Source: Electronic Intifada
The Biden administration’s wait-and-see stance on Israel’s escalated attacks against several prominent Palestinian organizations puts their staff at risk of arbitrary detention and torture, those groups and observers warn.
Israel raided seven organizations in the Ramallah area of the occupied West Bank last week, shortly after an Israeli military commander rejected an appeal lodged by some of the organizations challenging an order designating them as “terrorist groups” late last year.
Tel Aviv claims that the organizations are front groups for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist political party with an armed resistance wing that is outlawed by Israel, the US and EU.
All seven organizations – Addameer, Al-Haq, the Bisan Center for Research & Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Health Work Committees – were sealed shut and issued orders declaring their groups unlawful.
Israeli soldiers confiscated equipment, and in the case of some of the groups, files from the raided and sealed offices. Defense for Children International-Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees say that Israeli troops seized files containing sensitive information regarding child clients and women receiving psychological support.
The targeted groups have been working in Palestine for decades and receive international funding to support their work.
That work includes providing legal representation to Palestinians held without charge or trial by Israel, international human rights advocacy, providing jobs and social services to Palestinian women and farmers, providing health care to rural communities, promoting women’s and workers’ rights, and representing children who are tried in Israeli military courts.
Put more simply, the organizations are either dedicated to challenging Israeli impunity or strengthening Palestinian steadfastness and resiliency under the extreme pressures of perpetual military dictatorship.
Because they are a point of friction for the occupation, they have been subjected to harassment and smear campaigns by Israel and its proxies for years, including raids and the arrest and detention of their staff, in a bid to hamper their work and dry up their international funding.
“In the past they used to work in order to silence us, and now they are working in order to eliminate us, eliminate our work and even the organization,” Khaled Quzmar, the director of Defense for Children International-Palestine, said during a webinar hosted by Democracy for the Arab World Now, a US-based organization founded by the murdered writer Jamal Khashoggi, on Thursday.
Quzmar was summoned by the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, for an interview on the Sunday following the raids. The officer made clear that he knew detailed information about Quzmar’s family members in order to intimidate him.
“They haven’t faced ever, ever any real accountability,” Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq, said of Israel during the same webinar.
“They failed in the last 15 years to silence us, to push us back, to get us down and dry our resources,” he said, leaving Israel with the final tactic “to declare us as a terrorist organization. We are not ready to accept this; we challenge them to prove what they say.”
Like Quzmar, someone claiming to be an agent with the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, called Jabarin on Sunday and summoned him to a nearby military base. Jabarin, who said that the phone call was of a threatening nature, refused to comply.
“If they have a problem with Shawan Jabarin,” he added, “the only thing I ask for … is due process and a fair trial. Let them take me today,” he said, pledging to continue his organization’s human rights work despite the personal threats.
If there’s one person who should be behind bars, Jabarin said, it’s “Mr. Gantz and his commanders, those who are responsible for committing war crimes in occupied territory, including Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
Jabarin was referring to Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister who issued the terror designations against Al-Haq and the other groups. Gantz is likely a person of interest in the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza, which was opened last year.
The US and Israel, as well as many of Tel Aviv’s European allies, some of whom fund the organizations targeted by Gantz, oppose the ICC’s investigation in Palestine.
Three of the targeted groups – Al-Haq, Addameer and Defense for Children International-Palestine – have provided evidence for the ICC investigation.
During his visit to Jerusalem last month, Joe Biden pledged to shield Israel from accountability, including at the UN and International Criminal Court.
Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that a classified CIA report “shows the agency was unable to find any evidence to support Israel’s decision” to designate the Palestinian groups as terrorist organizations.
The US agency received intelligence from Israel regarding the designations but, like multiple European countries, “did not find any evidence to support the claim,” The Guardian reported, citing “two sources familiar with the study.”
Despite not buying Israel’s claims, Washington has so far refused to publicly challenge Israel over the designations and other measures taken against the Palestinian groups.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said this week that “we continue to seek additional information from our Israeli partners.”
He added that “we remain concerned about the impacts of the closure of the offices of these Palestinian NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] in and around Ramallah, and we’ve made clear to our Israeli and to our Palestinian counterparts that independent civil society organizations in the West Bank and Israel must be able to continue their important work.”
But when asked why the US wouldn’t forthrightly condemn Israel’s actions, Price said, “the Israelis have told us that they have information in their possession” that would justify taking action against the groups.
US permits crackdown
Price was admitting that the US is giving Israel indefinite time to retroactively justify the designations, potentially putting the organizations’ staff and wider networks at risk of arbitrary detention and torture.
“I found the most troubling element of the US response to what happened last week to be the statement about waiting for more evidence,” Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace said during the DAWN webinar.
“Because waiting for more evidence is not a passive statement. It is an active green light and encouragement for Israel to crack down further on these groups in order to try to manufacture more circumstantial evidence,” she added.
Friedman pointed to the discredited secret dossier on the groups that was given by Israel to European diplomats in May 2021 and supposedly contained information that justified the terror designations.
“That dossier consisted virtually entirely of circumstantial evidence in the form of statements made by Palestinians under interrogation after they had been arrested by Israelis for similar charges,” Friedman said.
“This is coercive interrogation,” on top of an already coercive military court system that leaves Palestinians with no due process.
In another recent event, Friedman noted that Israel operates a “plea bargain factory” in its military courts.
Juana Rishmawi, a Spanish aid worker in her 60s, took a plea deal that saw her sentenced to 13 months in prison for her work with the Health Work Committees, which was declared illegal by Israel in early 2020.
The Health Work Committees was not informed of the designation until Israel began an escalated campaign against it, arresting its director, Shatha Odeh, and closing its headquarters in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“What [Rishmawi] pled guilty to effectively was unknowingly providing aid to an organization that Israel defines as a terrorist group,” Friedman told the DAWN webinar.
Israel held up Rishmawi’s plea agreement, made in a highly coercive context in which Rishmawi had no hope of actual justice, as proof against the targeted organizations.
“This is what your silence means”
During a separate webinar hosted by the Arab Center in Washington, on Wednesday, Susan Power, the head of Al-Haq’s legal research and advocacy department, pointed to the “astounding” US position giving Israel more time to come up with new evidence.