EU complicity in the marginalisation of civil society in Palestine
Civil society organisations (CSOs) in Palestine are watching the ground shrink beneath their feet. October 22 marked the most recent effort by the Israeli government to further marginalise organisations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) with a military order declaring six civil society organisations ‘terrorist organisations’. The organisations – Addameer, al-Haq, Defense for Children Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees – are each engaged in grassroots efforts to hold the Israeli state accountable for ongoing human rights violations. This latest blow to their work effectively criminalises the six organisations based on classified documents, outlawing their activities and putting staff at risk of persecution. One does not have to look far to understand why Israel has adopted increasingly authoritarian tactics to stifle civil society: CSOs are succeeding where others have not in documenting and challenging the Israeli discourse on occupation within an international arena.
A shrinking civil space
As part of my own research into civil society in the OPT, I interviewed organisational representatives (including some mentioned in the October 22 ruling) about the work they conduct and the barriers they face operating in such a complex and militarised environment. They spoke about how their data gathering has resulted in exposing Israeli war crimes to the world. Alliances with international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, for example, have helped move the needle on international recognition that Israel’s occupation constitutes a case of ongoing and systematic apartheid.
Such grassroots successes have not come without a cost. The organisational representatives I interviewed in the midst of the latest escalation in May, 2021 emphasised repeatedly how the work they conduct occurs within an ever-shrinking institutional and civic space. Israeli strategy in recent years has worked to defame these organisations by tying them to groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a listed terrorist entity in the EU. Smear tactics include attacks in the media as well as lobbying at the EU and UN. Israel has succeeded in pressuring some partners to halt support, while limiting access to officials who cannot risk political capital over meetings with an organisation that has been labelled ‘terrorist’.
In the material sphere, Israeli strategy to defund civil society has also met with success. These efforts culminated in 2020, with the EU deciding to condition all aid on fulfilment of ‘anti-terror’ conditions, which obligates organisations to screen individuals for their political affiliation. Such conditions coerce Palestinian organisations to choose between access to multimillion-Euro grants or disavowal of a process which criminalises political affiliation and past arrests. Several of the CSO representatives I interviewed admitted they had lost valuable grants that would have assisted their community work due to a refusal to accept ‘anti-terror’ clauses on their contracts. As they explained it, almost every staff member had at some point been subject to arrest, situated as they are within the context of military occupation.
The time to act is now
The recent designation of six civil society organisations as ‘terrorist’ entities demonstrates that earlier defamation and defunding efforts have not had their intended effect, in Israel’s eyes. Reports continue to be published documenting abuses, and as my research has shown, barriers only served to motivate adoption of tactics to overcome challenges. After years of pushing a message of national security in an effort to persuade EU donors to limit funding, the state finally took matters into its own hands and criminalised the organisations under Israeli law.
Now is the time for the EU to act. Complacency has contributed to an untenable situation of occupation that subjugates Palestinians to a multi-layered system of land-appropriation, settlement construction, home demolitions, mobility restrictions and human rights violations. The EU needs to recognise the opportunity presented by this recent designation, criticised as “an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement”, by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and as “a draconian measure that criminalises critical human rights work”, by 21 Israeli human rights groups.
Lest moralistic arguments are not convincing, how about a strategic one? The EU stakes its reputation as a promoter of universal human rights, as the basis for its legitimate involvement in humanitarian situations around the world. As more heads turn towards Israel–Palestine and the broader public begins to decipher policies of ethnic-cleansing through the haze of Israeli hasbara, surely the EU would retain more credibility if it could be viewed as a more neutral actor in the conflict? An impartial actor would be one that honours its own treaty and guidelines, rather than shrinking the already minute space within which Palestinian civil society exists.
This is an opportunity to amend the EU’s anti-terror clause as part of its funding contracts with civil society, removing provisions which force organisations to choose between their political principles and their access to aid – provisions which are ill fitted to the complexities of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and ignorant of power asymmetries which subject Palestinians to military occupation. In choosing to act, the EU will breathe new life into civil society, supporting the work of community building and human rights documentation, which are now more critical than ever.
Glimmers of hope
Recent developments do offer some hope when it comes to the international community’s acceptance of occupation. The April 2021 Human Rights Watch report on the crimes of Apartheid perpetuated by Israel have opened a slim window within which support for Israeli actions has become less defensible both for Israel’s most strident supporter the US, as well as the EU. Ongoing discussions on decolonial frameworks propelled by movements such as Black Lives Matter are shifting the narrative to one of racial discrimination, settler-colonialism and asymmetric power relations.
The current EU anti-terror clause is out of step with global shifts towards more critical attitudes towards the occupation. Funding contracts should reflect the colonial context within which civil society operates, refrain from securitising aid and allow for the provision of impartial and transparent access to funding. It is time the EU honours the work of human rights defenders and community organisers on the ground while it is still possible, time to act before civil society is not only criminalised but disappears altogether.
Tariq Azeez is a Master’s degree candidate at the School of Transnational Governance. He researched civil society organisations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as part of his Bachelor’s thesis.
This post was published in an earlier version on 13 December 2021 on The New Arab website.