One reliable – and sobering – measure of a country’s political health is the number of international NGOs and agencies working on the ground in relief, development, nutrition, water, education, humanitarian assistance and legal rights. In the Palestinian territories there are roughly eighty. Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, the INGO footprint has got no lighter: evidence, in case it was needed, that the Palestinian Authority – created by the Oslo process – is incapable of running what remains of the Palestinian West Bank or providing for its citizens: it is a barely sovereign local power, obliged to co-ordinate with Israel on security issues and guilty of human rights violations against its critics. INGOs come into their own in places where there is no effective government, no fair access to property, food, water and land, and no consent to rule of law as the authorities interpret it.
But there are also the Palestinian NGOs, with their intellectual and activist origins in nearly 75 years of dispossession and resistance. Many were founded before the charitable internationals in Palestine became permanent fixtures. And their numbers have grown: by 2020 there were more than a hundred Palestinian NGOs operating in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Some have stepped in for years to fill the gaping holes in ‘civil society’ opened by a series of disasters: eviction in 1948, military occupation after 1967 and – post-Oslo – life under a zombie administration.
Israel is obliged, for the moment, to weigh its dislike of the UN agencies and the INGOs – human rights groups especially – against the opprobrium it would face if it began throwing foreign ‘humanitarians’ out of Palestine and destroying their offices. (The PA would also be pleased to be rid of them if it weren’t for the jobs and forex that arrive in their wake.)
Palestinian NGOs, however, remain vulnerable to Israeli diktat. In February the Israeli authorities outlawed Samidoun, an advocacy group for the release of Palestinian detainees, on the grounds that it had links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist faction of the PLO that was once in the vanguard of the national movement but has not been ‘popular’ for thirty years or more. Samidoun was identified as a terrorist group and accused of recycling funding to the PFLP.
Last week the defence minister, Benny Gantz, signed an executive order designating another six Palestinian NGOs as ‘terrorist’ organisations. One was Defence for Children International – Palestine, whose offices had been raided in July. Others included the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Workers’ Committees.
The most distinguished ‘terrorist’ organisation under Gantz’s executive order is Al-Haq, a human rights NGO founded in the late 1970s, which focuses on legal issues in the Occupied Territories. Al-Haq’s primary purpose is to defend the rights of Palestinians under occupation. It has won several international awards, including the Prix des droits de l’homme de la République française.
Al-Haq rose to prominence during the first Intifada; it has spent decades opening legal pathways through the byzantine complexities of Israeli military and colonial law – often at variance with statutory international law – for colonised plaintiffs to challenge the confiscation of their property, the detention of their relatives, the destruction of their horticulture and the violation of their rights.
Typical of its research work is The West Bank and the Rule of Law (1981), published in collaboration with the International Commission of Jurists. In the words of the writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, one of the founders of Al-Haq, ‘the book examined a raft of secret Israeli legislation that amended local law by military orders which were never published, making it possible for settlers to acquire land for illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Shehadeh adds that ‘more recently the organisation has been active in providing evidence for the International Criminal Court at The Hague to build its case to investigate war crimes committed by Israeli officials.’
The order against Al-Haq and the other organisations is consistent with Israel’s broad characterisation of civil disobedience and non-violent activism, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, as ‘antisemitic’ or ‘terrorist’. For Palestinians, as of last Friday, seeking due process has become a subversive activity. A statement from former staffers at Al-Haq – including signatories in Arab-majority states, Latin America, Europe, the US and the UK – can be downloaded here.