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1 July 2021

Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) /Israel: Silencing of human rights defenders and human rights organisations

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the ongoing crackdown against human rights defenders, including lawyers and journalists documenting human rights abuses and violence committed by the Israeli military and border police force in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and by the Israeli police inside the Green Line. The silencing of human rights defenders to obstruct their legitimate and indispensable work in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory is not new but has clearly increased since the beginning of the year.

Since the beginning of May 2021, human rights defenders, Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods in Jerusalem have been leading campaigns and organising peaceful demonstrations to protest against the imminent threat of the forcible transfer of 120 Palestinians families from their neighbourhoods. Most of the Palestinian families are refugees who have been denied their right of return and to reclaim their original land and properties. They are facing the threat of forced eviction after Israeli settler organisations filled cases against them in Israeli courts, using the 1970 ‘Law and Administration Procedures Law’ which allows Jewish Israelis to pursue claims to land and property ownership in East Jerusalem. For Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organisations, the forcible transfers in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are the latest example of Israel’s institutionalised regime of racial domination and oppression, or apartheid, illustrating the dispossession of Palestinians, implemented through discriminatory laws and policies.

As a consequence of their campaigning and organising, human rights defenders from Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are been subjected to physical abuse and arbitrary detention. Their families are also being attacked both by settlers and by Israeli forces (both military and police), who have been raiding and damaging houses, as well as firing tear gas canisters, sound bombs and skunk water at and into homes. The cases of Mona Al-Kurd and her brother, Muhammad, who where detained for many hours on several occasions, including on 6 June, and the arrest of Zuhair Al Rajabi on 5 June 2021 and his son later that day, illustrates the intimidation campaigns targetting human rights defenders. Mona and Muhammad Al-Kurd, and Zuhair Al- Rajabi was released 24 hours after their arrest, and may yet be charged for organising a peaceful demonstration against the forcible displacements. Additionally, armed Israeli settlers have been documented attacking Palestinians directly and collaborating with the military and police to target human right defenders documenting the repression.

Human rights defenders in Gaza also are silenced, albeit through other tactics. As part of its assault on Gaza in May 2021, Israeli forces demolished the Al-Jalaa building which houses international media offices including Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press, as well as offices of local Palestinian media and journalists. Al-Jazeera considered the attack as ‘a clear act to stop journalists from conducting their sacred duty to inform the world and report events on the ground’. Additionally, the offices held archives of material from previous years, including previous Israeli incursions into Gaza, and as such would have potentially been evidence in the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigations into war crimes. Human rights defenders in Gaza found their social media accounts suspended or had postings blocked when they tried to show videos of the destruction or of live footage of the aerial bombardment.

Censorship of social media platforms has also been imposed over content related to the human rights violations committed in OPT/Israel. Bloggers and human rights defenders such as Mohammed Al-Kurd in Jerusalem and Omar Ghraieb in Gaza reported that social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, have been taken steps to silence them, by blocking their accounts or their content regarding ongoing incidents. As a result of the exposure of these measures, some of the companies issued public statements claiming this occurred ‘due to a technical glitch’.

The attempt to silence civil society organisations and human rights defenders in the OPT/Israel is not new. On 26 January 2021, two special rapporteurs commented the conviction of Issa Amro, a Palestinian human rights defender and founder of Youth Against Settlements, a Hebron-based group which opposes settlement expansion through non-violent civil resistance. "This is part of a clear and systematic pattern of detention, judicial harassment and intimidation by Israel of human rights defenders, a pattern that has increased in intensity recently," the UN Special Rapporteurs said. "Rather than prosecuting human rights defenders, Israel should be listening to them and correcting its own human rights conduct. Israel must obey its international obligations to provide protection to human rights defenders,".The Rapporteurs also mentioned that convicting Issa Amro for participating in demonstrations without a permit is contrary to developments in international human rights law. "The failure to notify authorities of an upcoming assembly does not in itself render the act of participating in the assembly as unlawful." Finally they underlined that "Israeli military law is used to restrict and penalise Palestinians for exercising their inviolable political and civil rights."

Attacks and campaigns against Palestinian human rights organisations and other civil society organisations, has been carried out for years by the Israeli authorities and other groups, targeting those organisations working to promote and protect the rule of law and human rights standards for the Palestinian people. As documented in a report published by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in April 2021, these practices intensified over the past six years, in the context of the upheaval caused by the Trump administration in the United States and the expected opening of an investigation by the International Criminal Court. The report found that the strategies put in place by the Israeli Government is threefold: one, delegitimising civil society critical voices through “naming and shaming” and labelling them as terrorists or anti-Semitic; two, pressuring anyone from giving a platform for their discourse; three, actively lobbying to cut their sources of funding. Resorting to smear campaigns, intimidation and harassment measures, new restrictive pieces of legislation, administrative or judicial harassment and putting increased pressure on international donors who support those organisations have proven to be very effective tactics to destabilise NGOs and undermine human rights defenders. These trends have reached alarming proportions, and are designed to silence Palestinian human rights defenders and human rights organisations, reduce their funding, alter their donor relations and frustrate their efforts to monitor and document Israeli violations.

These tactics campaign have also targeted other actors, including health organisations such as the Health Work Committee that provides support to vulnerable Palestinian communities, and even UN mandate holders, who play a key role in exposing Israeli violations. Additionally, human rights defenders face smear campaigns and intimidation from institutions of the Israeli state, which serve to distract them from their core work towards promoting and protecting human rights standards and holding Israeli officials accountable for human rights violations.

Palestinian NGOs also face pressure from the Palestinian Authority. Following the announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to cancel the legislative and presidential elections that had been scheduled to be held in May and July 2021, Palestinian organisations monitoring rights and freedoms have documented a number of cases of summons and arrests of activists by the Palestinian security services which also included violations of the guarantees of arrest and detention, and practices of torture and other forms of ill-treatment prohibited in Palestinian legislation and international law. 

The international community should reevaluate the nature of its engagement  in Israel and Palestine and adopt an approach centred on  human rights, justice and accountability. It should advocate for a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and NGOs in Israel and the OPT to carry out their work and use all diplomatic channels to urge Israeli authorities to immediately cease the targeting of civil society and human rights defenders, including on groundless anti-Semitism or terrorism accusations. The European Union should systematically and publicly condemn human rights violations and all forms of attacks, harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns including defamation of human rights defenders in accordance with its international human rights obligations and the EU guidelines on human right defenders.