The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel moves to ban six Palestinian rights groups it accuses of terrorism, prompting international outrage

Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz signed off on the terrorism designations. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Israel designated six leading Palestinian rights organizations as terrorist groups on Friday, in the latest blow to activists who say space for dissent in the occupied territories has steadily shrunk amid intimidation by Israeli and Palestinian authorities alike.

The announcement was swiftly condemned by watchdogs in Israel and internationally, who say the designations are unsubstantiated and are attempts to muzzle prominent critics of the Israeli government.

The terrorism designation effectively bans the groups by allowing authorities to freeze their funds, raid their offices and prohibit fundraising and public expressions of support for the organizations, according to international monitors.

Israel’s Defense Ministry accused the groups of being controlled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist movement with an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks on civilians.

The PFLP does not recognize the existence of Israel.

Israel and its allies, including the United States, consider the PFLP to be a terrorist organization.

The six outlawed organizations are al-Haq, Addameer, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, Defense for Children International-Palestine and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

Al-Haq, arguably the best-known Palestinian rights group, called the allegations “baseless” and a “systemic smear.”

“We remain steadfast in advocating for a dignified future for the Palestinian people and the liberation of Palestine,” it said in a statement.

Addameer, which advocates for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and Defense for Children International made similar remarks. The other organizations could not be reached for comment early Saturday. Some of them also have publicly criticized the Palestinian Authority and Hamas for alleged abuses in the occupied territories.

Riad Malki, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, responded to Israel’s designation with a fiery statement in which he called the move a “fallacious and libelous slander” constituting a “strategic assault” on Palestinian civil society’s right to oppose Israel.

Israel Supreme Court allows expulsion of human rights activist

The Israeli government alleged that the six groups acted as a “central source” for financing PFLP operations. It said that the organizations received “major sums” of money from European countries and international organizations and alleged that some of that funding supported PFLP activities. It did not provide evidence.

The terrorism designations were approved by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who was military chief of staff when the Israel Defense Forces fought wars in Gaza in 2012 and 2014.

Friday’s announcement was not the first time that Israel has pressured rights advocates. In 2019, the country’s Supreme Court allowed the government to expel Omar Shakir, director for Israel and the Palestinian territories at Human Rights Watch. Shakir had been accused of supporting the boycotts, divestments and sanctions movement, which its critics have called antisemitic. He says he did not advocate for the BDS campaign in his HRW capacity.

The United States, Israel’s most important ally, said it was not given advance notice of the terrorism designations.

“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Friday, adding that the United States would seek more information on the basis for the designations.