Based on Vague, Unsubstantiated Grounds, Israeli Move Further Erodes Humanitarian, Civic Space in Occupied Palestinian Territory, High Commissioner for Human Rights Says
Expressing outrage over Israel’s continuing harassment of human rights activists in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including the recent terrorist designation of six civil society groups, speakers urged the international community to take strong action in holding the country accountable for its conduct, as the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People met today.
Briefing the Committee on human rights abuses in the territory, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, spotlighted Israel’s tragic killing in May of 261 Palestinians, including 67 children. Reacting to the incident, the United Nations Human Rights Council set up an international, independent commission of enquiry to investigate, “all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law leading up and since 13 April 2021”, she said.
She also observed that Gaza is suffering from a 15‑year land, sea and air blockade that has deeply damaged its human rights, although reconstruction and recovery are ongoing as cessation of hostilities holds. “However, although some goods have been gradually allowed to enter Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, as well as the Egypt-controlled Rafah crossing, humanitarian conditions remain deeply concerning,” she said.
On civic freedoms, Ms. Bachelet underscored Israel’s recent designation of six Palestinian civil society groups as “terrorist organizations”, based on vague or unsubstantiated grounds. Those groups have worked with the international community for decades, she said, defending human rights and delivering humanitarian aid for thousands of people. “Without adequate substantive evidence, these decisions appear arbitrary, and further erode the civic and humanitarian space in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” she said.
Following Ms. Bachelet’s briefing, the Committee held a panel discussion on “Supporting Human Rights Defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Reality, Challenges, and Obligations”, with many speakers repeatedly condemning Israel’s treatment of human rights activists and its recent outlawing of civil society groups.
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, decried the designation of the six groups as a frontal assault on the international human rights movement. Escalation of the Israeli Government’s campaign against human rights advocates is aimed at maligning and attacking them as well as denying them access to Palestinian territory, he said.
Human rights lawyer Michael Sfard observed that Israel has provided no evidence for its allegations against the six organizations, noting that the country has a history of targeting the human rights community. Under Israeli law, designating a civil society entity as a terrorist organization is a death penalty, he said, invoking criminal powers that can block resources and force the group into seclusion.
Saleh Hijazi, head of Amnesty International’s Israel and Palestine office, used the term “shrinking space” to describe Israel’s policies, as they restrict and punish groups aiming to expose Israel’s human rights abuses and hold the country to account. Israel has threatened and hindered their work, imposing bureaucratic obstacles or subjecting them to electronic surveillance, he said, urging the international community to expose the country’s abusive acts and end its era of impunity.
Other panellists included Syed Mohamad Hasrin Aidid, Member of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; and Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine to the United Nations.
During an ensuing discussion, several speakers said Israel’s actions could cripple Palestinian civil society organizations, suggesting that an annual forum be held, where they can express concerns over such atrocities. Emphasizing that the international community must respond to Israel’s actions on multiple levels, they stressed the need to support International Criminal Court’s measures, as well as efforts to ban settlements.
Words of condemnation must be immediately translated into action, others said, stressing that Israel must be pressured to rescind its persecution of civil society groups or face consequences. Adding that Israeli ambassadors have never been questioned about their country’s acts against them, they underscored the importance of establishing a global body for apartheid and persecution crimes to pursue abuses and ensure prosecution.
Also speaking today were the representatives of Cuba and Turkey, among others. The Deputy Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine also spoke.
The Committee will meet again at a date and time to be announced in the United Nations Journal.
MOHAMMAD KURNIADI KOBA (Indonesia), Vice Chair of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said Palestinian human rights are trampled daily, with shocking impunity for crimes committed against them. When war in Gaza broke out in May, the Committee raised its voice, strongly condemning attacks against civilians and calling for the Security Council to act. In October, it voiced deep concern over the Israeli designation of reputable human rights non-governmental organizations as “terrorist organizations.” The Committee looks forward to a briefing about the situation on the ground and current state of play regarding initiatives, he said, like the database of settlements-related businesses, and newly established standing Commission of Inquiry.
Briefing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighting acute concerns regarding the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said that the most significant escalation in hostilities since 2014 occurred in Gaza in May, resulting in the killing of 261 Palestinians, including 67 children. That escalation was directly linked to protests and violent responses by Israeli security forces — first in East Jerusalem, then spreading to the entire Occupied Palestinian Territory and to Israel. A special session of the Human Rights Council was subsequently convened where the Council decided to establish an ongoing, independent international commission of inquiry, with a mandate to investigate “all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law leading up and since 13 April 2021”.
In addition to recurring cycles of hostilities, she said the people of Gaza also continue to suffer from a 15‑year land, sea and air blockade that has deeply damaged the human rights and humanitarian situation. With vital infrastructure crumbling, the decaying sewer system constitutes a threat to health. Noting the severe movement restrictions and obstructions to people's access to essential goods and services, including specialized healthcare, she said Palestinians are systematically deprived of the fundamental rights and freedoms due to every human being. Reconstruction and recovery efforts are ongoing in Gaza and the fragile cessation of hostilities continues to hold. “However, although some goods have been gradually allowed to enter Gaza through the Israel‑controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, as well as the Egypt-controlled Rafah crossing, humanitarian conditions remain deeply concerning,” she said, stressing: “Further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately leads to the return of legitimate Palestinian governmental institutions to the Gaza Strip.
Turning to the issue of civic freedoms, she said that on 19 October, Israel designated six Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist organizations” under Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Law of 2016, and later declared unlawful in the occupied territory. Pointing out that those designations appear to have been based on vague or unsubstantiated reasons, she said all six organizations have worked with the international community, including the United Nations for decades, collectively defending human rights and providing humanitarian assistance for thousands of people. “Without adequate substantive evidence, these decisions appear arbitrary, and further erode the civic and humanitarian space in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” she said.
Expressing regret that actions by the Palestinian Authority have also contributed to restricting the civic space for Palestinians, she said the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are increasingly curtailed. Since June 2021, her Office has documented cases of assaults of journalists and human rights defenders, as well as intimidation; gender-based violence and harassment; excessive use of force; arbitrary arrests and censorship. In Gaza, the de facto authorities have also restricted Palestinians’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, with targeting of journalists through raids, arrests and harassment.
Underscoring the numerous killings and injuries of Palestinians across the Occupied Palestinian Territory by Israeli forces, as well as by armed settlers, she said the use of excessive or unwarranted force by Israeli forces appears in many instances to be a measure of first — rather than last — resort, as required under international law. Expressing particular alarm at the recurring incidents of excessive use of force leading to the death and injury of Palestinian children, she said that in 2021 Israeli forces have killed 16 children in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. “These and all other killings, as well as all incidents of excessive and unwarranted use of lethal force by Israeli forces, must be thoroughly and effectively investigated, and those responsible held to account,” she stressed.
Turning to settler-related violence, she noted that in the past year, there have been 490 incidents resulting in deaths, injury and/or significant property damage — the highest incidence of settler violence ever recorded by the United Nations. On average, there is almost one incident of settler violence each day. Despite reports that the Israeli authorities have taken steps, she said the justice system continues to fail to hold settlers accountable for violence against Palestinians, adding that “this lack of accountability for settler violence contributes to the increased number and severity of attacks.” Moreover, the approval, planning and construction of Israeli settlements continues unabated across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Highlighting reports by United Nations partners indicating that 75 per cent of all children in Gaza need mental health and psychosocial support, as well as other community- and family-based services, she said that currently 160 Palestinian children are detained by Israel, some of them without charge, under administrative detention regulations. Stressing that under international law, administrative detention is permitted only in exceptional circumstances and must be subject to strict safeguards to prevent arbitrariness, she said her Office also continues to receive reports of the ill-treatment of children during their arrest, transfer, interrogation and detention by Israeli authorities.
“Overall, the present human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory can fairly be characterized as disastrous, with severe infringements on the rights of over 4 million people,” she said, with damaging prospects for peace and sustainable development for Israel, as well as the surrounding region. The root causes of the violations need to be addressed, so that the continuing cycles of violence can be stopped. The international community must commit to ensure long-overdue accountability for all violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. “No matter how long the road has been, ‘never-ending’ cannot be an acceptable description for any situation in which human rights are violated and abused,” she said. “Only an end to the occupation can bring about lasting peace and establish the conditions in which the human rights of all can be fully respected.”
Question and Answer Session
The representative of Cuba asked Ms. Bachelet how Palestinian human rights are being addressed in the West Bank. He also questioned whether Israel would review its decision regarding the six non-governmental organizations it outlawed or if the international community would take any action.
The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine questioned how important the database of settlements-related businesses is, noting that its continued update could pressure Israel to cease its settlement activities. He expressed hope that the Office of the High Commissioner would publish updates for the database as well as the newly established Commission of Inquiry.
The representative of Turkey said Israeli policies are not aimed at achieving peace, adding that additional efforts are needed to ensure accountability for actions counter to international law. Israel’s actions to classify six non-governmental organizations as “terrorist” are contrary to human rights and international law, he said, emphasizing that the international community must no longer turn its back on Palestinian efforts to achieve freedom and dignity.
Another speaker asked Ms. Bachelet about the way forward in the Palestinian territory and how the international community could transform “business as usual” into concrete action. The human rights crisis there has been exacerbated by the COVID‑19 pandemic and the designation of six non-governmental organizations as terrorist groups, he said.
Responding, Ms. Bachelet said Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip due to the pandemic in April 2020 has restricted travel to and from the area and limited treatment as well as vaccines. Its decision to outlaw six non-governmental organizations has restrained the work of the Human Rights Commission, she added, which knows they provide essential services to countless Palestinians. In addition to restricting space for Palestinian civil society, she said the designation violates their rights of human expression and peaceful assembly.
Regarding the database of settlements-related businesses, she said the most recent report was issued in February 2021, but updating it annually has been hindered by budgetary restraints. On the way forward for the Palestinian territory, she stressed the need for dialogue between the parties in reaching a political solution. The Commission continues to monitor and report on the situation but it has no international staff in the area due to difficulties obtaining visas from Israel. On the Commission of Inquiry, she said the organ is an important tool in ensuring accountability, adding that it is also mandated to analyse root causes and make recommendations for future action.
The Committee then held a virtual event titled “Supporting Human Rights Defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Reality, Challenges, and Obligations”. Syed Mohamad Hasrin Aidid, Member of the Committee and Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the United Nations, and Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine to the United Nations, made opening statements. That was following by a panel discussion featuring: Wesam Ahmad, Director of the Centre for Applied International Law at Al-Haq; Saleh Hijazi, Head of the Jerusalem Office for Israel and Palestine and Deputy Regional Director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International; Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch; and Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer.
Mr. AIDID said that as part of its mandate, the Committee regularly engages with civil society organizations to keep informed of crucial developments in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to mobilize international support for Palestinian rights. Expressing deep concern about Israel’s decision on 22 October to designate six Palestinian human rights and humanitarian civil society organizations as terrorist organizations, he called on that country to respect the rights to freedom of expression and association, and to rescind the decision. Noting that some of those organizations are longstanding partners of the Committee and the United Nations, he said the present event aims to shed light on the implications of Israel’s decision on the work of civil society organizations and human rights defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and to underline the international community’s roles and responsibilities in the context of prevailing challenges and shrinking space of Palestinian human rights defenders.
Mr. MANSOUR said it is timely to have the opportunity to listen to the representatives of civil society organizations and unite with them in rejecting Israel’s characterization of those organizations. Noting that Israel, the occupying authority, is trying to silence everyone both in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and inside Israel, he stressed the importance of giving those organizations the necessary space to do their honourable work and of supporting not only them, but all civil society organizations operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in Israel who are working to defend the human rights of Palestinians.
Mr. AHMAD said the recent Israeli designation of Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist organizations came as no surprise, noting that for years Israel has been trying to undermine their efforts. Israel’s failure to convince the international community that its claims represent the truth has led it to “create its own version of the truth” through its power to impose laws which reinforce its narrative. The work of the civil society organizations is to bring the truth on the ground to the international community with the hope that such exposure of the facts, as applied to international law, will lead to action. Over time, these organizations have developed a more proactive approach to advocate for the enforcement of international law by targeting the international community’s political will and using the mechanisms that have been developed and designated as legitimate tools through which the right to self-determination should be pursued. Noting the organizations’ success in mounting challenges to Israel, he said the extent to which Israel will apply its tactics will depend on the international community’s actions. If the latter will only deliver words of concern and condemnation, then Israel will only push further, he said, calling on the international community to reconcile its political rhetoric with its economic activity and relations with Israel.
Mr. HIJAZI said “shrinking space” became the term used to describe Israel’s policies toward Palestinian civil society organizations — policies that restrict and punish those who aim to expose Israel’s systematic human rights violations and advocate for Israel to be held accountable. The term has also been used to encompass how Palestinian authorities have increased crackdowns on Palestinian civil society organizations. As a result, human rights activities have faced repression from both Israel and Palestinian authorities for years. Since at least 2015, the Israeli Government has escalated its intimidation of Palestinian and Israeli human rights defenders and activists, hindering their work through threats, harassment, bureaucratic obstacles and electronic surveillance. In the past two years, attacks have intensified and the work of defending human rights has been criminalized. That is a real danger with wide implications for the work of international organizations, he warned, urging immediate, decisive action. He called on the international community to expose Israel’s recent actions against human rights defenders, ensure financial support for them, and hold Israel accountable, stressing that the era of impunity must end.
Mr. SHAKIR said Israel’s recent designation of six civil society groups as terrorist organizations constitutes a frontal assault on the international human rights movement. Escalation of the Israeli Government’s campaign against human rights advocates is aimed at maligning and attacking activists as well as denying their entry to the Palestinian territory, he said. The territory has always borne the brunt of repression, with its human rights defenders enduring office raids, travel bans, arrests and criminal charges. The international community failed to act, he said, even when Human Rights Watch warned that doing nothing could result in local groups being outlawed. Adding that Israel’s action stems from decades of impunity for acts against human rights defenders, he stressed that the international community must alter its approach towards such oppression.
Mr. SFARD said Israel has failed to provide a shred of evidence for its watershed allegations against six civil society organizations almost seven weeks ago. The country has a history of targeting the human rights community through different means, he noted, drying up their funds by discouraging European donors from making financial contributions. Concerned about civil society advocacy in international institutions and information these bodies provide to the International Criminal Court, he said silencing organizations sparking investigations against it has become a strategic Israeli Government aim. Under Israeli law, designating a civil society entity as a terrorist organization is equivalent to the death penalty, as it invokes criminal powers forcing that body into seclusion. Even if no arrests or property confiscations occur, the Israeli Government can block resources from arriving in bank accounts, thus discouraging donors from contributing.
Question and Answer Session
The Deputy Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, pointing out that Israel’s action could cripple the work of Palestinian civil society organizations and human rights advocacy, asked the panellists for recommendations and specific steps on how to hold Israel accountable for its crimes and violations against the Palestinian people.
Mr. AIDID, affirming Malaysia’s commitment to the issue and its condemnation of Israel’s actions, said his country would continue to speak out on the matter, then turned to the panellists for their comments.
Mr. MANSOUR, noting that any proposals will be discussed within the Committee’s Bureau, said an annual conference of all civil society organizations could be organized and held at the United Nations or virtually as needed. The event would provide the international community a forum to elevate its concerns and outrage towards Israel’s actions and double efforts in defence of the six civil society organizations.
Mr. AHMAD said the best way to respond to attempts to silence the messenger is to amplify and implement the message. The international community must respond with a systemic counter-response that addresses Israel’s actions on various levels. The European Union’s “Horizon Europe” agreement and its cooperation with Israel, for example, must be addressed, challenged and suspended, he said, adding that there must be an inquiry into how Israel is using research and development to create technology that could be used to attack human rights defenders. The international community must also support the International Criminal Court’s measures, as well as measures to ban settlement products. Israel’s membership in the Economic and Social Council must be challenged, especially considering the Council’s relationship with civil society.
Mr. HIJAZI reiterated that words need to be immediately translated into action. While condemnation is good, there must be a clear call for Israel to rescind its designation of those civil society organizations or face consequences. Noting two important ongoing investigations, he called for support for the International Criminal Court investigation, as well as the investigation of the Commission of Inquiry set up by the Human Rights Council.
Mr. SHAKIR pointed out that, even in relation to the six civil society organizations, Israel’s ambassadors had not been summoned for questioning. While there were statements expressing rage, States need to take coordinated action in stronger statements, performative action and ultimately countermeasures. He recommended that the United Nations establish a global envoy, a body for the crimes of apartheid and persecution with a mandate to pursue the entity’s crimes wherever they take place, not only in Israel or Palestine, and ensure the prosecution of such crimes.
Mr. SFARD, noting that Israel’s action is an obstruction of justice, said the messages of the civil society organizations must be amplified and those organizations must be provided a stage where they can present their research. Israel’s actions should not be normalized. Not only are they a crime against those organizations, but also in the fight against terrorism.
Mr. AIDID then turned to the panellists again for their concluding remarks.
Mr. SFARD said the power to make Israel’s designation fail in its objective rests not only with private individuals or private foundations, but also with State actors. The international community, Member States and members of the European Union that had been supporting those organizations must also take action.
Mr. AIDID, noting that another question for the panellists had been received from the media affairs advisor at the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, asked how the international community can use social media and media in general to counter what is being done to those six civil society organizations.
Mr. HIJAZI said States have a responsibility to take decisive and immediate action against Israel’s move. The public in other countries should ensure that their Governments take action and, where there is no action, hold their Governments accountable. Without action from States, he stressed that the “shrinking space” for civil society organizations will turn into complete closure very soon.
Mr. SHAKIR, noting that Al-Haq has existed for more than four decades, said the implications of Israel’s actions are stark and significant, stressing that such a precedent could lead to other groups also being designated as terrorist organizations. So many countries lack the backbone and resolve to act on underlying human rights issues but claim to support human rights defenders. At the very least, they should take steps and measures that allow groups on the ground to do their work.
Mr. AHMAD, stressing that the impact of Israel’s designation would go far beyond those organizations, said that Israel’s action undermines faith in the international human rights regime that has been developed over decades. He expressed concern about future generations who may want to study or engage in human rights mechanisms or follow the work of those civil society organizations.
Mr. AIDID thanked the panellists for their participation, assuring them that their perspectives and recommendations would be taken seriously and considered further by the Committee.