Israel’s security forces recently carried out a number of raids on Palestinian civil society groups on the occupied West Bank.
These have triggered a clamour from global human rights activists for an international response to protect the human rights organisations.
Staff at human rights organisation Al Haq were confronted by evidence of the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) night-time raid on their offices in Ramallah when they arrived to work on Thursday, 18 August.
The Anglican church housed on the ground floor was damaged. A metal sheet had been welded across the entrance.
"Any activity in this place jeopardises the security of the area, of the security forces and of public order," read a notice in Hebrew on the door.
🚨🚨Breaking: This morning, Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) raided Al-Haq's office in Ramallah, confiscated items and shut down the main entrance with an iron plate leaving behind a military order declaring the organization unlawful 1/2 pic.twitter.com/Y8yqRdU4Db— Al-Haq الحق (@alhaq_org) August 18, 2022
Al Haq's staff removed the notice and the metal sheet and went about their usual work – which is part-funded to the tune of €81,000 per year by the Irish government - as human rights defenders for Palestinians.
1. Our team arrived at Al-Haq's offices this morning & found the door, which IOF had bolted shut early morning, had been opened by the public, protesting against the targeting of civil society organizations!We assure you, Israel's arbitrary & unlawful actions will not silence us. pic.twitter.com/unSJ0Hhk5z— Al-Haq الحق (@alhaq_org) August 18, 2022
Five other civil society organisations on the West Bank were having very a similar experience that morning.
- Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association (which also received €81,000 in annual funding from Ireland)
- Bisan Center for Research and Development
- Defense for Children International – Palestine
- Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC)
- Union of Palestinian Women's Committees (UPWC)
As they reviewed their overnight CCTV footage, the organisations’ staff saw the IDF break into their offices at around 3am on Thursday and – in some cases – remove documents and equipment.
BREAKING: Israeli forces broke into our Ramallah office early this morning, confiscating client files, welding the door shut, and leaving a notice ordering the organization closed. #StandWithThe6 pic.twitter.com/QM4BBjBsLM— Defense for Children (@DCIPalestine) August 18, 2022
Why were they targeted?
The six organisations have never seen a warrant providing any specific, detailed basis for the raids.
Here is what they do know: Last October the Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz declared them all terrorist organisations.
He accused them of being "an arm" of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is on the terrorism lists of the EU and the US.
In a statement, Mr Gantz said their funds "were used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for payments to the families of security prisoners, salaries for activists, recruitment of activists, promotion of terrorist activity".
All the raided groups reject any allegation of wrongdoing.
Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who represents Al Haq, has sought the release of a "secret file" on which the minister’s accusations are based.
"We've tried 100 times to ask for a release and exposure of the documents. Not only that, I've also asked - demanded - that the allegations will be detailed because being an arm of the PFLP is a very general allegation.
"Tell me what, when, so that I can know what I'm faced with. [I got] nothing. Absolutely nothing," Mr Sfard told RTÉ.
What is known about Israel’s evidence?
Back in October 2021, the EU and the US asked Israel for evidence to support the terrorist designations.
The European Commission froze the funding it provided to Al Haq and instructed Oxfam to halt funding to the Union of Agricultural Works Committees, pending the outcome of its inquiries.
The EU anti-fraud office OLAF then investigated the allegations.
It found nothing in the classified information provided to it by the Israeli government to back up its designation of the six organisations as "terrorists".
As a result, in June 2022, the EU lifted its suspension of funding.
This week, the EU said the raids were "worrying" and "not acceptable". The union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reiterated that the evidence provided by Israel does not substantiate any of the allegations of terrorism against the organisations.
The United States is also unconvinced by the information it has seen so far.
"We are concerned about the Israeli security forces' closure of the six offices of Palestinian NGOs in and around Ramallah," US State Department spokesman Ned Price told a press briefing.
He said any new information provided by Israel would be carefully reviewed.
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), believes there is nothing to see.
He said: "The information reportedly relied upon by the Israeli government has been shared with a number of European countries, with the United States, the CIA and with others.
"Everybody who's reviewed it have all found the allegations to be unsubstantiated and so it's quite clear here that the Israeli government is not acting pursuant to some new information."
What has the reaction been in Ireland?
The day after the raids, Ireland co-signed a statement with eight other donor governments to express their deep concern.
The Irish government said it had no reason to review its funding of Al Haq or Addameer.
Along with the foreign ministers of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, Simon Coveney said "no substantial information was received from Israel that would justify reviewing our policy towards the 6 Palestinian NGOs".
Ireland is deeply concerned about the raids on 6 Palestinian NGOs by Israel on 18 August. Restricting the work of NGOs is unacceptable. Ireland will continue to support civil society organisations, who are promoting international law, human rights, and democratic values. pic.twitter.com/CnCAipgzA8— Irish Foreign Ministry (@dfatirl) August 19, 2022
Former president Mary Robinson described the raids as "a clear attempt to silence Palestinian civil society and prevent it from carrying out legitimate human rights and humanitarian work".
Is there any other explanation for the crackdown on the NGOs?
Al Haq’s Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard has his own view as to what is behind the terrorist designation: "The strategy that was employed was to add these groups to the terror list hoping that they will be economically suffocated".
This, in case of Al Haq at least, is linked to the organisation’s role in investigating alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories Israel has occupied since 1967, he believes.
"My analysis is that the whole the whole crackdown on these organisations, including Al Haq, has nothing to do with terrorism or with links to terror organisation or the PFLP, but rather with the Israeli strategic goal of frustrating the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation," he told RTÉ.
In March 2021, the ICC announced there was "a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip".
It began an investigation into the actions of all parties in the territories - both Israeli and Palestinian - since 2014. Israel, which does not accept the jurisdiction of the Hague-based court, said it will not cooperate with the investigation.
"It’s not a secret that the prosecution of the ICC cannot advance in their investigation without local partners that will facilitate access to the affected communities, to witnesses and victims and to evidence and will provide and create the trust that is needed," Mr Sfard said.
Al Haq’s executive director Shawan Jabarin - who studied at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway – told RTÉ that the raids will not deter his organisation.
"We will continue cooperating with the International Criminal Court. We will not give up. We will not surrender. We will not shut our organisation down. We will continue fighting for justice", he said by phone from his office in Ramallah.
A panel of independent rapporteurs, which investigates human rights abuses for UN, has also condemned the raids.
The group called for pressure to be brought to bear on Israel to rescind its "terrorist organisation" designation on the six NGOs.
"It is clear that statements condemning and regretting Israel’s unlawful measures are not sufficient – it is time that words are followed by swift and determined action by the international community to put diplomatic pressure on Israel to restore the rule of law, justice and human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory," the UN Panel said.
UN experts call for determined action to put diplomatic pressure on #Israel to restore rule of law, justice & human rights in occupied Palestinian territory, following escalating attacks against Palestinian civil society in the occupied #WestBank: https://t.co/LUtsSNYSxU pic.twitter.com/ysh39P2B5Y— UN Special Procedures (@UN_SPExperts) August 24, 2022
The statement was signed by Irish human rights experts Mary Lawlor, who is the panel’s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.
It was also signed by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism and Siobhán Mullally, the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons.
Mary Lawlor told RTÉ: "They [Israel] have to rescind this designation." She said that US action, in particular, was required.
"The US is clearly the most important. I heard a great saying, ‘1 centimeter of support from the US is worth kilometer from the European Union’," she told RTÉ.
In a statement on Thursday, Mary Robinson backed the call for pressure saying the EU and US needed to go "beyond statements of condemnation or concern to make it clear to Israel that its actions cannot be tolerated and will have meaningful political consequences".
Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir agrees: "I think the international response has been underwhelming. The statements alone will not suffice. This really is an existential moment for Palestinian civil society.
"Really, in some ways, the fate of human rights work in Israel, Palestine hangs in the balance, and the international response, in particular in Europe and in the United States, will be likely decisive in determining how things move forward."
A failure to go beyond statements will have profound reputational consequences for the EU, Michael Sfard believes: "Europe has a self-image, but also, I think, a real role of guarding human rights defenders around the world.
"This is part of the value-based order of the European Union. And I think that if Europe will blink and not use its leverage when it comes to Israel, the credibility of that position would be seriously damaged."
Al Haq’s Shawan Jabarin believes Europe has shown it can act when it wants to and should do so again.
"There is a list that they can do. I mean, just 1% of the actions that were taken against Russia over Ukraine. Why this double standard? If you believe in the civil work in Palestine, the human rights work in Palestine, the rule of law in Palestine, I think it’s time."