Fifty-five years ago, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, kicking off a military occupation that remains a core pillar of what many in the international human rights community are increasingly characterizing as apartheid. Fifty-five years later, the Israeli government is still finding new ways to entrench this apartheid system, and to silence the organizations and activists that stand in its way. On July 5, the day after the United States celebrates its independence from a colonial occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank will face new restrictions on their lives – as will any foreign nationals seeking to interact with them – when Israel implements a new ordinance designed to further cement its control over the West Bank and bolster its efforts to suppress Palestinian civil society.
Under the current version of the ordinance (the implementation of which was postponed for 45 days following objections from human rights groups), foreign nationals seeking to enter the West Bank will face a long list of new restrictions and procedures before being granted (or denied) entry. The restrictions would apply to teachers, students, volunteers, and employees – almost any foreign national seeking to spend significant time in the area. Among the restrictions are requirements that Palestinian nationals holding foreign passports provide the Israeli government with names and ID numbers of first-degree relatives and those they plan to visit; an obligation (applicable to any foreign national entering the area, whether a Palestinian dual national or not) to disclose any property they own or stand to inherit in the West Bank; and to notify the Israeli government within 30 days of any romantic relationship with a resident of the West Bank that is initiated during their stay.
That’s right – the ordinance will require visitors to report their dating and love lives to the government.
Unfortunately, these new policies are only the latest reinforcements in a longstanding and concerted effort by the Israeli government to defame, defund, and ultimately dissolve humanitarian and human rights operations in the occupied Palestinian territory, shrink civil space, and cut off professional, economic, and interpersonal ties between West Bank residents and the rest of the world.
The ordinance will likely impact civil society in Palestine in a number of ways. Academia is perhaps the most obvious target of these new restrictions, with quotas for those who wish to study or teach in the West Bank. Only 150 foreign students will be permitted to attend Palestinian colleges or universities at a time, and only 100 foreign “lecturers in necessary fields” will be allowed to teach at them – a drastic reduction in academic exchange, considering that in 2020, 366 European students and faculty (to say nothing of foreigners from other parts of the world) received grants to study and teach in the West Bank. Under the restrictions, foreign lecturers can only teach at Palestinian institutions in approved disciplines, where the Israeli government is satisfied that “the lecturer contributes significantly to academic learning, to the Area’s economy, or to advancing regional cooperation and peace.” Given past examples of Israeli harassment of researchers working on the human rights situation in Israel/Palestine, this requirement will likely be used to silence the teaching of human rights law in the territory.
The fallout, according to Ahmed Abofoul, a Legal Research and Advocacy Officer at the human rights organization Al Haq, is that “Palestinian academic institutions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will be denied students and faculty that enrich campuses and build bridges with universities abroad. The loss of foreign student tuition will also impact the financial health of the universities.” And that’s to say nothing of the free speech implications of an external authority telling teachers what they can and cannot teach.
The ordinance also applies to foreign nationals who work for international organizations operating in the West Bank, requiring them to apply at least 60 days in advance of their entry, and requiring them to list any family members in the West Bank.
Foreign nationals who wish to volunteer for civil society organizations in the West Bank are also subject to restrictions. Foreign volunteers can only serve for one year at a time, and must wait 12 months before returning to the West Bank to volunteer again. They also must disclose any family connections in the West Bank.
Under the ordinance, Israeli authorities are also “entitled to require a bank guaranty or a guaranty in cash” before approving an application for a permit, ostensibly to ensure compliance with its terms, with the upper limits for such guarantees amounting to tens of thousands of U.S. dollars. In practice however, this policy suggests that if the Israeli government does not condone your work, but does not wish to formally deny you entry, it can impose significant costs on your entry, and confiscate such funds at its discretion.
Notably, the ordinance stipulates that “Implementation of this procedure shall be contingent on the security situation and the prevailing Israeli policy, which is reviewed and amended from time to time.” So in case it was not already clear, nothing in the ordinance should be misconstrued as establishing or protecting a right to visit, work in, or volunteer in the West Bank.
Beneath the explicit restrictions and procedures in the ordinance looms a more sinister threat — the likelihood that Israel will use the information it collects through these procedures to further surveil, intimidate, and criminalize Palestinian civil society. A look at Israel’s other recent efforts to curtail civil society in Palestine sheds light on how these new policies are well-suited to the same task.
A Pattern of Behavior
For years now, the Israeli government has been supporting and coordinating with a network of allied organizations to wage politically motivated legal assaults against civil society groups operating in Palestine. A report published last fall by the Charity & Security Network (where I serve as the director), The Alarming Rise of Lawfare to Suppress Civil Society: The Case of Palestine and Israel, documents these efforts, as have others.
One such group, the Zionist Advocacy Center, which works closely with the Israeli-government-funded International Legal Forum, alleged that the Carter Center has supported terrorism by providing “support and technical assistance to designated terrorist organizations” by hosting a conflict resolution meeting that included representatives from two designated groups. Specifically, the complaint mentioned the provision of a facility to meet in, and of “fruits, cookies, and bottled water,” characterizing these as material support of terrorism, never mind the legitimate purpose of facilitating conflict resolution. The Zionist Advocacy Center also tried to revoke the tax exempt status of Doctors Without Borders for providing medical training in Gaza that involved the Ministry of Health under the Hamas-led government. These groups have also targeted Palestinian civil society organizations, alleging connections to terrorism through unsubstantiated claims and multiple degrees of separation, and harassing international donors and payment platforms for working with them.
While Israel’s support for these efforts continues, in recent months, the Israeli government has taken a more direct approach to attacking civil society operations in Palestine. In October, 2021, Israel’s Ministry of Defense designated six leading Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist organizations,” a move widely condemned by human rights experts and various nations as unsubstantiated and an abuse of counterterrorism policies.
In an effort to get foreign governments on board with the designations, Israel shopped around a secret dossier that supposedly contained “rock solid” proof that these organizations had supported terrorism. But after +972 Magazine, Local Call, and The Intercept obtained a copy of the dossier, their reporting revealed that its allegations were based almost entirely on the unsubstantiated testimony of two people who did not work for the designated organizations; a lawyer for one of them alleged “that his client may have been pressured to provide testimony following interrogation methods that could amount to torture or ill-treatment.”
Since the designations, the targeted organizations and their staff have faced a range of challenges. In January, the Dutch government cut funding for the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, an organization working to support agricultural development and protect land rights in Palestine, despite finding no evidence of organizational links between UAWC and the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (the alleged connection to terrorism), nor evidence of board members or staff using their position at UAWC for terrorist purposes.
In May, Israel barred the heads of Addameer and the Bisan Center for Research and Development, two of the designated organizations, from traveling to the United States on their way to the World Social Forum in Mexico without explanation. Ironically, Ubai Aboudi, the head of the Bisan Center, was planning to take part in a panel entitled “Resistance in the Void: Secret Evidence, Spyware and Terrorist Designations. The Battle for Global Civil Society Begins in Palestine.”
Despite these and other challenges, the six designated organizations have continued carrying out their vital work, and the international community has largely supported them. When the designations were first announced, United Nations human rights experts were quick to condemn them as “a frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere.” Since then, Denmark has said it will continue to fund Al Haq, and has yet to see documentation supporting the terrorism designations. France has said that in the absence of evidence of their links to terrorist activity, it will continue to support the designated organizations. Ireland decried the “shrinking space for civil society in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory,” and supported the call of the High Commissioner on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory for Israel “to revoke the designations against Palestinian civil society organisations as terrorist entities.”
More recently, U.N. human rights experts called on governments to “Publicly conclude that Israel has not substantiated its allegations,” to “Resume, continue and even increase its financial and political support for the work of these six organisations,” and to “Demand that Israel retract the designations and cease its harassment of all Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights and civil society organisations which promote human rights and accountability in Israel and Palestine.”
Against the backdrop of these politically motivated legal attacks and terrorism designations, Israel’s new ordinance fits perfectly in a pattern of behavior designed to crush Palestinian civil society and those who dare support it.
A Deafening Silence
At a press briefing in April, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price was asked whether, six months having passed since Israel announced the designations, the administration was still considering Israel’s “evidence.” His response: “That’s information that we’re reviewing. It’s a process that can be lengthy because it’s a process that takes place not only here … not only here in this building, but also across other departments and agencies across town.” Then, in a remarkable act of ostensible neutrality, Price concluded by highlighting that “we’ve not designated, as you know, any of the six NGOs that the Israeli Government did,” but “It’s also important to note we haven’t funded these groups.”
In an immediate follow-up from a different reporter, Price was then asked for his reaction to Israel’s new ordinance on foreign nationals entering the West Bank, which were first announced in February. Price replied, “I’m not immediately familiar with them, but if we have a reaction, we’ll let you know.” Since then, the State Department has added that it is examining the procedures and “engaging with Israeli authorities to understand their applications.”
As many in the United States make plans to celebrate U.S. independence on the 4th of July, it bears noting that the United States — through its military aid, its political support, and its conspicuous silence in the face of Israel’s efforts to suffocate Palestinian civil society — remains deeply complicit in the denial of independence to the Palestinian people.
If the Biden administration still means to pursue its commitment to center human rights in U.S. foreign policy, it needs to consider not only the immediate consequences of its silence on Israel’s assault on Palestinian civil society, but also the global implications of waging economic warfare on its adversaries for human rights violations while ignoring the human rights abuses of its allies. The United States needs to recognize that the growing threat of authoritarianism around the world, which the Biden administration at least professes to abhor, festers also in the nations it counts among partners. It needs to consider the security implications of a world in which civic engagement, non-violent dissent, humanitarian action, and human rights advocacy are increasingly redefined as acts of terrorism.
Then, weighing these considerations, the administration should break its silence by calling on Israel to revoke its designations of the Six, scrap the West Bank ordinance, and respect the rights of Palestinians, foreign nationals visiting Palestine, and civil society organizations in Palestine.