National Security Blog Essay

Israel Levies National Security Law to Shutter Six Palestinian Civil Society Organizations

Citing its National Security Law, Israel recently designated six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist groups. This designation, based on classified evidence, amounts to an attempt to shut down swaths of civil society without meaningful due process. Around the world, similar national security laws have proliferated, sparking concerns about countries’ potential to misuse such laws to restrict civil society. Israel’s designation is unique for two reasons: it is an egregious misuse of a national security law levied against civil society, and its scope impacts large swaths of Palestinian civil society. This designation illustrates what is at stake: if the international community fails to persuade Israel to reverse its designation––as will likely be the case––other nations may be emboldened to follow suit, setting a worrying precedent for human rights defenders across the world.

Benny Gantz, the Israeli Minister of Defense, announced on October 22 that six civil society organizations working in occupied Palestinian territory would be designated as terrorist groups by the Israeli government. The six organizations—the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, ADDAMEER, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Al-Haq Organization, Defense for Children International Palestine, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees—have mission statements that focus mainly on documenting human rights and international humanitarian law violations in Palestine. But the designation, posted on the National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing of Israel (NBCTF) website, states that the organizations were determined to “belong[] to the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’” (PFLP), an organization on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. According to Israel’s announcement, the six organizations only postured as human rights or civil society organizations, while in fact being “controlled” by the PFLP and “serv[ing] as a central source for [its] financing.” The designation accuses the six organizations of funneling money from Western countries and international organizations to PFLP ends, including “promotion of terror activity.” The designation gives the Israeli government the ability to effectively shutter these organizations: security forces are empowered to enter their offices, seize assets, jail staff, and criminalize those sending money or services to the organizations.

This legal basis for this decision is Israel’s 2016 National Security Law [full text in Hebrew, unofficial translation]. This Law overhauled the existing framework of counterterrorism and security provisions, some of which dated back to the British Mandate. It provides a definition of a ‘terrorist act’ and authorizes the Minister of Defense to designate groups as ‘terrorist organizations,’ which gives the government power to criminalize the actions of the group and seize its property.

Despite its purported purpose, the Law’s vagueness and weak procedural protections invite abuse by the Israeli government. Scholars have argued that it contains “vague language on what constitutes terrorist activity, and what amounts to supporting terrorism” and ultimately “leav[es] those it targets with little to no protection.” Under the Law, organizations designated as terrorist groups receive no notice prior to the designation, and all adjudication channels for disputing their declaration run through the Minister of Defense—the official who made the original designation. Professors Eliav Lieblich and Adam Shinar argue that, under the legal procedures provided for in the Law, “a successful rebuttal [of a terrorist designation] is all but completely impossible:” “[T]he minister’s decision will almost always be based on classified intelligence, and, according to the law, there are no disclosure obligations, including to the target organization.” A petition to the Supreme Court of Israel, the last recourse to have a designation overturned, is also unlikely to be successful because the government can also rely on classified evidence in arguments before the Court, which “can be disclosed to the Court only ex parte.” Simply put, the six organizations have no meaningful way to challenge their designation as terrorist groups.

Backlash to Israel’s designation among international organizations has been swift and acerbic. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch through a joint statement called Israel’s decision an “appalling and unjust” attack on human rights which “threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations.” A coalition of 304 U.S. civil society organizations wrote a letter to Secretary of State Blinken asking him to condemn the designation, saying that the decision threatens the “bedrock” of Palestinian civil society. 242 regional and international organizations signed a statement expressing solidarity with the organizations and asking the international community to condemn the decision and demand its reversal. United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs working for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “strongly and unequivocally” condemned the designation. The experts called on the international community to “use its full range of political and diplomatic tools to request that Israel review and reverse this decision.”

While Israel’s designation is distinctly expansive in its potential to shutter entire sectors of civil society within Palestine, the contours of the underlying National Security Law are far from unique to Israel. In fact, countries across the world have passed legislation within the last decade that uses the language of national security or antiterror financing to exert power over civil society. The Philippines and Turkey both enacted national security laws during 2020 that used anti-terrorism framing to wield enormous governmental power over civil society organizations. Last month, Amnesty International announced that it would shutter its Hong Kong offices because of a new national security law in the territory that made it “effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely.” Amnesty International further identified Albania, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela as states that have used antiterrorism financing regimes to “justify crackdowns on civil society.” And like in Israel, these laws are ripe for misuse: a UN report found that human rights defenders have been jailed in instances worldwide by selective use of these counterterrorism frameworks.  

The UN and other international actors have shown great attention to the restriction of civil liberties through counterterrorism measures within the past decade, but without meaningful results. The UN Human Rights commission created the post of a “Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” in 2005, whose mandate encompasses examining counterterrorism laws that may infringe on civil rights. The UN has likewise included a pillar affirming the importance of human rights protection in its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. However, these efforts are constrained by principles of sovereignty—the UN lacks jurisdiction (or political will) to compel states to rewrite their own legal codes.

In some circumstances, however, the existence of an international framework has contributed directly to sanctions on civil liberty. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the intergovernmental group which sets standards for preventing money laundering and terror financing, regularly threatens countries not in compliance with its policies with membership on the “grey list.” Nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and research centers have repeatedly documented how threats of inclusion on the grey list can lead countries (including Turkey in the case of its 2020 counterterrorism law) to rush through legislation that drastically curtails the NGO sector. Serbia, for example, passed an anti-terror-financing law in 2017 in response to the FATF, and this law was found to threaten the function of civil society and charity organizations. A recent brief by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law discussed the “unintended consequences” of the FATF in Africa. It named Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as states that––in response to FATF standards––were considering laws which would overregulate non-profits in the aim of countering terrorism.

Ultimately, this framework leaves international organizations and rights defenders on a back foot: warning about the “misuse” of anti-terrorism legislation and “unintended consequences” of good policies. These admonishments, however, fail to provide a clear-cut definition of when a law passes the threshold from protecting homeland security to infringing on human rights, and leave room for countries to (inadvertently or maliciously) enable themselves through legislation to overregulate the NGO sphere in their countries.

  Even in the case of Israel’s designation, an example of a counterterrorism law gone a step too far, the most powerful actors on the international stage have yet to react publicly. The European Union released a statement on October 28 affirming its commitment to continue to offer “support to civil society” but stopping far short of condemning the designation – instead vowing to “engag[e] Israeli authorities for more information.” The United States also failed to speak out against the designations: State Department spokesperson Ned Price similarly stated on October 22 that the United States would “engag[e] our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.” While it is possible that informal diplomacy, if adequate pressure were exerted, could sway Israel into reversing the designation, such pressure seems unlikely from the Biden administration, and no other feasible avenues of compulsion exist on the international framework.

UN experts have called civil society groups the “canaries in the human rights coal mine”—when their members are jailed or their activities suppressed, it is a warning that other aspects of civil liberties and free expression may be in severe danger. Diplomatic avenues seem unlikely to succeed in persuading the Israeli authorities to reverse the designation. Indeed, strong diplomatic efforts might not be pursued at all. And the National Security Law’s paltry procedural safeguards are unlikely to offer the organizations meaningful recourse within the Israeli legal system. The designation will thus probably stand, sending a signal to other countries that such constraints on civil society will not be punished by the international community. Far broader than just these six organizations, this designation illustrates a worrying, worldwide trend towards suppressing dissidents in the name of combatting terrorism.