Barbed wire and in the background the Temple Mountain.
Israel-Palestine: News

Reflections on shrinking space in Israel-Palestine

23 December 2021

Israeli, Palestinian, and international civil society organisations face a shrinking space due to various repressive measures by Israeli and Palestinian authorities. At a webinar hosted by the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre Jerusalem, legal experts offered reflections on the gradual process of democratic erosion and encroachment on civil and political rights in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

Civil society actors operating in the Israeli-Palestinian context face an expanding array of repressive measures that compromise their capacity to document, to engage in advocacy, or to express criticism about mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). For international and Israeli civil society, this shrinking of civic space has been propelled by aggressive delegitimisation campaigns conducted by Israeli authorities and non-governmental supporters of Israel’s actions, as well as bureaucratic hurdles and legislative constraints that Israel has imposed. Palestinian civil society has endured these as well as other more severe forms of repression by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the de facto authorities in Gaza, including violent suppression of dissent.

The recent designation of six prominent Palestinian organisations – Al-Haq; Addameer; Defense for Children International-Palestine; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; the Bisan Center for Research and Development; and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees – as “terrorist organisations” by Israel, which has potentially far-reaching implications for many other actors as well, marks a significant turn for the worse in this already dire state of affairs.

Against the backdrop of these developments, the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre hosted a webinar titled “Shrinking Space: International Law and the Clampdown on Civil Society in Israel-Palestine" on 14 December 2021, which featured a panel of legal experts and practitioners comprising Sahar Francis, Öykü Irmakkesen, Michael Sfard, and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin. A recording of the event can be found below.  

Sahar Francis, director of Palestinian human rights group Addameer, observed that harassment of civil society organisations and human rights defenders has a long history in the Israeli-Palestinian context – her own organisation, Addameer, had been raided by the Israeli authorities in 2002 and again in 2012 before being designated as a “terrorist organisation” in October 2021. In the oPt specifically, shrinking civic space must be understood as a function and purpose of the legal system enforced by Israel, which has been deployed to stifle political mobilisation against the occupation. Having previously failed to convince especially European donors that the six designated organisations have ties to terrorism, Israel relied on its own civil law and military orders to achieve its intended objective: cutting off their funding. In concluding, Sahar emphasised that this course of action will likely serve as a precedent for attacks against other civil society actors and as such requires immediate and forceful condemnation.

Öykü Irmakkesen addressed the designations from the perspective of international law. She noted that while States are allowed to take counter-terrorism measures, these must be in full compliance with their international obligations. Accordingly, Israel must ensure that the work of human rights organisations is not criminalised or otherwise hindered. Overall, Israel’s designations pursuant to the Counter-Terrorism Law of 2016 and corresponding declarations pursuant to the Defence (Emergency) Regulations, 1945 fail to meet the required standards under international human rights law, particularly those relating to legal certainty, due process, transparency, and meaningful avenues for appeal. Furthermore, while international humanitarian law allows Israel as an occupying power to take measures to ensure public order and security in occupied territory, such measures cannot be in violation of other rules stemming from IHL. In the interpretation and application of the law, one of the main objectives of the law of occupation, the protection of the population of the occupied territory against arbitrary conduct of the occupying power, must not be forgotten. Irmakkesen stressed that reliance on these applicable legal frameworks may constitute a useful tool for advocacy that transcends political and religious – and thus subjective – considerations.

Michael Sfard observed at the outset that for NGOs, being designated as a “terrorist” or “unlawful organisation” is the “equivalent of the death penalty”. The designation empowers the authorities to close the organisation’s offices, to confiscate its property, to arrest and criminally prosecute its staff, and – in this case particularly relevant – to block monetary transfers through the international banking system. He further noted that the designated Palestinian organisations have been at the forefront of a decade-long effort to hold Israel accountable at the international level, including before the International Criminal Court (ICC), and as such are considered a “strategic threat” for the Israeli right’s annexationist project. The timing of the designations coincided with important developments before the ICC, including the formal opening of an investigation into the Situation in Palestine and the appointment of a new Prosecutor. Without a forceful, sustained international response, the designations may serve as a blueprint for authoritarian governments around the world on how to successfully silence critics and civil society, particularly those that seek to engage with the international human rights system.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, stressed that the designated organisations serve the most marginalised segments of Palestinian society in the oPt, including women, children, prisoners, and rural communities, who are in many ways left without meaningful protection as a result of the designations. Over the past 20 years, her mandate has documented numerous instances of authoritarian and repressive governments resorting to counter-terrorism language, discourse, and framing to stigmatise and obstruct the work of human rights organisations. The use of such measures by a State that professes its democratic credentials is especially concerning as it sends the wider signal that democracies too are in the business of shutting down civil society, that they are too fragile to hear criticism, and that at a fundamental level democracy is not self-correcting – even though the very essence of democracy lies in its capacity to hear and address even unpalatable criticism. In concluding, Ní Aoláin deemed the blatant misuse of national security and counter-terrorism legislation for purposes of repressing peaceful criticism unacceptable by international standards and emphasised that an active civil society constitutes an indispensable prerequisite for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Analysis: An attack on international law

When news first broke of the designations on 22 October, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued a joint statement strongly condemning what they deemed “an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement”. By now, it has become clear that the designations and corresponding military declarations indeed stand to impact a range of other actors beyond the six organisations – from international donors and the wider network of civil society groups operating in the context to the marginalised communities they serve.

What is more, the designations mark, for now, the culmination of a gradual process of democratic erosion and encroachment on civil and political rights; they stand to serve as a blueprint for further measures stifling peaceful dissent, civic activism, and critical engagement with government policies that form the backbone of democratic societies – both in Israel-Palestine and across the globe.

But there is another grave implication behind the specific modalities with which this severe blow to civil society was delivered: the Israeli authorities relied on domestic law – the Counter-Terrorism Law of 2016 and the Defence (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, the latter a relic of the mandatory period – to outlaw the six organisations. While formally cloaked in the language of legality, the designations and declarations contravene applicable protective standards enshrined in international human rights and humanitarian law, and their likely long-term effect will be to obstruct civil society engagement with international accountability mechanisms, including the ICC. This renders the designations not just an attack on Palestinian human rights defenders and civil society, but also against the international human rights system and international law as a whole.

In order to live up to its self-professed status as a liberal democracy, Israel must comply with its international obligations and cease its attacks on international law and the institutions that uphold it. Legal standards and external oversight mechanisms are needed the most where fundamental rights are at stake; history has taught us that rendering rights and freedoms discretionary to the whim of national governments is a dangerous gamble indeed.

For many years, the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre has engaged in dialogue with different actors in the Israel-Palestine context to promote human rights and international law, and we are committed to providing a platform for constructive debate on these matters. This webinar forms part of our efforts to highlight an important and global area of concern – attempts by governments to silence human rights defenders and civil society by means of unsubstantiated allegations.  

Barbed wire and in the background the Temple Mountain.

This event was part of our research project on

Shrinking space in Israel-Palestine

We provide in-depth analysis of the measures taken by authorities in Israel and Palestine to restrict civil and political rights.