Ask the experts: A guide to Israel’s attacks on Palestinian civil society

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Our readers had questions about Israel’s designation of six Palestinian human rights groups as ‘terrorists.’ So we invited experts to answer.


On Oct. 22, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed an order designating six prominent Palestinian human rights groups — Addameer, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine, Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees — as “terrorist organizations.”

According to the Defense Ministry, intelligence collected by the Shin Bet shows that these organizations have been providing support to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a left-wing Palestinian party and movement that has been labeled as a “terrorist group” by Israel, the United States, and the European Union. Israel has not made public the evidence it claims to have gathered, but in the statements it released, the accusations range from hosting PFLP members at the organizations’ offices to amplifying their politics.

The six organizations vehemently refute these allegations, and say the declaration amounts to political persecution. What made them a target, they argue, is their work documenting human rights abuses by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, assisting vulnerable Palestinian communities, and “changing the paradigm” on Israel’s apartheid policies.

While this announcement falls into a long history of Israel attempting to crush Palestinian civil society, the designation is unprecedented. To make sense of this decision and its consequences, we asked experts in international law, Palestinian nonprofit work, and counterterrorism policies to answer our readers’ questions.

We will be updating this explainer as the story develops. Have a question that isn’t answered here? Email it to us at info@972mag.com.

  1. What is the legal basis for this decision?
  2. What evidence is there of any links between these organizations and the PFLP?
  3. Israel has been targeting these groups for years. Is this development different?
  4. How will Israel’s designation of the NGOs as “‘terrorist groups”’ affect the people working at the organizations? Are there different implications for employees who are Palestinian citizens of Israel as opposed to Palestinian residents of the occupied territories?
  5. How will the designation affect the organizations’ ability to raise funds?
  6. How will this decision impact Palestinian communities?
  7. How likely are these organizations to try and challenge the designation through the Israeli legal system? What can the organizations do to fight the designation?
  8. What can the international community do?
  9. Are there risks involved in publicly expressing solidarity with these organizations?
  10. Will the government target Israeli human rights groups next?

1. What is the legal basis for this decision?

The declaration of an organization as “terrorist” is governed in Israel by the 2016 Counterterrorism Law. The law, which was first proposed in 2010, was meant to replace a patchwork of legislation, some of which date back to Defence (Emergency) Regulations of the British Mandate, and thus revamp and modernize the entire field of counterterrorism.

The law’s numerous provisions detail a host of terror offenses, special procedures for dealing with terrorists, assets seizures of terrorist organizations, and more. But its core revolves around the declaration of an organization as “terrorist.” Only upon being designated as a terrorist organization do the rest of the provisions kick in, criminalizing the organization’s workers, potentially those who come into contact with it, and those who sympathize with its goals and actions. Right now, however, the controversy over Defense Minister Gantz’s decisions is focused on the declarations themselves; according to reports in the Israeli press, no criminal charges are forthcoming.

Although the declaration process is central to the law, there is little information that the process actually generates. In order to be declared a terrorist organization (the definition of a terrorist organization, while important, is quite detailed; those interested should read Section 2(a) of the law here), a request must be made by a head of a security authority, usually the Shin Bet. The request must also be supported by a report, which has to be approved by the attorney general. With his approval, the request is formally made to the defense minister, who then issues the declaration.

As will usually be the case, the material upon which the request is made will be classified, meaning that the organizations in question will not be allowed to view it. Moreover, in almost all cases, the organization will not even know it is being considered a terrorist organization prior to the declaration. Given the grave consequences that flow from such a declaration, one could have expected some version of a hearing prior to Gantz’s decision. That did not take place.

Still, the law does afford a hearing after a declaration is made. Several features of the hearing process, however, virtually guarantee that the decision will remain in place. First, the decision must be made by the defense minister — the same person who made the initial designation. Because he is likely to be invested in his original decision, a reversal is unlikely. 

Second, and more importantly, is that the process remains shrouded in secrecy. Because the intelligence leading up to the declaration is classified, the organization will not know exactly what it is accused of. At most, it will receive little more than a gist of the material, which is unlikely to help much. Thus, the organization will find itself in a unique, Kafkaesque situation — it will have to rebut charges the nature of which are not revealed.

Well aware of the problematics of this process, the law implicitly suggests that an organization can petition the High Court to have the declaration repealed. Yet here, too, we are likely to see the same dynamics at play. Classified material will remain classified. At most, the court will ask petitioners for permission to see the material, ex parte of course.

Petitioners will then have two choices, both of which will lead to the same result. If they refuse the judges’ request, the court will dismiss the petition because petitioners will not have carried their burden of proof. Should they accept the court’s suggestion, the court will then view the classified material, but because petitioners will not be privy to it, they will not be able to refute any information provided to the judges.

Thus, the flawed process will simply reproduce itself at the High Court. And while the judges always have the option of overturning the declaration, given their perennial reliance on and acceptance of secret evidence provided by the Shin Bet, the chances it will do so are slim to none. — Adam Shinar, Associate Professor at Radzyner Law School, Reichman University

2. What evidence is there of any links between these organizations and the PFLP?

Israel has not given any evidence to back its accusations that the six Palestinian civil society organizations operate as “arms” of the PFLP, as claimed in the executive orders designating them as “terrorist” groups. This absence of proof not only shows the baselessness of these accusations, but is also part of a deliberate strategy by Israel to obscure the motives for its actions.

Using the label of being part of a “terror network,” in this case the PFLP, Israel and pro-Israel organizations have for years been going after donors to cut off funding to these Palestinian human rights groups — some of which are at the forefront of pushing cases before the International Criminal Court, including against Defense Minister Gantz himself — while also imprisoning human rights defenders on the ground. The donors, including European governments, have themselves repeatedly found no basis for the accusations.

Now, Israel is officially designating these groups as “terrorists” in order to hide behind the use of “secret evidence.” This allows Israel to do what it wants with the organizations through authoritarian powers, while forcing donors, activists, and others to try to disprove the negative. Remember that these orders were issued by the same government minister who authorized the bombing of a building that housed various media offices, including the Associated Press, in Gaza this summer, also under the pretext of “secret evidence.”

The attacks against the six Palestinian organizations are therefore just another step in a longstanding series of attempts to try to ban any criticism, and particularly any legal activism, against Israel. These attacks against Palestinian activists have been escalating, including in July, with Israel’s imprisonment of Shatha Odeh, the director of the Palestinian Health Work Committee. It is little wonder that hundreds of human rights organizations around the world have seen through Israel’s latest facade. — Diana Buttu, lawyer and analyst

3. Israel has been targeting these groups for years. Is this development different?

Yes and no. This is part of an ongoing and escalating pattern that has always been present but kicked into higher gear when the Israeli government adopted a policy of “going on offense” against global civil society dissent in the last decade. Normally, we see organizations closely allied, and often directly coordinating with the Israeli government, engaging in these smear campaigns to target these organizations’ supporters, especially in Europe. By and large, European funders and governments have been unconvinced by Israel’s claims against the six Palestinian organizations, despite the incessant smear campaigns by government bodies and far-right NGOs. This latest direct government action, which was always a card Israel could have played, might represent an acknowledgement that the other efforts have failed. 

In other words, Israel initially hoped others would take repressive action against these groups so that it could evade the negative PR that comes with doing so, but when that wasn’t working, they just decided to do it themselves.

This is also playing out alongside an ongoing debate in Israeli policy circles about how best the government can handle dissent in global civil society. Some voices want a dedicated and coordinated government effort, led by a government ministry a la the recently shuttered Strategic Affairs Ministry. Others back a different approach they believe to be more savvy and less boneheaded, led by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Neither are opposed to Palestinian repression — that remains the goal — but the debate is over how to engage in it with the fewest costs. 

Ultimately, this represents the latest stage in the descent into authoritarianism; a path Israel continues to follow as it doubles and triples down on its apartheid policies. — Yousef Munayyer, Palestinian-American scholar and +972 board member

4. How will Israel’s designation of the NGOs as “terrorist groups” affect the people working at the organizations? Are there different implications for employees who are Palestinian citizens of Israel as opposed to Palestinian residents of the occupied territories?

The designation of an NGO as a terrorist organization carries with it a set of broad consequences that cannot all be described here. But one important consequence is in its almost automatic transformation of workers and staff members into members of a terrorist organization, with very few exceptions.

Most workers at these NGOs would be subject to the criminal provisions of the 2016 Counterterrorism Law, depending on the functions they performed at their job. Most commonly, however, and regardless of what their job entailed, they could be facing criminal charges based on membership in a terrorist organization alone, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. Taking part “in the organization’s activity” or performing activities “on behalf of the organization” or “with the intention of promoting its activity” could carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison. These activities are not only “acts of terrorism,” whatever those may be in the context of these six NGOs; they cover all the activities of the organizations, even perfectly legal ones. The law clearly defines an activity of a terrorist organization as “including legal activity or an activity for legal purposes.” Thus, any worker doing their job at the NGO could potentially be charged with this offense.

Furthermore, recruiting other members, “directly or indirectly,” carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Think here of those involved with hiring new staff members at these NGOs. Those who occupy managerial roles within the NGOs are subjected to harsher punishments (up to 10 or 15 years, based on the activity associated with their role), and the heads or directors of these NGOs could be facing up to 25 years in prison. All of these staff members could be prosecuted only based on the designation orders; the state would not have to prove that they committed violent or criminal acts, aside from simply working at these NGOs, and contributing to their stated, legitimate and legal objectives. Proving anything to the contrary, if the state decides to prosecute, will be the defendant’s burden.

We should remember that the designation orders are based on classified evidence, to which the NGOs and the workers have no access. Therefore, in a criminal proceeding against workers of these NGOs, in which the designation order is considered as a piece of relevant evidence, the convictions would essentially be based on classified information that cannot be directly reviewed or challenged.

Lastly, there appears to be no material difference in the consequences of the designation orders vis-à-vis workers who are citizens of Israel and those who are residents of the occupied territories. The Counterterrorism Law allows the prosecution of members of designated “terrorist organizations” in Israel even if the offenses were committed outside the boundaries of the state. This means that workers in the targeted NGOs, whether residents of the West Bank or citizens of Israel, would be subject to the same legal ramifications of the designation of their workplaces as “terrorist organizations.” — Fady Khoury, Palestinian civil and political rights attorney at Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel

5. How will the designation affect the organizations’ ability to raise funds?

The financial ramifications of the recent designation of six Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist organizations” are far-reaching. Each one of these not-for-profit organizations relies, at least in part, on charitable donations in order to sustain their work and staff, and the majority of these donations come from governments, foundations, and individuals located outside of Palestine. The moment they are declared by Israel to be terrorist organizations, several legal implications are set in motion both for the organizations, their members (or in this case staff), and others who may engage with them, that have a direct impact on their ability to collect and maintain funds for their operations.

According to the Israeli Counterterrorism Act of 2016, the law that consolidated all previous laws governing this matter, it is a crime punishable by five years’ imprisonment to provide any service or means of assisting the activities of a designated terrorist organization. This is the case despite the fact that these designations begin as only “temporary” for up to 60 days from publication, after which they are either removed by the defense minister (often at the behest of a security agency or other parts of the government), voided following an appeal by the subject organization, or rendered permanent.

Although there is little to no case precedent under this relatively new law, there is no doubt that it was intended to criminalize the provision of funds to such organizations, and as such, the designation is likely to lead (if it hasn’t already) to the freezing of bank transfers from abroad to these organizations’ accounts, either by Israeli or Palestinian banks themselves. It may also lead foreign funders to halt their engagement with the organizations, even though the designation of an organization by Israel does not automatically outlaw an organization or criminalize its funding in other jurisdictions. Each country has its own register, criteria, and procedures.

Regardless, these legal provisions apply immediately in Israel, which controls the flow of money to and from Palestinian banks. Therefore, it seems inevitable that these organizations will take a major financial hit, even if the designations are eventually determined to have been unsubstantiated.

It is worth noting that despite the restrictions and legal hurdles, many of the major donors have said they plan to search for ways to continue funding these organizations.— Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man, international human rights attorney

6. How will this decision impact Palestinian communities?

First, Palestinian communities will be more vulnerable to Israeli attacks without the help of these human rights defenders. Israel’s decision threatens to shut down these organizations’ operational capacity, to intimidate current staff from working, and to prevent new staff from being recruited (many of whom are part of the communities most threatened by Israel). This decision endangers the teams who are doing an incredible job of monitoring human rights abuses, representing prisoners, advocating for families facing displacement, defending individuals in Israeli and international courts, and shedding light on the realities on the ground.

Second, this decision is part of a deeper cultural attack on Palestinian society. Since 1948, Israel has pursued a systematic campaign of erasing Palestinian records and archives, suppressing any expression of their culture and identity, and undermining their documentation of human rights abuses. This campaign aims to weaken Palestinians’ research and educational institutions, which are an essential part of Palestinians’ ability to articulate, imagine, and build their own political fabric, collective memory, and historical narrative. These institutions are also crucial in teaching the world about the Palestinian people and the crimes committed against them. Israel is now hoping to inflict the same erasure on these six organizations, whose work not only enriches Palestinian activism and identity, but also provide vital evidence for achieving future accountability.

Third, the decision seeks to chill the networks of international solidarity that partner with these organizations and engage with Palestinian communities on the ground. In the same way that Israel used an anti-BDS law to expel Human Rights Watch’s Israel/Palestine director Omar Shakir in 2019, the Counterterrorism Law can now be used to accuse any foreign human rights worker, including in major international organizations, of being linked to terrorism. This makes those staff and their networks more vulnerable to being denied access and the ability to work anywhere in Palestine-Israel, further weakening international support for these communities. — Ines Abdel Razek, advocacy director at the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy (PIPD)

7. How likely are these organizations to try and challenge the designation through the Israeli legal system? What can the organizations do to fight the designation?

It is doubtful that these particular organizations would decide to approach the Israeli authorities or judicial system, because this might be perceived as legitimizing it indirectly. It’s possible that Israeli NGOs would petition the High Court against designation instead, but because the evidence is entirely classified, they will be facing an uphill battle.

These organizations can also take their fight outside of Israel-Palestine. The extent to which this would be possible depends on whether Israel will follow through on its declaration and take active steps against the organizations. If this happens, it’s hard to predict whether the targeted organizations would be able to interact with other bodies at all. Assuming they would be able to do so, the organizations might try to utilize what we call “the boomerang effect,” by pressuring Israel through international human rights NGOs.

The problem here is that the ability of these organizations to affect Israeli policy has significantly diminished in recent years. Another option is by mounting pressure on Israel through UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council. But here, too, Israel has not been receptive to the council’s criticism in the past.

Ultimately, the step that can get them the most mileage is probably by pushing foreign governments, in particular the United States, to object to the declaration. Time will tell whether this will work. — Eliav Lieblich, Professor of Law at the Buchmann Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University

8. What can the international community do?

The international community needs to recognize that this action against Palestinian human rights organizations is not coming out of the blue: it is the result of their own inaction for decades in the face of Israel’s repressive policies against Palestinians. It is a product of the impunity that they themselves have cultivated by removing any form of accountability on the Israeli state.

There are a series of measures that international actors should now pursue. On the practical level, they must reinforce their commitment to Palestinian civil society, which is currently the only space advancing the movement for Palestinian rights and liberation, given the absence of a national political project in the body of the PLO. The international community must sidestep any Israeli attempt to criminalize the human rights sector by continuing to finance these organizations, and by mitigating any implications that Israel’s “terrorist” designation will have on their funding capabilities. It must also hold Israel to account for its slanderous and repeatedly unsubstantiated claims linking human rights work to terrorism.

At the macro level, the international community must fundamentally reject the security-rooted paradigm that Israel uses to justify its extreme and violent tactics — especially within the broader framework of the War on Terror. The blockade on Gaza, for example, is justified as a security measure, despite the collective punishment inherent in imprisoning two million Palestinians there. Home raids, checkpoints, administrative detentions, extrajudicial killings, torture, and property expropriations are also carried out under the rubric of security.

The criminalization of the six Palestinian organizations is simply the latest manifestation of a reality where anything that does not submit to Israeli oppression is viewed as “terroristic” — be it peaceful protest, advocacy, or legal action. The outcome of such a flawed paradigm is acquiescence to violations of international law, and punishment of those defending human rights. The international community must firmly oppose this. — Tareq Baconi, analyst and writer

9. Are there risks involved in publicly expressing solidarity with these organizations?

Section 24(a) of the 2016 Israeli Counterterrorism Law imposes up to three years in prison for “expressing identification with a terrorist organization, including by publishing expressions of praise, support or sympathy, raising a flag, presenting or publishing a symbol, or presenting, broadcasting or publishing a slogan or anthem.” The statute also makes it a criminal offense to help to prepare, create or distribute publications that express such identification or to possess them with an intent to distribute.

Despite this prohibition, there has been a public outpouring of support over the past week for the six Palestinian civil society groups, including by United Nations human rights experts, a coalition of 24 Israeli civil society groups, and international human rights organizations, all of which demand that the Israeli Defense Ministry cancel the designation. The Israeli government has thus far not taken further action against the organizations, whose offices remain open, or against those expressing support for them.

These expressions of solidarity — as well as calls for the Israeli government to reverse the designation — are powerful tools in the struggle to maintain space for Palestinian civil society groups. It is crucial for these groups to continue their work opposing oppressive practices by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities and striving for a better future for children, farmers, workers, LGBT people, women, and others whom these groups serve.

A number of governments, including in Europe and the United States, have said they are seeking clarification from the Israeli government. You can support these six groups by publicly opposing these designations and asking your elected representatives to press the Israeli government to allow them to continue doing their vital work. — Sari Bashi, Israeli human rights lawyer and special advisor to Human Rights Watch

10. Will the government target Israeli human rights groups next?

Before anything else, the following must be restated: this is not, and must not become, about what might happen in the future to Israelis; it is about what is happening to Palestinians now. That is the focus and so it must remain.

Considering the Israeli regime’s genuine priorities — that is, to succeed in maintaining and advancing oppressive practices of apartheid and occupation without facing international consequences — it is clear that effective human rights organizations are on the line. In and of itself, this is not new: just consider the hundreds of Palestinian groups Israel has already outlawed over the decades.

Yet, we may now be moving into a new chapter, thanks to two ongoing developments: (1) the growing consensus amongst Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations that Israel’s regime is one of apartheid; and (2) the war crimes investigation currently underway in The Hague.

Thus, the expectation should be that those perceived by the Israeli government as advancing these two issues, will be targeted for anything between delegitimization to criminalization. The specific measures taken will vary and Palestinians — as always — will be first in line and suffer the brunt of these Israeli actions.

Most specifically, section 24(a) of Israel’s 2016 Counterterrorism Law states that “One who commits an act of identification with a terrorist organization, including by publishing words of praise, support or sympathy… is liable to three years’ imprisonment.” Yet this clause will prove an effective silencer only to the extent that Israeli NGOs will decide to surrender to it. We should not — and so far, we are not. — Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem executive director