The first Palestinian human rights organization, Al-Haq, is generally recognized to have set the gold standard for independent human rights research and advocacy.

Israeli and Palestinian activists gather at the Al-Haq Foundation in the West Bank city of Ramallah to denounce Israel’s decision to declare six Palestinian human rights groups as “terror organizations,” October 27, 2021. Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

Today, it is without doubt one of the premier civil society organizations in Palestine. Founded in 1979 and one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world, Al-Haq has gone from strength to strength, as expertly recounted in 2021 by Lynn Welchman in her magisterial history, Al-Haq: A Global History of the First Palestinian Human Rights Organization. It has built a reputation for meticulous research and dispassionate reporting on Israel’s crimes in occupied Palestinian territories and pushed forward the important discussion regarding the international community’s responsibility to ensure Israel’s respect for international law. It has done so despite the harsh realities of an ongoing military occupation and the turbulent era that followed the 1993 Oslo Accords—the arrival of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the Occupied Territories and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Al-Haq’s staff has faced intermittent harassment, movement restrictions and administrative detentions (imprisonment without legal procedure) at the hands of the Israeli government, which has trumped up specious charges, including membership in one or another of Palestine’s political factions. Al-Haq’s current director, Sha’wan Jabarin, has endured multiple administrative detentions, as well as a beating that nearly proved fatal. Such harassment has been normal, even routine, for the organization. But nothing may have prepared Al-Haq for the outrageous decision in October by the new Israeli defense minister, Benny Gantz, to designate it and five other organizations as “terrorist” groups, liable to suppression and severe punishment under Israel’s counterterrorism law.

 

Silencing Palestinian Voices

 

Why did Gantz target these six organizations and why now? It is tempting to suggest that, in Al-Haq’s case, the terrorism designation is part and parcel of the Israeli state’s desire to hide the crimes of its occupation from the global public, lest exposure further undermine Israel’s standing in the world.[1] But that would explain neither the timing nor the inclusion of organizations whose remit, strictly speaking, is not human rights work. The other five organizations are Defense for Children International–Palestine, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. For Israel, or at least for its defense minister, the designation was driven by a combination of necessity and opportunity, shaped by Gantz’s right-wing worldview, his interpretation of Israeli national interests and his perception of the threats that Palestinian society poses to Israel.

Despite international efforts to make room for two nationalisms in Israel-Palestine, the sheer imbalance in external support for the two sides has enabled Israel, as a matter of strategic priority, to incrementally eradicate even the possibility of Palestinian nationalism expressing itself in organized form. To prevent the emergence of a viable independent Palestinian state, Israel must direct all energy toward fragmenting and disempowering the Palestinian population and silencing Palestinian voices from the Occupied Territories. Palestinians, of course, resist this plan. Their last line of defense is their physical presence on the land and their determination to stay, come what may—a notion they refer to as sumoud, a tenacious steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds. “I am Samed,” Raja Shehadeh, Al-Haq’s co-founder, writes in one of his earliest books.

Palestinian nationalism has been shaped in modern history in part by its interaction with Zionism and the state of Israel. Its various manifestations reflect the splintering of Palestinian society since the dispossession of the Nakba in 1948. In that time, the Palestinian national movement and its leadership arose and established itself in exile, claiming to represent and agitate on behalf of all Palestinians. After 1967, realities in the Occupied Territories necessitated a different and somewhat more practical and grounded approach for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. They had to engage with the realities of local self-governance. In response, Palestinians built a sophisticated and intricate network of civil society organizations deeply rooted in every aspect of their lives, which in effect coalesced as a quasi-state administration, at least in the realm of social welfare. These institutions have provided services that the occupying power refused to deliver, so as to, in effect, “out-administer” the territories’ military ruler, to borrow a Gramscian notion.

Palestinians built a sophisticated and intricate network of civil society organizations deeply rooted in every aspect of their lives, which in effect coalesced as a quasi-state administration, at least in the realm of social welfare.

The alliance between these civil society institutions and the Palestinian national movement’s factions has been marked by both contestation and cooperation. The PA, in typical autocratic manner, has sought to control society, leaving organizations only a thin margin of autonomy. Local groups, with some exceptions, bought into the nationalist discourse but knew that too close an association with political factions engaged in armed resistance would expose them to Israeli repression, thus jeopardizing their contribution to building a stronger society.

Al-Haq’s solution was to insist on a non-partisan identity, mission and modus operandi, instructing its staff that they could adhere to any political view they liked but should check their politics at the office door. From my experience, Al-Haq staff hewed to views spanning the full spectrum of the Palestinian polity, but they observed the injunction and held to it closely as the key to the organization’s credibility and effectiveness. To accuse Al-Haq of being an arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as Gantz spuriously asserts, is just as absurd as claiming it is affiliated with Hamas or any other Palestinian political faction.

Al-Haq is not alone in its non-partisan approach, it is the norm among many Palestinian NGOs. There are some groups and institutions that identify more closely with one political line or another, but in this sense Palestinian civil society is no different from any other. The difference lies in the context. Palestinian civil society operates under an Israeli military occupation that is motivated to prevent any organized challenge to its own nationalist project. Israel’s imperatives nourished the Zionist conflation in rhetoric and policy of armed resistance with non-violent opposition. Significantly, such opposition includes any non-partisan criticism of Israeli military occupation, especially when—as Al-Haq and Addameer have done—these organizations are taking recourse to the International Criminal Court in The Hague by submitting amicus briefs. The successful work of these organizations puts Israel’s terrorism designation in a new light.

Following the Oslo Accords, the PA became the internationally recognized authority in the territories, the presumed predecessor to what would be the first government of an eventual independent state. It would be an overstatement to characterize the PA, as some do, as little but Israel’s security arm in the West Bank, although it has failed in its secondary purpose of being a nationalist building block. As for its primary purpose—to govern the territory and provide services—the PA’s ineptness, venality, repression, growing detachment from the population and resistance to holding elections have made it into a widely despised institution.

Israel has long regarded the PA as instrumental in controlling the Palestinian population. To the extent that it no longer serves that purpose, non-governmental organizations and popular relief committees can fill the vacuum and gain renewed significance. Rival political factions, such as the PFLP, may also find that their opposition voices carry further as the PA loses its standing in Palestinian society. Inadvertently, Israel has given the PFLP—previously a political relic—more relevance than it has had in decades. The group continues to have popular appeal, partly because it is not the PA, which draws its core constituency from Fatah, and it still has the capacity to mobilize supporters.

 

Seizing the Opportunity of International Complacency

 

Israel’s Western allies welcomed the ouster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March 2021 elections. The new government, despite for the first time including an Israeli Arab party, is arguably just as far to the right as Netanyahu’s and seems just as intent on entrenching the occupation. But its foreign minister, Yair Lapid, comes across, at least to people who know little about this context, as a more moderate and therefore palatable figure.

Fear that the fragile Israeli governing coalition will come unstuck over its myriad internal differences and thus return to the coarseness of the Netanyahu years is muting international criticism of Israeli repression in the aftermath of the popular Palestinian upheaval that swept across Israel and the Occupied Territories from April to June this year. Settlement expansion is proceeding apace; prisoner rights are being reversed following a prison escape; reconstruction is lagging in Gaza, which was devastated—once again—by a relentless 11-day air assault in May 2021. The international response is stock finger-wagging and little else—the perfect chance, from the Israeli government’s perspective, to suppress critics of the occupation and the PA, including an institution as widely respected as Al-Haq.[2]

“These charges were never substantiated in the past,” the organization’s European donors declare, mealy-mouthed. True. But then what? Who is prepared to stand up to Israel?
The invidious smear of being a PFLP associate is based on secret so-called evidence and laziness: Israel has been recycling and leveling the same charge against Palestinian civil society organizations for decades. International complacency makes it possible to pull this ruse over and over again. “These charges were never substantiated in the past,” the organization’s European donors declare, mealy-mouthed.[3] True. But then what? Who is prepared to stand up to Israel?

Israel’s new government has said that in the absence of a viable peace process, it wants to “shrink” the conflict, by which it means gilding the cage in which it confines Palestinians by allowing a measure of economic development in return for quiescence. It is the latest iteration of Israel’s project to wipe out Palestinian nationalism. And despite Western nations’ professions of support for a two-state solution, they all have acquiesced to the reality that Israel’s deliberate efforts to prevent it have made it a complete irrelevance.

Even if pressure from the White House—not a given—forces Gantz to reverse course, the damage has been done. The terrorism designation has cast a lasting pall over Palestinian society and the notion of institution-building toward a better future, sending a warning to all similar organizations that they could be the next target. If the past is any guide, donor governments will suspend funding and launch expensive and useless investigations that turn up nothing. Given this history it might be time for a more robust response, but there is not much cause for optimism.

Yet even as Israel appears to be making further headway in preempting the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, it is pushing the population to an alternative rights-based approach in the overall territory of Israel-Palestine. The ideas of Palestinian human rights and grassroots relief organizations are particularly well-suited for this scenario.

And in the end, Palestinians still have their sumoud.

 

[Joost Hiltermann worked for Al-Haq in the 1980s and is Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Former staff of Al-Haq living outside Palestine released a signed statement protesting the designation.

[2] The Netanyahu government investigated the same accusations in 2020 and did not take action. “Borrell: No Proof of EU-Funded NGOs Working with Palestinian Terror Groups,” Jerusalem Post, July 2, 2020.

[3] European Union Spokesperson, “Israel/Palestine: Statement by the Spokesperson on the listing of six Palestinian organisations as terrorist organisation,” October 28, 2021.

 

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "Israel’s Latest Effort to Fragment and Disempower the Palestinians," Middle East Report Online, November 10, 2021.
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