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Palestinian Rights Groups See Muzzle in Israel's Terror Designation

Shawan Jabarin, director of the al-Haq human rights group, at the organization's offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Oct. 23, 2021.
Shawan Jabarin, director of the al-Haq human rights group, at the organization's offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Oct. 23, 2021.

Activists called on the international community Saturday to help reverse Israel's unprecedented designation of six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations, a label that effectively outlaws them.

They said the decision amounts to an attempt to silence groups that have documented Israel's harsh treatment of Palestinians over the years. Some of the groups have close ties with rights organizations in Israel and abroad.

Israel claims the targeted groups were a front for a small PLO faction with a violent history, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Israel's terror label for the six groups, including some that receive European funding, appears to have caught the United States and Europe off-guard. Israel later insisted some Biden administration officials were notified ahead of time.

The move against the rights groups comes at a time when efforts to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel are hopelessly bogged down. For years, the U.S. and Europe have been engaged in politically less costly conflict management, rather than pushing for a solution, while Israeli settlements on occupied lands sought for a Palestinian state have continued to expand.

Amid the paralysis, Europe, in particular, has invested in strengthening Palestinian civil society, an effort now seemingly being challenged by Israel's decision to outlaw well-known rights groups.

The terrorism label would allow Israel to raid the groups' offices, seize assets, arrest employees and criminalize funding and expressions of support.

Rights groups in Israel and abroad have expressed outrage over the "terror" label.

Palestinian activists said they are counting on international pressure to get the decision reversed.

"We hope that the International community will put enough pressure on Israel so that it will back down," Ubai Aboudi, head of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, one of the targeted groups, said Saturday. Aboudi said he was previously charged by Israel with being a PFLP member, but denied ever belonging to the group.

Sahar Francis, the director of the prisoners rights group Addameer, told a news conference that she was grateful for the international statements of support, and that "we expect this campaign and pressure to continue in order for it to be fruitful." Addameer is also one of the targeted groups.

Shawan Jabarin, who heads the veteran rights group Al-Haq, said Israel's designation came as a surprise and that the groups had not been given a heads-up. Two of the six groups said they would not be forced underground despite the uncertainty of their new status.

An Israeli defense official alleged in a statement Saturday that the six groups "operate as an organized network" under the leadership of the PFLP. The statement claimed the groups serve as a lifeline for the PFLP through fund-raising, money laundering and recruiting activists.

It also named several members of the rights groups who were later arrested as alleged members of the PFLP military wing. The small PLO faction has a political party and a military wing that has carried out attacks that killed Israelis.

The PFLP is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and Western countries.

The six groups have denied the allegations and have denounced Israel's terrorism designation as a blatant attempt to squash reporting on rights abuses in the occupied territories, mainly by Israel, but also by the increasingly authoritarian Palestinian autonomy government.

The U.N Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory said Saturday that the reasons cited by Israel's defense minister were "vague or irrelevant," and denounced his decision as the latest move in a "long stigmatizing campaign" against the organizations.

The European Union delegation to the Palestinian territories acknowledged financing activities by some of the rights groups. It said past allegations of the misuse of EU funds by partners "have not been substantiated" but that it takes the matter seriously and is looking into it.

"EU funding to Palestinian civil society organizations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution," it said Friday.

The United States, Israel's closest ally, said it had not been given advance warning about the decision and would seek more information. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that "we believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance."

The other four groups targeted by Israel include Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. The majority of the organizations target human rights violations by Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, both of which routinely detain Palestinian activists.