Israeli media split on terrorist designation of six Palestinian NGOs

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


On October 22, the Israeli government designated six Palestinian NGOs — Al-Haq, Addameer, Bisan Center, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees — as accessories to a terrorist organization. The decision, issued by the Israeli ministries of justice and defense, alleged that the six were affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an organization designated as “terrorist” by the U.S. and the EU. The targeting of these NGOs and their activists has sent shock waves through the Palestinian human-rights community as many of them were at the forefront of the struggle against Israel. U.S. and EU officials have criticized the decision and asked the Israeli government for the evidence on which the charges are based. The reaction in Israel has been mixed, with some questioning the manner in which the designation was applied, rather than the decision itself.

Based on various news reports, including a statement from the Biden White House, it appears that little information, if any, was available prior to the public announcement:  “The US State Department criticized the announcement on Friday in the most explicit admonition from the Biden administration since the new Israeli government was formed in June. ‘We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance,’ said State Department spokesperson Ned Price. He added that the US will ‘be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.’”

The EU High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell in a meeting with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at EU headquarters in Brussels also expressed his concern for the targeting of civil-society activists, emphasizing “the EU’s support to civil society organizations that contribute to peace efforts and confidence building between Israelis and Palestinians. He stressed that listing six Palestinian organizations as terrorist organizations by the Israeli Ministry of Defense is a matter of serious concern. The EU will very closely examine the allegations. Finally, he added that civil society organizations are a force in promoting international law, human rights, and democratic values, across the world and in Palestine.”

Early indications are that the designation of these NGOs as terrorist-affiliated will likely result in criminal indictments of some of their members. In fact, Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov reports that several individuals affiliated with these organizations will be charged in the coming days “for funneling European humanitarian aid to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a designated terrorist group, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced on Thursday. Charges are set to be brought against the suspects in the Judea Military Court in the coming days. The Foreign Ministry summoned European ambassadors to demand that their countries stop funding organizations that funnel money to the PFLP. … The Shin Bet, together with the IDF and police, found that the funding was sent to Palestinian organizations in the West Bank – particularly one called Health Work Committees – that are affiliated with the PFLP, designated a terrorist organization by the EU, US, Canada, and others.” 

The reaction among Israeli observers has been varied, with some taking a critical stance against the decision, and others demanding more transparency. While a sizable number of editorial and opinion pieces have embraced the government’s decision, perennial advocates of Palestinian rights, such as the Haaretz editorial team, eviscerated it, declaring that the “government’s declaration of civil society organizations in the West Bank as terrorist organizations is a destructive folly that tarnishes all of the parties in the coalition and the state itself. The outlawing of human rights groups and persecution of humanitarian activists are quintessential characteristics of military regimes, in which democracy in its deepest sense is a dead letter.” 

The +972 magazine — a nonprofit owned and run by a group of Israeli and Palestinian journalists — was equally critical, warning that, by going after the six NGOs, the government was “opening the door to more severe legal, financial, and violent retribution — nothing less than an authoritarian move aimed at crushing Palestinians’ ability to resist their oppression. It amounts to a direct attack on all Palestinian human rights defenders, on the communities they represent, and on the local and international publics’ right to information about the reality in the occupied territories. … +972 rejects the criminalization of the six Palestinian NGOs and fully intends to continue working with them. We call on the international community to intervene and protect the organizations from Israel’s attacks, along with all human rights defenders and journalists targeted by Israel.”

Amjad Iraqi, editor of +972, argues that the real reason behind the decision was the Israeli government’s inability to control the narrative and its desire to “eliminate [Palestinian] opposition to apartheid. … The work of these groups has been pivotal in exposing Israel’s rights abuses and turning the tide of global opinion against its regime, especially as the Palestinian political leadership remains fragmented and comatose. As Addameer director Sahar Francis told +972 this week, ‘We have been targeted for years, for one reason: we’re succeeding in changing the paradigm around the world by speaking of apartheid.’ The impact of these NGOs goes beyond the level of discourse. Al-Haq, for example, is among the main Palestinian groups providing evidence to the International Criminal Court, compelling the former chief prosecutor to open an official investigation into suspected war crimes.”

Not all are convinced, however, that the Israeli government’s decision was the wrong one. For example, writing for the Jerusalem Post, Emily Schrader points to the evidence provided by the Ministry of Justice which allegedly documents and supports the government’s characterization of these NGOs as aiding terrorist organizations: “While all evidence against the six organizations has not yet been released, one thing can be said for certain: it is not an attack on civil society to designate NGOs as terror fronts when they are abusing their status as NGOs to fund and assist terror. … Dozens of Palestinian NGOs work against the state of Israel in a variety of ways without funding internationally recognized terrorist organizations. There is a reason these six were designated and others were not – and that alone speaks to the fact that this is not an attack on Palestinian civil society meant to ‘suppress voices against the occupation’ but rather to halt funding to violent terrorist groups actively plotting attacks against Israelis.”

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ben-Dror Yemini goes further, arguing that not only do the identified organizations deserve the designation and scrutiny, but that the broader human-rights and humanitarian community should distance themselves from the six NGOs, lest they lose their legitimacy and credibility: “Their demands are weird, to say the least, considering detailed proof has been published not only in the 2019 report, but also, repeatedly, by the NGO Monitor organization – which promotes accountability on the reports and activities of humanitarian NGOs in regard to the Arab–Israeli conflict. Serious peace and rights organizations should have built a wall between them and the organizations and bodies that celebrate terrorism and work to delegitimize Israel, but the opposite is true. And when politicians and ‘rights organizations’ in Israel stand up to defend these bodies, they are basically killing what was supposed to be Israel’s ‘peace bloc.’”

Accusing the “outlawed Palestinian groups” of being responsible for enabling the PFLP to carry out terrorist activities, Fiamma Nirenstein, as evinced by her recent op-ed for Israel Hayom, is similarly unmoved by the criticism aimed at the Israeli government: “The cloaking of terrorist groups in human-rights garb is an established practice for those who want to destroy Israel, and the cynicism of international politics not only enables pretending not to understand this reality but helps the system. So, the law goes to dust, the victim becomes persecutor, and the terrorist who ignores every democratic principle becomes the key protagonist of the NGO era. … It is even more tragic that the term ‘human rights’ has become a trap, creating an absurd inversion of the very real distinction between perpetrators and victims. The ongoing dispute over Gantz’s declaration should make the entire world tremble.”

In the right-wing daily Arutz Sheva, Amnon Lord’s op-ed points to criticism in the U.S. as evidence of the impact Palestinian activists and civil society are having on the perception of Israel, crediting “Palestinians’ combined action of war and propaganda. … The most well-known among the six groups is Al-Haq, which calls itself a ‘human-rights organization.’ The Defense Ministry had no trouble declaring it as a terror group, though, as its officials are members of the PFLP and are known to have participated in terrorist activities. … For years, such Israeli-Palestinian cooperation has been the cause of many struggles for Israel. They have essentially become the driving force of anti-Israel hatred, including hatred of Jews, throughout the Western world.”

Finally, in two back-to-back pieces published by the Jerusalem Post, one reveals a third approach to the dramatic events of recent days. Reacting immediately after the announcement, the Jerusalem Post editorial, rather than deal with the substance of the allegations, opted to comment on the roll-out of the announcement, concluding that Defense Minister Benny Gantz made two mistakes: “The first is that it was done without providing any evidence. Just a statement to the media. No briefing or release of documents was made to prove the charges being leveled against the groups. The second problem was that Israel failed to update its American counterparts on what it was planning to do. As a result, the US was taken by surprise and Price made the statement he made. … This is not to say that these NGOs or Halabi are innocent. It is a call on Israeli authorities to back up what they claim with real evidence. Otherwise, they should not be surprised when the world asks questions.”

An op-ed by Yaakov Katz also lamented the Israeli government’s inability to properly manage domestic and international expectations regarding the decision, implying that Mr. Gantz’s “missteps” may have been intentional: “This kind of decision and announcement should have been a walk in the park, a lay-up, an easy shot. Instead, it turned into a diplomatic and political debacle that screams of amateurism and negligence on the part of the so-called ‘change government.’ From the beginning, something was off about the story. The announcement on a Friday – that the NGOs had an ‘unambiguous and direct’ connection with the PFLP – was made with no evidence released to back it up, no briefing to the press, no videos, no papers. … Gantz has for some time been operating like a rogue minister in the cabinet. The animosity between him and Bennett and Lapid is no secret; and there are ministers in the government who still suspect that the defense minister is looking for a way to bring down this government in the coming months.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top