For Palestinians, terror label takes a toll on humanitarian work

For Palestinians, terror label takes a toll on humanitarian work

Nasser Nasser/AP

Protesters hold a banner that reads "NGOs operate under the law, the occupation has no right marking them with terrorism," during the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network protest in front of United Nations’ offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Nov. 10, 2021. Israel has effectively outlawed six Palestinian humanitarian groups by declaring them terrorist organizations.

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December 6, 2021

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The Israeli military’s designation in October of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations has dramatically escalated the politicization of humanitarian work in the West Bank, turning their work into a battleground.

The allegation, which they emphatically deny, has highlighted the long-standing challenge faced by volunteers and aid workers in the Israeli-occupied territories: to prove their independence, credibility, and reliability amid high polarization that often leaves organizations and their employees caught in the middle.

Why We Wrote This

Providing humanitarian services to a population under occupation is always fraught. Six Palestinian NGOs are struggling with the human cost of a controversial Israeli terror label, which they deny.

There is also a potential human cost for those served by these organizations. Already the Palestinian health sector has been impacted by the earlier Israeli raid on the Ramallah office of the Health Work Committees, which abruptly stopped their mobile health clinics that serve thousands of women in remote areas of the West Bank.

Ubay Aboudy, director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, one of the six blacklisted NGOs, has been arrested by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority over his activism and criticism of suppression of political freedoms.

Yet nothing, he says, compares to the recent terrorist designation.

“We value diversity, integrity, and professionalism; we work to protect human rights,” says Mr. Aboudy. “How can we be stigmatized as terrorists?”

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK

A rustic building on the outskirts of Ramallah, its main doors chained and padlocked, is a place of refuge for Abu Rasheed.

Up the back stairs of what were the offices of a now-shuttered health NGO, one floor up, a door opens to a busy hallway with lawyers rushing to get affidavits and Palestinian fathers and mothers waiting to hear news of their children.

This is now the headquarters of the Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), the only NGO providing legal aid for Palestinian juveniles in the West Bank – and one of six Palestinian NGOs controversially designated as terrorist organizations by Israel in October.

Why We Wrote This

Providing humanitarian services to a population under occupation is always fraught. Six Palestinian NGOs are struggling with the human cost of a controversial Israeli terror label, which they deny.

Abu Rasheed, a carpenter from the Al-Jalazone refugee camp north of Ramallah, arrives still in his work clothes to meet with his 12-year-old son’s lawyer, provided by the DCI-P.

Since his son’s arrest by the Israeli military in a nighttime raid on their refugee camp three days earlier, the lawyer is now his only channel of communication with his son.

“My son is not mature enough to undergo interrogation,” says Abu Rasheed, who is unsure whether his son did in fact throw stones at Israeli soldiers or was accidentally caught up in the raid. “I just don’t want my son to grow up fast.”

His parental anguish dramatizes how in internationally recognized occupied territory, where conflict and confrontation is part of daily life, humanitarian work is an essential need. It also suggests the human cost of such work becoming a political battleground, as it has in the highly polarized Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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The Israeli military designation of the six NGOs as terrorist organizations, initially outlawing their activities in Israel, has dramatically escalated the politicization of humanitarian work in the West Bank.

The ordeal has highlighted the longstanding challenge faced by volunteers and aid workers in the Israeli-occupied territories: to prove their independence, credibility, and reliability amid high polarization that often leaves organizations and their employees caught in the middle.

That is especially so of Al-Haq, another of the six NGOs, which documents alleged violations of Palestinian rights by all parties in the region, including the governing Palestinian Authority (PA).

“We work in human rights, we have nothing to hide – we work publicly and publicize our results on international platforms whether it be it against the PA, Hamas, or against Israel,” says Zahi Jaradat, head of Al-Haq’s field documentation unit. 

This places an added pressure on NGO workers, he says, to “maintain credibility” and independence as they are pushed from different directions. 

“The sustainability of civil society’s work is a guarantee for justice everywhere, not just here in Palestine,” says Mr. Jaradat. “If they close us down, crimes and abuses will go without accountability.”

Fatima Abdulkarim

Tahseen Elayan, deputy director of Al-Haq, one of six Palestinian NGOs Israel designated as a terrorist organization, at their office in Ramallah, West Bank, Nov. 20, 2021.

Complicated legacy

The Israeli Ministry of Defense said its Oct. 29 decision to designate the six West Bank human rights organizations as terrorist groups is due to their alleged links to the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a hardline Marxist-Leninist group and former PLO member that opposed the 1993 Oslo Accords and formation of the PA.

The six NGOs deny the terrorism accusations and ties to the PFLP or any other political group. At the same time, the allegations have put a spotlight on the complicated legacy of humanitarian work in the West Bank.

In the 1980s, another NGO, the Health Work Committees, was founded by volunteer doctors and nurses to provide medical services to Palestinians. PFLP members were among the founders. In June, Israel raided and shuttered that organization.

But a flurry of independent reports by the Associated Press, Israeli journalists, and other news organizations with access to leaked portions of the intelligence dossier Israel shared with other countries have since cast doubts over the October allegations, saying they are based on interrogations of two former members of the Health Work Committees who have no ties to the six new NGOs in question.

The legacy of the Health Works Committees is nevertheless casting a cloud over the humanitarian work of the modern NGOs, which adhere to international standards to maintain their funding from European governments and international groups such as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.

In the past, DCI-P says it faced hindrances in working with Israeli and Palestinian authorities, such as a refusal to hand over official figures and information, and what they describe as a widespread culture of impunity and violence toward their clients in Israeli and Palestinian jails.

“This time we really do not know what the Israeli authorities could do to us; we might be arrested or our offices shut down,” says Ayed Abu Iqteish, a DCI-P director. “This is a whole new level of delegitimization.”

“We feel invaded 24/7”

The alleged surveillance of the organizations’ employees, meanwhile, is a new escalation.

According to an investigation released in November by Front Line Defenders, an Irish-based human rights organization backed by Amnesty International and the University of Toronto Citizens Lab, six devices used by employees of the NGOs and Palestinian diplomats were hacked by the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus software. And that has raised concerns that the employees’ homes and families could become targets of surveillance as well.

“The fact that they can spy on us and access our personal data is not new, but it is especially concerning when it comes to our children. They are the ones I fear for,” adds Mr. Abu Iqteish.

The groups’ concerns have also grown since an additional Israeli military order made their activities illegal in the West Bank as well, opening the door for potential arrests and closure of the organizations.

NGO workers say they are living on a knife’s edge, not knowing whether they could be arrested or their families face legal action. One worker, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of legal reprisal, says he does not know whether he will return home each day he sets out for field work.

Ubay Aboudy, director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, one of the six blacklisted NGOs, has been arrested by both Israel and the PA over his activism and criticism of suppression of political freedoms.

Fatima Abdulkarim

The shuttered offices of the Health Work Committees, a Palestinian NGO that provided health services in rural communities in the Palestinian territories, in Ramallah, West Bank, Nov. 20, 2021.

Yet nothing, he says, compares to the recent terrorist designation.

“We value diversity, integrity, and professionalism, we work to protect human rights,” says Mr. Aboudy. “How can we be stigmatized as terrorists?”

His wife, Hind Shraydeh, who works for another NGO that monitors accountability and transparency within the PA, says the politicization of NGOs and phone hacking has brought the targeting of rights groups into their own home.

“The only thing we had left was our personal space,” Ms. Shraydeh says. “We feel invaded 24/7. Now not only is my husband under scrutiny, but our entire family feels like we are being spied on. We now feel unsafe in our own home.”

Under fire from all sides

NGO staff insist they are an important pillar in Palestinian society that provides essential services and monitors rights abuses by all parties – often placing their organizations and staff right in the middle of divisions among Palestinians and between Palestinians and Israelis.

Al-Haq says it has testy relations with the Palestinian Authority. Sometimes the PA relies on Al-Haq’s documentation when building cases against Israel before the international community, but then retaliates when Al-Haq publicizes alleged rights abuses committed by the PA.

Multiple times, Al-Haq has disclosed allegations of torture carried out by PA security services in Palestinian prisons, which resulted in the Authority intimidating employees and denying them access to correctional facilities, employees say.

Criticism of alleged rights violations by Hamas and its crackdowns on protesters and civil society has also put Al-Haq under pressure in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Al-Haq’s documentation of alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings by Israeli soldiers, used in Israeli court cases, has put it squarely in the crosshairs of right-leaning Israeli groups.

Cut in services

There are concerns of the impact should these NGOs be shuttered.

Already the Palestinian health sector has been impacted after the Israeli raid on the Ramallah office of the Health Work Committees, which abruptly stopped their mobile health clinics that serve thousands of women.

The Committees provide primary health-care services and care for COVID-19 patients in remote Palestinian villages and areas cut off from urban health centers and hospitals by geography and Israeli checkpoints.

Israel shut down the organization for a six-month period on allegations of supporting terrorism, allegations the NGO denies.

The Israeli allegations are related to two former employees who were fired in 2019 for embezzling funds and later interrogated by Israel in 2020.

“There are thousands of Palestinians in remote areas who are not getting adequate healthcare anymore, because Israel thinks I’m a terrorist,” says one paramedic who volunteered for years with the Committee.

Amnesty International reported that the closure “will have catastrophic consequences for the health needs of Palestinians across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Meanwhile, the potential loss of DCI-P would hit the families of scores of Palestinian minors believed to be held by Israeli authorities. (The last official number was 157 in October 2020.)

“Regardless of all the obstacles, our end-goal is for both the Palestinians and the Israelis to ensure respect for standard treatment that puts the child’s interest as a priority,” says Mr. Abu Iqteish of DCI-P.

Al-Haq says lawyers and rights groups visiting from different parts of the world now question whether the organization is biased or has ties to hardline groups, questions which may impact donor funding.  

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But, Mr. Jaradat says, “we are more concerned about how to prevent human rights violations.”

Taylor Luck contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.

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