman and Sfard said that in the past, when they represented organizations which have been designated as terror organizations, they notified the Defense Ministry and never received any notice requiring they attain official permission to do so.

In a response letter addressed to the legal advisor, Sfard wrote that the new requirement implies that his employment is conditional on the approval of his client's adversary, including "the party who signed the designation my client is challenging."

"Subjecting the receipt of legal fees for representation or legal counsel to permission from these ministers effectively gives these ministers the power to prevent representation or steer the designated organization toward alternative representation, perhaps one more 'amenable' to the State," he said. He added that he may ask to postpone the scheduled hearing, as "It is problematic to represent a client in circumstances in which the regime issues what may be an implied threat that my work could constitute a security offense".

The legal aid organization Adalah said in response that the "threat made by the Defense Ministry against the attorneys is a continuation of the political persecution of these six organizations."

The Defense Ministry maintained that the demand to receive official permission from the finance and defense ministers in order to represent "terror" organizations is just a routine and standard legal procedure, and was not intended as a threat, nor even an allusion to a threat.

Last week nine European countries issued a joint statement saying they will continue working with the six Palestinian organizations that Israel outlawed last year because Israel had failed to prove its claim that they should be considered terrorist organizations.

The nine countries are Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Holland, Spain and Sweden.

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