Palestinian Rights Groups Raided by Israeli Soldiers
Seven Palestinian human rights organizations that Israel has accused of having links to terrorism were raided on Thursday by dozens of Israeli soldiers who broke down office doors, seized documents, printers and computers and then welded the doors shut, the groups and the Israeli military said.
The soldiers left behind military orders taped to the doors stating that the groups were illegal and no longer allowed to operate, following a move in October to designate six of them as terrorist organizations, the groups said. Another group that was not designated in October was also raided on Thursday.
The Palestinian groups have all rejected the allegations, and international human rights groups and the United Nations have criticized the move by Israel, saying it was aimed at restricting and silencing criticism of its 55-year military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Online videos posted by some of the groups of the raids, which mainly took place in and around the city of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, showed soldiers ransacking offices and carting away equipment they later loaded onto trucks. The groups also posted images of the front doors of their offices, some with boot marks on them and welded shut.
“This is a significant escalation to actually shutter the office and officially give notice that the designations are being acted upon and implemented in a concrete way,” said Brad Parker, a senior policy adviser for Defense for Children International-Palestine, one of the groups targeted in the raids on Thursday. “That is a significant step forward in their campaign to criminalize and silence our work.”
The group’s office was empty when more than a dozen Israeli soldiers broke down the door and entered it a little before 6 a.m., Mr. Parker said. The soldiers stayed for nearly an hour, he said, citing footage from security cameras, taking the legal files of children prosecuted by Israel’s military court who are represented by the group.
The other five groups designated in October were Al-Haq, Addameer, Bisan, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.
The groups vary in focus but are all involved in highlighting rights abuses by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza. The various groups also promote the rights of prisoners, women and farmworkers, and provide health care to Palestinians.
Israel has accused the groups of being fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was involved in hijacking passenger planes in the 1960s and 1970s and later claimed responsibility for suicide attacks during a Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. It is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Also raided on Thursday was the Union of Health Work Committees, which was not one of the groups designated in October.
Some of the groups have been active in a campaign to prosecute Israeli leaders for war crimes at the International Criminal Court and have worked in partnership with international rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Some of their work has been funded by foreign countries and institutions, including the European Union.
The director of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Fuad Abu Saif, said the raids made clear that immediate and concrete action was needed from the international community to help the groups and to pressure the Israeli government and hold it to account for its targeting of them.
The soldiers who raided his group’s office, he said, took not only the copiers, phones and computers, but also a toaster and a wastebasket, and damaged some desks.
“They left the office totally destroyed,” he said.
The dawn raids came a day after an appeal from the organizations designated in October was rejected by the head of the Israeli military’s Central Command in the West Bank.
That same day, Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, ratified into law the designations against three of the groups — the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, Bisan and Addameer — which did not lodge an appeal in Israeli courts.
The other three groups have ongoing appeals in the Israeli courts.
The Israeli military said that its soldiers and border police operated overnight to close the seven institutions and confiscate property. During the raids, local residents threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers, who responded with tear gas and other riot dispersal means, according to the military and a resident.
Before they appealed the terrorist designations, the groups had asked for the evidence against them, said Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah and a lawyer for three of the groups. Those requests were refused, he said.
“All the material that they relied upon is secret material,” he said. “Our appeal said that the decision is invalid because it doesn’t give us due process and the right to a defense.”
Some of the organizations had been operating for 30 years and Israel didn’t present any evidence that in that time they did anything illegal, he said.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, had previously suspended project funding for one of the groups, Al-Haq, but informed the group in June that it would resume funding with immediate effect.
According to a letter sent to Al-Haq, the commission said that the European anti-fraud office “concluded that there is no suspicions of irregularities and/or fraud affecting E.U. funds in the implementation of E.U. funded project.”
In July, 10 European countries — Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden — rejected the designation of the six organizations.
The United States has not taken a public position on the designations. In response to questions, a spokesman for the State Department, Ned Price, has said that “independent civil society organizations in the West Bank and in Israel must be able to continue their important work.”
Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, called the raids “an attack on the global human rights movement. He added: “Palestinian civil society today faces an existential threat.”
Mr. Shakir himself has been the target of Israel’s clampdown on rights groups.
Israel ordered him to leave the country in 2019, under a controversial law that bars entry to foreigners who have publicly called for a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank. At the time, the rights group said the decision sent a chilling message that those who criticize Israel risked being barred from the country.
An Israeli rights group also criticized Thursday’s raids and said it would continue to work with the groups to “dismantle the apartheid regime.”
“This regime considers violent repression a legitimate tool to control Palestinians, yet defines nonviolent civil activity as terrorism,” B’Tselem, the rights group, said in a statement.
The Israeli government strongly rejects being characterized as an apartheid state, a charge that has been made by a number of international, Israeli and Palestinian rights groups, including most recently by a United Nations special rapporteur.
Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem.