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Israel’s Attack on Palestinian Civil Society
0:00 / 23:55
November 18, 2021

In October, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared six Palestinian human rights organizations to be “terrorist” groups. The targeted groups form the backbone of Palestinian civil society. Collectively, the organizations document Israeli human rights abuses and offer direct aid to Palestinians crushed by the Israeli occupation, whether it’s farmers facing Israeli settler land theft or children detained in Israel’s military court system. Gantz’s declaration placed the organizations at severe risk, making their employees potentially subject to arrest for working in a banned organization.

To learn more about what’s behind Israel’s moves and what it means for the future of Palestinian civil society, Senior Reporter Alex Kane interviews Palestinian American analyst Yousef Munayyer and Sarit Michaeli, International Advocacy Officer for B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights organization.

Articles Mentioned:

Secret Israeli Document Offers No Proof to Justify Terror Label for Palestinian Groups,” by Yuval Abraham, Oren Ziv, Meron Rapoport

The Long Arm of Israeli Repression,” by Yousef Munayyer

Report: NSO Spyware Found on 6 Palestinian Activists’ Phones,” by Frank Bajak and Joseph Krauss

Palestinian Diplomats Targeted by Israeli Spyware, Official Says,” by Patrick Kingsley and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad

Private Israeli Spyware Used to Hack Cellphones,” by Dana Priest, Craig Timberg, and Souad Mekhennet

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Alex Kane: Hello, and welcome to On the Nose, a podcast from Jewish Currents. I’m Alex Kane, the senior reporter at Jewish Currents, and I’m your host today. On October 22, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared six of the leading Palestinian human rights organizations, including prominent civil society groups Al-Haq and Defense for Children International Palestine, to be “terrorist groups.” Gantz claimed that the groups took in donations and funneled them to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian political faction with an armed wing that has been accused of carrying out a number of deadly attacks on Israelis in recent years. The targeted groups collectively formed the backbone of Palestinian civil society. Organizations document Israeli human rights abuses and offer direct aid to Palestinians crushed by the Israeli occupation, whether it’s farmers facing Israeli settler land theft, or children detained in Israel’s military court system. The declaration placed the organizations at severe risk, making their employees potentially subject to arrest for working in a banned organization. It also led to international outrage at Israel’s attack on Palestinian civil society. So far, the European governments that funds Palestinian civil society have rejected the accusations, saying they found no evidence their money was used for terrorism. The United States has been quieter, but the Biden administration has also not backed up Israel’s claims, despite Israeli officials traveling to the US to share supposed intelligence to substantiate the accusations.

For more on this, I’m excited to be joined by two guests with expertise on Israel’s war on Palestinian civil society. Yousef Munayyer is a widely published Palestinian American writer and analyst who is a non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington, DC. In addition to serving on the editorial committee of the Journal of Palestine studies, he recently wrote a piece on Israel’s attacks on Palestinian human rights groups for Foreign Policy Magazine. And Sarit Michaeli is international advocacy officer for B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights organization. B’Tselem frequently works alongside the six Palestinian human rights groups targeted by Benny Gantz. And the group released a statement calling Gantz’s move, “an act characteristic of totalitarian regimes.” Yousef and Sarit, welcome to On the Nose.

Sarit Michaeli: Thank you. Good to be with you.

Yousef Munayyer: Good to be with you.

AK: So Sarit, let’s start with the Israeli accusations. Is there any evidence for what Israel is saying? The serious charge that these civil society organizations are, “terrorist groups that funnel money to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine?”

SM: Well, this really depends on how you define evidence, because from the perspective of many Israelis, and from the perspective of the Israeli authorities, they’re simply the word of the Israeli security agency counts as evidence to back up this designation. Suddenly, we have no idea what classified internal conversations there are inside the system. What we do know is what was provided by Israel to first European diplomats and then to the United States Congress as evidence. And this is very far from the kind of rock-solid, clear, and adamant descriptions on the half of the Israeli security apparatus that came out recently to backup this designation. We know what was provided to the Europeans, and ultimately to Congress, is a kind of like a pseudo-PowerPoint presentation, based on the interrogations in Israeli detention of several members—or former members, or workers, or staffers-of an organization called the Health Worker committees—a Palestinian organization that has done work on building clinics and promoting health care throughout the Palestinian territories. And the Israeli document provides very handpicked and carefully selected segments from these ISA—Israeli Security Agency—interrogations of several of the staffers of the organization. That Israeli dossier spins the police confessions of these former staffers.

This material was then presented as proof to justify the designation the terror designation of six other organizations. This is based on a claim that the entire NGO sector, these six organizations, are effectively you know, fronts or organizations for the PFLP, that they have developed this very sophisticated modus operandi of diverting aid to the PFLP. That it’s all done under the auspices of the PFLP. For example, of Al-Haq, there was there’s no actual evidence or any statements. Even the Israeli designation itself doesn’t actually claim any involvement in terror funding, but simply from the perspective of the Israeli authorities, the fact that there’s some broad claim against them that associates this organization with the PFLP is enough under Israel’s anti-terror law of 2016. To designate these organizations, Israel took this dossier and presented it to embassies that represent several European Union countries—member states and also external non-EU member states—that fund Palestinian civil society as evidence that they should stop funding these six organizations. And these states looked at the dossier, read the material, and were simply not convinced. We’ve heard it again and again, from several member states, off the record and also in public statements like the one by the Irish Foreign Minister, that there is simply nothing in this dossier to convince these countries that are funding these organizations to accept that these are valid claims.

The second point I’d like to make about this notion of the so-called evidence that Israel relies on is that this is evidence extracted from detainees in Israeli Security Agency interrogations, that have been widely and extensively documented as being extremely coercive. They involve ill treatment as a default, and in some cases, also actual physical torture, actual physical violence that is applied to these Palestinian interrogatories. This is a long-term practice that B’Tselem and many other organizations have broadly documented. So the Israeli security agency takes these Palestinian interrogatories in this particular case, also actually, Spanish Palestinian, kind of former staffer in the health work committees, and subjected them to long periods of detention of being held in isolation, with losing sleep being placed under a massive amount of pressure in order to extract these confessions from these interrogatories.

AK: Thank you, Sarit. Yousef, let’s take as a given, as we should, what Sarit was laying out, is that there’s no evidence at all for the Israeli allegation. So there has to be some political reason why Israel is doing this. How would you explain what’s the political reason for why Israel has made these outlandish accusations?

YM: Yeah, sure. Thanks, Alex. And thank you, Sarit, for all of that. Look, I think if you just tuned into this situation, and you heard the news that Israel is designating these organizations, and this is the first you heard of Israel’s sort of persistent attacks on civil society dissent, you might think that, “Oh, the Israelis have something here, they must have something to take this step.” But in reality, if you understand this in the proper context—and that’s a context of a long-standing effort by the Israeli government to attack, intimidate, and silence dissent among civil society organizations. Not just Palestinian, but Israeli civil society organizations, and human rights groups like B’Tselem, for example, and others, and also international civil society actors, which have been calling for accountability for Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians. If you understand this step in this context, you understand what this is really about. This is about the latest step that the Israeli government is taking to ensure it can continue to act against Palestinians with impunity.

The reason that it went after these organizations—and it has been going after these organizations and others for a long period of time, much earlier than May of this year—is because these organizations have been incredibly effective in speaking about the human rights violations that the Israeli state is carrying out against Palestinians on a consistent basis. And importantly, not just speaking out about it, but demanding accountability for it. And if you read between the lines, and you listen carefully to what some of the actors who are seeking to silence these groups are saying, they’re quite transparent in their objectives. They say, “Look, you know, these are some of the groups that have been successful in advocating for historic legislation in the United States that would hold Israel to account for its mistreatment of Palestinian children and Israeli military detention,” for example. These groups have been very effective and pushing for the International Criminal Court to seek accountability for war crimes that have been committed by Israeli officials, and so on. They’re going after these groups and others precisely because they want them to stop doing the important and effective work that they’re doing in exposing Israeli violations.

So this is absolutely political. It’s not new, it’s part of a bigger and longer pattern of attacking civil society dissent in Israel, in Palestine, and internationally, where the Israeli government has worked with a broad network of actors—in its own words, a network of pro-Israel organizations to advance repressive outcomes, not just in Israel, Palestine, but also in Europe, and in the United States—to close space for civil society descent when it comes to the rights of Palestinians. So you know, this is how it should be understood. And look, we’ve seen this Israeli song and dance about evidence time and again, right? As recently as this May, when the Israeli military decided to bomb an entire apartment building where there were offices of the international media, including the Associated Press, and Al Jazeera, and others. And, you know, they said, we have the evidence, we have the evidence, we’re going to show Washington the evidence, and so on and so forth. And what happened? The world forgot about it, and we sort of moved on. And the evidence was never presented. You can point to countless episodes like this, where there are claims of evidence and that it’s said that it will be presented secretly, and so on, but at the end of the day, because of the imbalance of power because of the authority that the state has, because of the lack of checks on state authority and spaces, like, you know, the military occupied territory, where courts effectively act as rubber stamps for state authority, it can do as it pleases. And this is precisely why it is so important that civil society voices exist, and can call for accountability. And that’s also exactly why the Israeli state wants to silence them.

AK: Yousef, the Israeli spyware company, NSO Group, has software called Pegasus, which basically can infiltrate the cell phones of people. And we just had news that three of the leading Palestinian human rights advocates that work for the groups declared to be terrorist organizations by Benny Gantz, were hacked by Pegasus software. And the Palestinian Authority now says that three of their officials who are working on submitting evidence of the International Criminal Court, also found Pegasus on their phones. So I just wanted to ask you who the NSO Group is? And what is its connection to these attacks on Palestinian civil society?

YM: Yeah, this is this is really important news. And it raises a whole bunch of important questions that I think we really should seek answers to. So the NSO Group is one of actually many different firms, private firms that sell cyber espionage tools. They’re an Israeli firm that markets their products internationally. They say only to governments. They claim it’s only for legitimate purposes, not for tracking dissenters, and so on, and targeting innocent civilians. But we know through lots of important reporting, that their technology has actually been used by governments for plenty of abusive purposes. And the Washington Post and others have done a really important job in exposing a lot of this. And I think, you know, it’s important to keep in mind that this private firm has extensive connections to the Israeli state. This is extremely sensitive technology that comes through the development of the Israeli military intelligence industry. It is licensed for sale by the Israeli Ministry of Defense—this is ultimately a military-grade weapon of type. And the people who are involved in these organizations are largely products of high-level Israeli military intelligence units. Right?

So there is sort of a revolving door between the Israeli military intelligence industry and the private firms, which ended up exporting this technology internationally, with the approval of the Israeli government. And I think this, you know, in relation, not just to the episode of the six human rights groups raises a lot of questions, but raises a lot of questions beyond that, including the extent to which this technology is playing a role in shaping Israeli foreign policy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that governments that have moved towards normalizing with Israel are some of the high profile clients of this spyware firm. right, which was recently up blacklisted by the US Commerce Department for its activities and the ways in which its products are being used against us national interest. And so you have other important questions that come up here as well. Supposedly, this technology was not supposed to be aimed at Israeli numbers and numbers inside of Israel/Palestine. We learned now that that’s not the case. It’s not supposed to be directed at civilian targets, or whatever. We learned multiple times that that’s not the case. And if the Israeli government is licensing the sale of this technology, internationally, and also a client of this company, which one can presume is the situation here, it raises all kinds of other questions about conflicts of interests and so on.

So I think there is a lot to dig into here when it comes to this news. But perhaps most important, is the sequence of events here, right? We know that these individuals from the different human rights groups have been targeted by the software, long before there was an Israeli designation of these groups as “terrorist organizations.” And it was only as it was becoming clear that this information was about to go public, that the Israeli government took the step of designating these groups as terrorist organizations. And just before the NSO Group was blacklisted by the US government. All of this seems to suggest that the Israeli government attempted to provide cover for a corporation that it is very much in bed with, to legitimize the use of its product against these human rights organizations by sort of retroactively labeling them, well...“terrorists.” So many important questions come out of this news, which is extremely concerning.

AK: So what we’ve just laid out is a government that is hacking the phones of Palestinian civil society advocates that has branded them terrorists, that has the power to arrest them, and try to shut down their funding. Sarit, what do you think the future holds for the Palestinian civil society groups under attack? And for Palestinian civil society writ large? What should we be looking out for as the story progresses?

SM: My sense is that the future of Palestinian civil society really depends on the international reaction. Unfortunately, currently, we are seeing this kind of foot dragging, or wait-and-see attitude on behalf both of Europe and possibly the United States. And this could lead to the Israeli authorities kind of actions being already cemented into a situation that will put facts on the ground. And I think the essential fact is that it’s going to become very difficult for these organizations to receive funding from international sources and to disburse it to pay salaries, to pay for their needs and their suppliers, and to do the work. And it’s very clear, when you look at the Israeli actions, that the option of declaring these organizations as terror organizations, rather than simply—as was done in the past on many occasions, not with human rights groups—simply as the illegal associations is very much related to this desire to shut down the funding and the money links. And this is, I think, how Israel views it and the reason why they selected this draconian measure. And I think this will also affect the ability to transfer money from abroad to these organizations.

My understanding now, after having some conversations with diplomats that are based locally in our region, is that the international community is really trying to understand how it can continue to support these organizations, technically. How the actual practicalities of funding would function. But for me, I think the worrying issue is that there hasn’t yet been a strong enough, as far as we’re concerned, response rejecting this Israeli action, demanding that anything that is done in the future is actually backed up by not secret, by open evidence and subjected to some sort of scrutiny. That is not the internal Israeli scrutiny, which we know is not ever in a position to challenge the security apparatus. And my understanding again, based on conversations I had is that the international priority the European Union and kind of like other like-minded, non-European Union countries are waiting to see what the Americans will say and do, which could take a while. And then, while all of this is happening, the chilling effect that is being applied quite deliberately, I’m sure, by Israel to these organizations will continue to mean that they are going to find it more difficult to operate right to operate in a way that an NGO needs to operate. And that I think, primarily will require paying people salaries, because people need to survive in order to do this work.

So on some level, from the perspective of the Israeli authorities, it’s a kind of win-win situation. And this is not that difficult when you have all the cards, right? When you’re prosecution, you’re the judge, and you’re the jury, because you decide what is terrorism, you decide who to label as a terrorist, and you decide which court—your court that identifies with you, will ultimately be the one making any kind of final decision on whether this designation is acceptable. Israel will manage to either silence these organizations because of lack of action by the international community, or by the kind of broad chilling effect that is already kind of being applied. And I think, you know, we’ve seen several examples in the past when you smear organizations enough, and you accused them for many, many years of being terrorist supporters, with these kinds of, you know, kind of manufactured evidence, there are always going to be people in Europe and internationally, who will simply not won’t want to take the risk of associating with these organizations simply because of the worry, the fear that there will be kind of terror associated, even if the allegations aren’t proven. And this is something that we need to be very realistic about.

And that’s why I think that the really kind of like deciding factor is, is what these governments are going to do, and are government’s willing to stand up to the Israeli Government on this issue? Are they going to be willing to spend the political capital necessary to confront the Israeli declaration, and also beyond that? Are these governments and again, I’m talking primarily about the funders now, not about the United States, willing to continue to find alternative ways to fund these activities that have been blanket criminalized by Israel? Because after the terror designation, the Minister of Defense, or the VOC Central Command, also included these six organizations in the list of prohibited associations. So this effectively, it means that their assets are frozen now. So the international community really needs to find a way to insist that the actions, the operations, the activities, the projects of these organizations continue to take place. And it seems quite difficult under the current political reality that we’re familiar with of European lack of unanimity on this issue, the American administration’s kind of like lack of appetite to be overly critical of the Israeli policies. So this remains to be seen. And I think this is the essential thing that we need beyond any form of kind of international solidarity, etc.

AK: All right, well, that’s gonna be our show. But we’re gonna continue to follow the story really closely at Jewish Currents. Thanks so much for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast and rate it, so people get to know about it, and check out our website, JewishCurrents.org, as we continue to follow this story, and all the other stories. So thank you Sarit, so much, and thank you, Yousef. Really appreciate your time.

YM: Thank you both.

SM: Thank you very much.

AK: Thank you.

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