Why Israel Calls Human Rights ‘Terrorism’

In a widely condemned move, the Israeli government has banned the group I founded. This is how it enforces impunity for its illegal policies of occupation.

Editors’ Note

On October 16, we spoke to Raja Shehadeh about his work as a writer and as a lawyer and founder, in 1979, of Al-Haq, which soon became the leading Palestinian human rights monitoring group.

“My Ramallah world, with its proximity to the hills, was being transformed inexorably in a manner that mystified and frightened me,” he said. “The changes taking place through the Israeli army’s takeover of the land using various spurious legal ploys and replacing the names of the various land features, towns, and villages with Hebrew names, as well as the changes in the narrative that accompanied the process, were all preceded by the alterations that were taking place in the local laws.

“My legal project was to chronicle these changes and warn against their consequences. This I pursued with the hope of raising awareness in order to exert pressure to halt Israel’s colonization of our land.”

That four decades-long project of legal accountability was foreclosed last week when, on October 22, the Israeli government declared Al-Haq and five other NGOs “terrorist organizations,” effectively outlawing them. Shehadeh wrote the following response for us.

In 1978 I returned to Ramallah from my legal studies in London brimming with ideas about the importance of the rule of law and the possibilities for resisting the Israeli occupation using international law. The following year, I and two colleagues, a Yale graduate named Charles Shammas and the American lawyer Jonathan Kuttab, established an organization we called Al-Haq (Arabic for The Right) as an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva. It was one of the first human rights groups in the Arab world and the first and only one of its kind in the Israeli-occupied territories. 

Al-Haq’s first major activity was to document the extensive changes in local laws in the occupied West Bank mandated by Israeli military orders. These, in violation of international law, were designed to enable Israel to carry out illegal acquisitions of land for the building of illegal Israeli settlements. In a study Jonathan and I authored, titled The West Bank and the Rule of Law, published in 1980 jointly by Al-Haq and the ICJ, we pointed out that these orders were withheld from public view. That Israel was thus using secret legislation to break international law was a national embarrassment, though it was denied by the government and initially challenged by a number of Israeli journalists. After investigating the matter, these journalists learned that we had not exaggerated and that these orders indeed had not been published.

Throughout the more than four decades since Al-Haq’s founding, the organization has continued to serve the objectives for which it was established: documenting and resisting through the law Israeli human rights violations, including the mistreatment of prisoners, the economic exploitation of the Occupied Territories’ natural resources, and the illegal settlement building. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority following the Oslo Accords of 1993–1995, Al-Haq’s monitoring of violations expanded to cover those committed by the PA, to which Israel had transferred certain civilian powers. Thanks to this record of impartial commitment to the law, Al-Haq has become a trusted resource for numerous international human rights organizations, as well as for the United Nations and governments throughout the world.

The Israeli government has persistently tried to discredit Al-Haq and its work. In our early days, officials attempted to smear Al-Haq by calling it a cover for the then-illegal Palestine Liberation Organization; now, they’ve labeled Al-Haq an arm of one of the PLO’s more radical factions, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Both are preposterous accusations. Nevertheless, in the years from 1979 to 1993 when I acted as Al-Haq’s co-director, I spent many a sleepless night worrying about what the Israeli reprisals might be for our forthright and damning reports on the occupation.

Besides doing their best to discredit our human rights reports, the Israeli authorities often called me in for questioning about my involvement with Al-Haq, and they pressured my father, also a lawyer, to persuade me to stand down from my post. Meanwhile, our field workers were harassed, members of staff detained, and other associates prevented from traveling. And yet, during the 2002 re-invasion of the West Bank, when the Israeli army trashed a number of offices belonging to NGOs, as well as those of the Palestinian Authority itself in Ramallah, Al-Haq was spared. The government never felt so emboldened by its sense of total impunity to designate Al-Haq a “terrorist organization”—until now.

I was on vacation in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 22 when I heard this shocking news—that the Israeli minister of defense and deputy prime minister, Benny Gantz, had issued an order declaring that Al-Haq and five other Palestinian NGOs were terrorist organizations. The implications of this action are devastating. 

The government order is likely to be followed by one from the Israeli military commander in the West Bank adding Al-Haq to the list of proscribed organizations under the British Mandate’s Defence (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, which remain in force in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. With this designation, anyone working for or providing services for Al-Haq, or even expressing support for it, will be subject to arrest on terrorist charges. All the organization’s financial assets will be confiscated and Israeli banks will stop any funding from reaching it.

In other words, this important human rights organization, which has through its legal work over the years played such a vital part in providing information about Israeli legal violations and using litigation to resist such transgressions against the Palestinian inhabitants of the Occupied Territories, who enjoy protection under international law, will be neutralized.

Gantz’s order has had strong reactions in Israel and abroad. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of which work closely with Al-Haq, issued a joint statement calling the Israeli action an “appalling and unjust decision” and describing it as “an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement.” In an editorial on October 24, the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz condemned it as “a stain upon Israel,” adding:

The literal meaning is clear: All resistance to the occupation is terror. Israel is undermining the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate struggle.

This is a boon to terrorist organizations and the use of violence. If all forms of resistance constitute terror, how can one resist the occupation without being a terrorist?

Will such criticism force Gantz to rescind the order? That is highly unlikely. For the time being, while the issue is in the public eye, the government may refrain from acting upon it or taking any reprisal against Al-Haq and its employees. But this will be only a temporary reprieve. The Israel Defense Forces, which have full control over the West Bank, will surely use the order and its powers to strike against Al-Haq, as it does against any other group thus tagged as “terrorist.”

Why now, one might ask. The most probable answer is that Al-Haq has recently given strong support to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by supplying evidence for its investigation of war crimes by Israel during the 2014 Gaza War. (The ICC is also studying accusations against the Palestinian militant group Hamas of war crimes in that same conflict.) Among the candidates that could be named in such an indictment would be Gantz himself, who was then commander in chief of the Israeli military.

This only highlights how important it is for the ICC to succeed in its efforts to hold Israel to account—and how important it is to frustrate the US government’s efforts to obstruct the ICC’s work toward bringing to justice any Israeli official who has committed war crimes. The Israeli government’s perception that it is immune from any such prosecution has emboldened it to keep breaking international law over the years—as this latest order against Al-Haq demonstrates.

I’ve always been proud of Al-Haq, and of my work in helping to establish the organization and safeguarding its international credibility. My pride will not be diminished by this declaration of it as a terrorist entity. Nor will I, a lifelong resident of Ramallah, cease my support for it, whatever the consequences.