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Palestinian civil society is under threat

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Photo: UN / Jean-Marc Ferré
Zeid Raad Al Hussein spoke with Palestinian civil society organisations at an event co-hosted with The Carter Center to demonstrate solidarity and call for greater protection of civic space by the international community.



On 23 February 2022, The Elders and The Carter Center convened an online discussion with representatives of six Palestinian civil society organisations that have been designated as “terrorist entities” by the government of Israel.

The aim of the discussion was to hear from leaders of the organisations directly affected by Israel’s action about its impact and consequences for their work, and to explore the role of the international community, especially donor governments, in protecting civil society and upholding the rule of law and due process. The discussion also considered the wider global context of shrinking space for civil society, and the use and misuse, including by democratic governments, of counterterrorism legislation and other policies to stifle legitimate criticism and dissent.

Participants included co-hosts Zeid Raad Al Hussein, member of The Elders and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Stacia George, director of the Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Center, and the following Palestinian civil society representatives: Shawan Jabarin and Wisam Ahmad, Al-Haq; Sahar Francis, Addameer; Ubai al-Aboudi, Bisan Center for Research and Development; Khaled Quzmar, Defense for Children International, Palestine; Fouad Abu Sif, The Union of Agricultural Work Committees; and Tahrir Jaber, Union of Palestinian Women Committees.

Zeid Raad Al Hussein opened the meeting by emphasising the Elders’ condemnation of the Israeli designation and their support for the vital role that civil society organisations play in Palestine and Israel alike. He called Israel’s decision “an assault on civil society with serious consequences that should concern us all.”

He noted the range of tools — including counterterrorism laws — being misused by authorities in both authoritarian and democratic states to restrict the legitimate work of civil society. He also highlighted the severity of the attacks that Palestinian civil society organisations are now facing and said that it is incumbent on the international community, including donor governments, to stand up to this type of assault.

“These designations are a particularly egregious example of measures taken by the Israeli government against Palestinian civil society, apparently aimed at closing down legitimate criticism of its policies towards the Occupied Palestinian Territories and preventing efforts to ensure accountability.” Zeid Raad Al Hussein

Israel’s attempts to silence Palestinian civil society

Participants then explained their organisations’ history and focus within the Palestinian territories, from working on the rights of children and women, farmers and agricultural workers, prisoners, or students and researchers, to seeking accountability for those who violate and abuse rights in the context of the Israeli occupation.

All panellists agreed with Shawan Jabarin from Al-Haq that the terrorist designation was only the latest — if the most extreme — example of attempts by the Israeli military and legal authorities to smear, denigrate, and silence civil society in Palestine.

Several panellists asserted that the impetus for this escalatory move was the decision by the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into possible war crimes in Israel and Palestine; groups such as Al-Haq and Addameer are crucial to providing information to the court that could lead to accountability for Israelis who have carried out human rights abuses in the context of the occupation.

Ubai al-Aboudi from the Bisan Center for Research and Development said the designation was an attempt by Israel to “re-engineer” Palestinian civil society and maintain Israeli control and hegemony. Palestinian civil society thus finds itself at a crossroads: either it stands firm in the face of repression and provocation, or it yields to “self-monitoring” to avoid antagonising the Israeli government.

Many participants spoke of the manner in which the designations were issued by the Israeli government and then by Israel’s military governor in the West Bank, with insufficient information being made available to the organisations on the precise nature of the charges against them and the evidence behind them, and with no regard to the internationally accepted norms of due process and transparency. Khaled Quzmar from Defense for Children International, highlighted the need for “concrete action from the international community… to announce clearly that they are rejecting the Israeli designation decision and ask them to reverse [it].” International support and pressure are critical to resolving the issue, given that the organisations cannot access a non-biased judicial appeals process.

Panellists also spoke of the human impact on staff and their families. They have experienced a sense of persecution compounded by uncertainty about the nature of the charges and their outcome, and a loss of their already-precarious sense of security.

Sahar Francis from Addameer characterised the designation as a misuse of anti-terrorism laws, which could have immediate consequences in terms of the organisations’ ability to access the banking system to carry out their day-to-day work. This is a dangerous precedent to set and if not challenged, could be adopted by other authoritarian regimes far beyond Israel and Palestine.

A moment of truth for the international community

Shutting down legitimate human rights defenders and civil society groups committed to peaceful activism in line with international law risks creating a vacuum in which others could flourish and exploit the situation, said Shawan Jabarin from Al-Haq. He said he lacked trust in the Israeli legal or judicial system and characterised the Israeli state as a “colonial and apartheid regime” whose mask had come off. According to Jabarin, the designations constitute a “moment of truth” for the international community, particularly the United States and European Union, which should not accept Israel’s rationale and evidence-free smears against civil society. 

The Union of Palestinian Women Committees and others are key service providers for many ordinary Palestinians, offering legal advice and support networks, said Tahrir Jaber. If the designation ultimately forces organisations to close, it will have deleterious effects on the whole social fabric. She stressed that her organisation has had to adapt over time to regular violations by the Israeli government, including office raids and arbitrary arrest and administrative detention of staff.

As a result of the designations, the atmosphere in broader civil society is terrible, said Fouad Abu Sif from the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. It creates a sense of fear and allows no opportunities to exercise democratic rights or freedom of movement. However, according to Abu Sif, the international prominence that the case has attracted has brought with it welcome gestures of support and solidarity, which encourages civil society activists in their determination to withstand the present crisis.

Israel must reverse the designation

Zeid Raad Al Hussein concluded the rich discussion by saluting the participants’ commitment, clarity, and rigorous analysis. “Listening to them, one can understand why the forces of occupation are so nervous,” he said. The designations were a “shabby attempt to sully reputations and stifle dissent.” If Israel made this move to persuade the court of global public opinion, he said, it has backfired dramatically. The work and credibility of the six Palestinian civil society organisations has been underscored by many around the world, including The Elders and The Carter Center.

In her closing remarks, Stacia George reiterated The Carter Center’s call on the Biden administration and the wider international community to demand that Israel reverse its designation. The Carter Center’s mission is to support peace, and peace can only come to Israelis and Palestinians when equal rights are enjoyed by all.

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