By Kay Guinane

Over the last two decades humanitarian actors have experienced increasing legal restrictions on their operations and physical attacks on personnel and facilities. This long-standing problem is a manifestation of the larger trend of shrinking civil society space globally. Another manifestation is the coordinated effort by the Israeli government and disinformation groups to defund and delegitimize the work of civil society in Palestine, including but not limited to humanitarian action. In late October the Israeli government escalated these attacks by putting six well-regarded Palestinian civil society organizations on its terrorist list. This threatens the ability of all civil society actors to operate in Palestine and sets a dangerous precedent that repressive governments can use to further constrict civil society space around the world.

Prior to these designations, the situation for civil society organizations that work in Palestine and that partner with or provide financial support to such groups has been extremely difficult. For the past decade the Israeli government and a network of politically-motivated disinformation groups it works with have engaged in a “lawfare” campaign, filing lawsuits and regulatory complaints against a host of groups engaged in humanitarian aid, peacebuilding, education, development, democracy building and human rights defense.

A recent report from the Charity & Security Network documents this trend. One of its key findings is that when targeted groups push back by mounting vigorous legal defenses and calling out the political agendas of their attackers, they generally succeed in defeating these attacks. Most lawsuits have been dismissed and regulators have declined to revoke charitable status. In addition, campaigns to get governments to cut foreign assistance to these groups have mostly failed. For example, in response to a 2018 report published by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that claimed Euros were going to groups with so-called “terror ties,” the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy denounced the allegations as “unfounded and unacceptable,” noting that “vague and unsubstantiated accusations serve only to contribute to disinformation campaigns.”

The lawfare attacks have forced the groups targeted to divert time and money to legal defense and address the consequences of reputational damage caused by disinformation campaigns. But for the most part these attacks have failed to shut down funding and support for civil society programs in Palestine. It now appears that the Israeli government is trying a new tactic with these six designations. This is a serious escalation: these listings are based on secret evidence and there is a conspicuous lack of due process for the groups named. And the Israeli government is using this action to pressure other governments to follow suit. Already some governments have rejected the claims and others are examining an Israeli dossier. According to a +972 Magazine report, most of the allegations in the dossier are based on unsubstantiated testimony from two individuals with no direct connection to the listed groups and who made statements in custody after being subjected to ill treatment and possibly torture.

Even if these designations do not stand they can cause damage. First and foremost, banks may well refuse to transfer funds to these groups out of fear of future legal complications. And in the meantime, the groups’ ability to operate is constricted, their staff are subject to arrest in Israel and their assets can be frozen.

This is not the first time the Israeli government has gone after civil society. In 2016 Israeli authorities arrested and charged World Vision employee Mohammed al Halabi with diverting funds to Hamas. That same year the Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported that the “sum Halabi is accused of siphoning off to Hamas’ military wing far surpasses the organization’s actual budget for the past decade…” In addition, Israel designated Islamic Relief Worldwide in 2014. IRW appealed in 2015 but to date has not been able to get a hearing in the courts. As these examples demonstrate, humanitarian projects are no less immune to these attacks than human rights projects.

Political use of terror listings is nothing new. Consider the United Arab Emirates list published in 2014, naming the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society alongside groups like ISIS. No reasons were given but it appeared the listings were based on alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement that opposes the UAE’s authoritarian government.

The recent Israeli designations appear to follow in the footsteps of the UAE action, using the blunt instrument of terrorist designation as a tool to silence their political adversaries and protect their political agendas. This is an abuse of national security powers that shrinks civil society space, reduces essential services to populations in need and limits accountability for the Israeli government’s human rights violations. The Israeli government’s tactics have offered authoritarians the world over a blueprint for isolating and silencing their political adversaries. This threat affects all civil society actors that provide assistance to civilians in places where there is armed conflict.

Enough is enough. Civil society must respond vocally and forcefully by calling out this abuse of power for what it is: a direct attack on civil society space and fundamental human rights. A group of seven UN Special Rapporteurs has already issued a statement denouncing the designations, more than 100 funders signed a letter calling on the Israeli government to rescind the action, and in the U.S. a broad coalition of over 300 groups called on the Biden administration to condemn the Israeli government’s decision.

To stop the spread of these tactics, the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding communities must add their voices to the growing chorus of stakeholders that are denouncing this latest attack on civil society. Collectively, we must speak out to ensure that other countries do not bow to pressure from the Israeli government to make similar designations. We must expose the political motivations behind this latest assault on civil society and protect our sector’s ability to do its life-saving work.