Israel has designated six prominent Palestinian rights groups as terrorist organisations, in a major escalation that international watchdogs have labelled “totalitarian” and “an unprecedented attack” on the global rights movement.
The decision announced by the Israeli defence ministry on Friday could see the closure of the organisations’ offices, seizure of their assets and the arrest of their staff members. Public expressions of support for the groups could also be criminalised.
The ministry accused the six of having ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), a left-wing Palestinian secular movement with an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israel and is designated as a terrorist group by Israel and several western countries.
The six targeted Palestinian groups vehemently deny the allegations and say the move was an attempt to “eliminate Palestinian civil society”.
International rights groups also rejected the accusations saying it was part of Israel “systematically” seeking to “muzzle” human rights monitoring and to punish those “who criticise its repressive rule over Palestinians”.
Israeli rights groups, including B’Tselem, meanwhile said the designation was an “act characteristic of totalitarian regimes” and “a continuation of the violent apartheid regime”.
The Israeli defence ministry accused the six groups of secretly forming “a network of organisations active undercover” that they believe funnels money to the PFLP.
“The declared organizations received large sums of money from European countries and international organizations, using a variety of forgery and deceit," the defense ministry alleged.
The Defence Ministry also claimed that the organisations are "controlled by senior leaders" of the PFLP and employ its members, including some who have "participated in terror activity."
Among the six impacted by the designation are some of the most prominent Palestinian organisations including Al-Haq and Addameer, who document alleged rights violations by both Israel and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Al-Haq did not immediately provide comment. Addameer and another one of the designated groups, Defense for Children International - Palestine, rejected the Israeli accusations as an "attempt to eliminate Palestinian civil society".
It puts thousands of Palestinians in direct and immediate danger
Adalah, a Palestinian-run legal centre
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, released a joint statement saying the failure of the international community to “challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses” had led to this step.
“The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner.”
Adalah, a Palestinian-run legal centre in Israel, said it was an “unprecedented” and an action which “ fits totalitarian and colonial regimes”.
“It puts thousands of Palestinians in direct and immediate danger.”
Israel has long accused human rights groups and international bodies of being biased against it and of singling the country out while ignoring more serious violations by other nations. But Friday’s decision marks a serious escalation against the Palestinians.
The European Union delegation to the Palestinian territories acknowledged financing activities by some of the groups. It said past allegations of the misuse of EU funds by partners "have not been substantiated" but that it takes the matter seriously and is looking into it.
"EU funding to Palestinian civil society organisations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution," it said.
The Palestinian Authority condemned what it said was a "strategic assault on Palestinian civil society and the Palestinian people’s fundamental right to oppose Israel’s illegal occupation and expose its continuing crimes."