The fight over the labeling of six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organizations two months ago revolves around the question of whether, as leftists say, Israel is criminalizing nonviolent anti-occupation activity or, as Defense and Foreign Ministry officials say based on the Shin Bet security service's doctrine, these groups camouflage “terror operations” under a false cover of human rights and humanitarian activities.
This isn't a trifling issue. Meretz legislators Michal Rozin, Mossi Raz and Gaby Lasky, who are putting up a respectable opposition in the cabinet, justifiably demanded that the defense minister define in detail terms like “terror operatives” or “terrorist activity,” whose infinite generality can justify just about anything in the world.
Thus, it's worth reading the opinion of Raja Shehadeh, a co-founder of the human rights group Al-Haq, one of the accused organizations. In The New York Review of Books this month, Shehadeh details Israel’s nonstop efforts over the years to link the group to terrorist activity, either directly or through efforts to connect it to groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization (in the years before Israel began collaborating with the PLO).
Even people in the government who back the decision don't deny that those organizations do a considerable amount of civil society work. As one person in the government told me, “I can’t point at every dollar or euro that goes through these organizations and vouch that they're used for acquiring weapons.”
Take the following sentence in the announcement on the banning of one of the six civil society groups, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; it mentions the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. “This organization in concert with other PFLP organizations fraudulently worked with many countries in Europe and international organizations with the goal of receiving significant funding that benefited the PFLP’s terrorist activity.”
The deeper you try to understand what stands behind sentences like this, the harder it is to shake the impression that the real goal isn't stifling nonviolent opposition to the occupation but rather reining in the PFLP.
Slightly surprisingly, this organization is now at the top of the hierarchy of Palestinian evil, surpassing even the Islamist Hamas, which 25 years ago murdered old people, women and children sitting in restaurants and buses and today rains missiles down on everyone in Israel. A source familiar with the Shin Bet’s operations says that unlike Fatah and Hamas members, the PFLP’s operatives don’t break under interrogation. They're the greater enemy.
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Maybe this observation isn’t enough for crafting general theories, but we can certainly detect from these words how the PFLP has become fashionable.
Shehadeh wrote in The New York Review that persecuting Al-Haq is the personal crusade of Benny Gantz because this civil society group is pushing for an international investigation into war crimes that Shehadeh claims were committed during the 2014 Gaza war when Gantz was Israel's military chief.
But it’s hard to shake the impression that we expect the Israeli security services’ order to strangle the PFLP. Israel doesn’t have any option but to collaborate with Fatah and Hamas; they carry the burden of catering to the civilian population in the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, they're accepted as political players possessing military wings. But the PFLP is an easy enemy to totally tarnish.
Sources familiar with the intelligence in the Shin Bet's hands say the PFLP is still trying to carry out terrorist attacks against soldiers and civilians. But another impression hard to ignore is that the murder of the teenager Rina Shnerb in the West Bank in August 2019 – an attack by the PFLP with the involvement of two civil society activists – so badly shook the security establishment that it triggered the decision to go all out after the PFLP. It seems that this is the show we're all watching now.