North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Israel has outlawed six Palestinian human rights organizations. Why?

The groups were branded ‘terrorists’ and shut down, in a move that could be seen as linked to the International Criminal Court's investigation into Israel

Sawsan Zaher
4 November 2021, 12.00am
Protester holding a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli soldiers during a demonstration against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan near the city of Nablus in the West Bank on 29 Oct 2021
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SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On 19 October 2021, the Israeli minister of defense outlawed six leading Palestinian human rights organizations, declaring them “terrorist organizations”. The groups have been operating for decades, some since the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The six ogranizations are Addameer, which focuses on prisoner-support; Al-Haq, which has special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council; the Bisan center for research and development; child rights organization Defense for Children International-Palestine; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.

Defense minister Benny Gantz’s decision is based on the 2016 Israeli Counter-Terrorism Law, which criminalizes all activities conducted by an organization deemed to be a ‘terrorist’, including having its offices open for work. Under the act, such an organization can have all of its equipment seized and its staff arrested by the military.

Local and international organisations quickly condemned the decision. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called the declaration “a brazen attack on human rights”. Twenty-four leading Israeli human rights organizations issued a joint statement condemning the declaration as a “draconian measure that criminalizes critical human rights work” adding that “criminalizing such work is an act of cowardice, characteristic of repressive authoritarian regimes”.

The UN high commissioner on human rights, Michelle Bachelet, also condemned the minister’s action, calling it “an attack on human rights defenders, on freedoms of association, opinion and expression and on the right to public participation, and should be immediately revoked”. The UN Human Rights Office in Ramallah, Palestine, warned: “counter-terrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work.” And the European Union said it was taking the matter “seriously”, stating it would request clarification from Israel regarding Gantz’s decision.

Nothing new

Israel’s use of counter-terrorism laws to constrain and prohibit the work of civil society in Palestine is not new and has been implemented in recent years against smaller organizations and individuals. But outlawing major critical human rights organizations is a new escalation. A few months earlier, in early March, the offices of the Health Work Committees, one of the largest health services providers in the West Bank after the Palestinian Ministry of Health, were raided by the Israeli army. The organization's equipment was seized and one staff member was arrested.

Alhaq is expected to take a major role in providing evidence, material and documentation for the investigation of Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Occupied Territory

It was only during the attack that the organization was informed that it was, in fact, outlawed, having been declared a ‘terrorist organization’ a year before. Then, in July 2021, the organization’s general director Shatha Odeh, was arrested.

In all similar cases, under the 2016 Counter-Terrorism Law, the minister and the Israeli army justify their decision based on confidential evidence, which the army refuses to reveal. Despite the language of the law, the organization is not granted the opportunity to argue against the ‘evidence’ or defend itself prior to the final confirmation of the decision; and the organization is informed about the decision only after it is issued.

Why now?

But why would Israel outlaw these six Palestinian human rights organizations at this specific timing when it could have done so previously?

In fact, the legal authority for the Israeli minister of defense to outlaw groups in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) by declaring them ‘terrorist organizations’ predates the 2016 law. It goes back to the 1945 Emergency Regulations inherited from the British Mandate and continued to be legally binding after the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank in 1967.

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All six banned organizations have for decades been critically involved in the documentation and monitoring of alleged Israeli human rights violations, war crimes and Apartheid in the OPT. Their work covers rights violations of Palestinian prisoners, children, women, rule of law and seeking accountability for Israel’s alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. All of this work has been a major evidential basis for the demand to open criminal investigations by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In December 2019, following a preliminary examination of the situation in Palestine, the former chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, concluded that the statutory criteria for the opening of a criminal investigation had been met.

Israel immediately attacked the decision, which the prime minister called anti-Semitic, and lobbied its allies to pressure the ICC prosecutor over her decision. Despite this, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC decided on 5 February 2021 that the court’s jurisdiction does extend to the territories occupied by Israel and on 3 March, Bensouda announced her decision to open the criminal investigation.

Karim Khan, who was sworn as the new chief prosecutor of the ICC in June this year, is expected to use evidence, material and documentation provided by Palestinian human rights organizations once he convenes the investigation. This includes evidence gathered by Alhaq, one of the organizations banned last month, which also submitted its arguments before the Pre Trial Chamber of the ICC. Alhaq is expected to take a major role in providing evidence, material and documentation for the investigation of Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Occupied Territory.

In this sense, the Israeli minister’s recent decision could be read as an attempt to silence Palestinian organizations and prevent them from providing such evidence.

History lessons

Outlawing and banning civil society, political organizations and activists is a common practice used by racist and totalitarian regimes throughout history to silence those fighting against racism or exposing human rights violations. It serves to degrade the dignity of the oppressed groups in a society or those affiliated with them.

In South Africa, the government initiated the bans on some individual activists during the 1950s. Anti-Apartheid political activists such as Steve Biko, Ruth First, Oliver Tambo, Winnie Mandela and many others were jailed, tortured or even killed while in police custody. Others had to flee the country.

After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when police opened fire on Black protesters marching against racist ‘pass laws’, killing 69 and injuring 180 people, the practice intensified. Both the African National Congress (ANC), whose main mission was to defend the rights and freedoms of all Africans, and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were soon banned.

The massacre was a major turning point not only in the history of the anti-Apartheid struggle but also in the attention of the international community to that struggle and the atrocities of Apartheid. Outlawing anti-Apartheid activists and associations was a way to limit that exposure and minimize international solidarity with the plight of the Black South Africans. Most importantly, this silence would ensure the impunity of the Apartheid regime.

The response of activists and associations in South Africa back then was to continue with their struggle for freedom and against Apartheid whether inside South Africa or in exile. This is also how the six banned Palestinian organizations have responded, declaring that they will continue their work and struggle for freedom and against oppression but most importantly to contribute to the ICC investigation and end Israel’s impunity over war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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