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Israel declares six Palestinian civil society groups 'terrorist organisations'

Prominent NGOs Addameer and Al-Haq among those accused of links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
An employee leaves the Addameer (Arabic for conscience) Prisoner Support and Human Rights offices, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in 2012 (AFP)

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz on Friday declared six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organisations, accusing them of militant links in a move condemned by various human rights defenders.

The six include the prominent advocacy groups Addameer, which supports Palestinian political prisoners, and Al-Haq, a human rights organisation that works with the United Nations. Also listed are the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Centre for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and Defense for Children International - Palestine.

In a statement, Gantz’s office said they are “part of a network of organisations operating under cover in the international arena” on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist resistance group.

'It is a brazen attack, a dangerous escalation that threatens to entirely cripple the work of Palestinian civil society in opposing Israeli human rights abuse'

- Omar Shakir, HRW

"These organisations operated under the guise of 'civil society organisations', but in practice belong to and form an arm of the organisation's leadership, the purpose of which is to destroy Israel while taking part in terrorist acts," the statement added.

The statement accused the groups of being controlled by the PFLP and employing "operatives who were involved in terrorist activities".

Once one of the most powerful Palestinian factions, the PFLP has receded in importance in recent decades. The left-wing faction has been eclipsed by the Fatah and Hamas movements, which rule the West Bank and Gaza respectively.

None of the Palestinian organisations has yet issued a response.

Later on Friday, the US State Department said it would engage with Israeli authorities to request more information about the designations.

“The Israeli government did not give us advance warning," State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said.

"We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance," he added, in a rare US rebuke of the Israeli government.

A severe blow

Gantz's move is a severe blow to Palestinian civil society.

The designation effectively outlaws the activities of the Palestinian NGOs and authorises the Israeli authorities to close their offices, seize their assets, and arrest and jail their staff. It prohibits funding and expressing support for their activities.

Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director, told Middle East Eye: "It is a brazen attack, a dangerous escalation that threatens to entirely cripple the work of Palestinian civil society in opposing Israeli human rights abuse."

Addameer provides free representation and legal advice to hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are held in Israeli jails indefinitely and without charge. It also documents Israeli violations and highlights mistreatment of Palestinian minors.

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Al-Haq, meanwhile, researches and documents breaches of international humanitarian law in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The group says it documents violations "irrespective of the identity of the perpetrator".

Amir Makhoul, a leading Palestinian activist and writer who spent 10 years in Israeli jails, believes Gantz's move is related to attempts to hold his country to account at the International Criminal Court.

"I was supposed to appear at the Netherlands' the Hague the day after tomorrow, for a meeting about Palestine before the international courts," he said.

"The Israeli defence minister's decision is a clear and direct targeting of human rights organisations that present the most credible case of Palestinian human rights before the criminal courts and international institutions."

Meanwhile, Mustafa Ibrahim, a Palestinian lawyer and writer, called the decision "fascist and racist".

"This decision comes within the context of the widespread and organised campaign of racist incitement waged for years by the occupation [Israel] against human rights institutions, to destroy Palestinian civil society and prevent it from exposing [Israel's] crimes and daily violations against Palestinians," he told Middle East Eye.

Israeli and international condemnation

Gantz's declaration was quickly denounced by major Israeli human rights group B'Tselem too, which said "it is a move that characterizes totalitarian regimes".

"But war is not peace, ignorance is not power - and the current government is not a government of change but a continuation government of the violent apartheid regime that has been in place for many years between the sea and Jordan river," it said.

"B'Tselem stands in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues, proud of our joint work with them over the years - and will continue to do so."

'The Israeli defence minister's decision is a clear and direct targeting of human rights organisations that present the most credible case of Palestinian human rights before the criminal courts'

- Amir Makhoul, leading Palestinian activist and writer

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International work closely with several of the groups targeted by Gantz's order.

In a joint statement, the human rights powerhouses called the move "appalling and unjust", and "an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement".

"This decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organisations," they said.

"The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner."

HRW and Amnesty warned that the international community must now step up to protect Palestinian civil society.

"We are proud to work with our Palestinian partners and have been doing so for decades. They represent the best of global civil society. We stand with them in challenging this outrageous decision."