Israel shutters Palestinian rights groups, drawing diplomatic backlash
TEL AVIV—Israel closed the offices of five leading Palestinian rights organizations in an early-morning raid in Ramallah on Thursday, tightening its restrictions on civil society nearly a year after it labeled the organizations terrorist groups in an internationally criticized move.
Israel says the organizations have ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an armed group that has carried out deadly attacks against Israel. The rights groups deny the allegation, and the United Nations criticized the move.
The groups accuse Israel of targeting them because of their political activism against Israeli rule and their work documenting alleged abuses in the occupied territories.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Thursday that the United States was “concerned” about the closures and had “conveyed the message that there must be a very high bar to take action against civil society organizations.”
Israel, he said, has “conveyed back to us that they have met that high bar” but had not yet provided requested information on the basis for its actions. Information that Israel provided last October when it designated the organizations as terrorist-linked did not lead to similar designations by the United States, Price said, adding, “we have seen nothing in recent months that has caused us to change our approach to and position on these particular organizations.”
The U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem declined to comment.
The escalation is the latest blow for Palestinians who say they have shrinking space for political expression and dissent at a time when there is little international effort to end the conflict and Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
The designation last year led many European supporters to suspend funding of the groups. But the European Union said Israel has not provided sufficient evidence proving PFLP ties. In July, nine E.U. countries said they would continue to work with the organizations.
In a rebuttal to the Israeli closure order, diplomatic missions from 17 countries, including Britain and France, met with al-Haq representatives in its office Thursday evening.
“These accusations are not new and Israel failed to convince even its friends,” Shawan Jabarin, the director of al-Haq, an internationally respected human rights group that was among those targeted, told the Associated Press on Thursday.
Other organizations raided were Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and Addameer, which advocates for Palestinian prisoners, according to a statement from the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
In April, the United Nations called on the international community to support the six organizations. “Israel’s disturbing designation of these organizations as ‘terrorist organizations’ has not been accompanied by any public concrete and credible evidence,” said the statement attributed to human rights experts under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Israel last year designated the Union of Agricultural Work Committees as having terrorist links.
Al-Haq said Israeli forces kicked its locked door off the hinges and set off alarms. It said soldiers searched every room, looking through files and scattering them around the office. The group added that the property around the church below the office was littered with shards of glass and other signs of the raid.
Soldiers then “shut down the main entrance with an iron plate leaving behind a military order declaring the organization unlawful,” the group said.
The Israel Defense Forces said it had “confiscated property” during the raids.
Defense for Children International-Palestine said security-camera footage showed soldiers taking items including computers and client files. Addameer said the door of its office was broken down and materials taken.
Israel announced the groups’ alleged terrorist links in October. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ratified the declaration.
“All of the organizations in question operate undercover and in agency of the PFLP in Judea and Samaria, as well as abroad,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement, using Israel’s names for the West Bank.
Adalah, a Haifa-based Palestinian-run legal center, said the raids came shortly after the Israeli military rejected objections it sent on behalf of the six organizations.
“These organizations were and are not given any opportunity to defend themselves against secret evidence that the Israeli security forces allegedly hold against them,” the group said in a statement. “This attack on Palestinian civil society is an attack on the entire Palestinian people and their right to self-determination.”
Some these organizations also focus on human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority, which rules in parts of the West Bank and frequently arrests activists and critics. The Palestinian leadership, which last faced an election more than 15 years ago, is widely unpopular in the West Bank — in part because of its security coordination with Israel, which includes operations like Thursday’s raids.
Israel at the same time is carrying out a military crackdown in the occupied West Bank targeting armed groups. This in part led to a short air battle between Israel and a militant group in the Gaza Strip this month. The wave of West Bank raids started this spring amid Palestinian attacks that killed 19 people in Israel.
But human rights groups — among those targeted Thursday — have accused Israel of acting overly aggressively and with impunity against Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli forces have killed dozens since the spring; most recently, on Thursday, they killed a Palestinian in the West Bank city of Nablus. Israel said he was shooting at soldiers during clashes. Palestinians denied that assertion.
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.
Photo: The premises of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees were raided by Israeli forces on 18 August. Source: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images.