Palestinian rights groups see muzzle in Israel’s terror tag

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Activists said Saturday they hope an international backlash will help reverse Israel’s designation of six Palestinian human right groups as terrorist organizations, a label that effectively outlaws them.

Two of the six groups said they would not be forced underground despite the uncertainty of their new status, which would allow Israel to raid the groups’ offices, seize assets, arrest employees and criminalize funding and expressions of support. Activists said they seek to challenge the decision by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Israel’s terror label for the six groups, including some that receive European funding, appears to have caught the United States and Europe off-guard. It could force them to pick a side, at a time when efforts efforts to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel are hopelessly bogged down. For years, the U.S. and the EU have largely focused on conflict management, including strengthening Palestinian civil society, while not exerting overt pressure on Israel to halt its ongoing settlement enterprise on occupied lands the Palestinians seek for their state.

Israel alleged that the six groups are a front for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small, secular, left-wing movement with both a political party and an armed faction that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.

Rights activists have denounced Israel’s terrorism designation as a blatant attempt to prevent the groups from documenting rights abuses in the occupied territories, mainly by Israel, but also by the increasingly authoritarian Palestinian autonomy government in the occupied West Bank.

“We hope that the International community will put enough pressure on Israel so that it will back down,” said Ubai Aboudi, head of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, one of the targeted groups.

Bisan and Al-Haq, the oldest of the Palestinian rights group, said they have not had contact with Israeli authorities since the decision was announced Friday. Bisan and Al-Haq denied having any links to the PFLP, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and Western countries.

The initial international reaction has ranged from frosty to sharply critical.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, said it had not been given advance warning about the decision and would seek more information. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that “we believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance.”

The U.N Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory said Saturday that the reasons cited by Israel’s defense minister were “vague or irrelevant,” and denounced his decision as the latest move in a “long stigmatizing campaign” against the organizations.

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 organizations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution,” it said Friday.

Israel has continually accused rights groups and the international community of singling it out while ignoring violations committed by other countries.

Both Bisan and Al-Haq accuse the Israeli government of having made previous attempts to tarnish their organizations. Shawan Jabarin, director of Al-Haq, told The Associated Press that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has previously asked foreign diplomats to lobby against his organization.

Aboudi, the head of Bisan, confirmed that he was formerly charged by Israel with being a member of the PFLP but denies ever having been a member of the group.

The other four groups targeted by Israel include prisoner rights groups Addameer, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. The majority of the organizations target human rights violations by Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, both of which routinely detain Palestinian activists.

The Defense Ministry statement was published during the Israeli and Palestinian weekend. Representatives from the other targeted organizations were not immediately available for comment.

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