Palestinian Human Rights Defenders need protection: what can we do?

On 19 October 2021, the government of Israel issued a military order that designated six, renowned and award-winning Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organisations”. The reason for this military order, and the evidence for making such designations, have not been disclosed. This is the latest of Israel’s longstanding efforts to undermine the work of these organisations. It also seems clear that this action is intended to intimidate donors and supporters of these organisations.

The Palestinian human rights organisations under threat

The six organisations affected by Israel’s military order are: Addameer, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defence for Children International-Palestine, Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and Union of Palestinian Women Committees. The work of these six organisations is both crucial to a future peace in Israel and Palestine, and has been invaluable for the work of United Nations human rights treaty bodies, as well as Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry, and for the International Criminal Court that is currently investigating international crimes in Palestine. Declaring the work of these organisations as “terrorist” not only undermines efforts at peace, but also places individuals who work for them in a potentially very dangerous situation, and potentially creates dilemmas for states, individuals, and organisations who have supported them (financially or otherwise) regarding the continuity of that support. This combination of (possible) effects forms an existential threat to the work of the six organisations, which no doubt is intended by the government of Israel.

Addameer was founded in 1992 and advocates for Palestinian political prisoners who suffer long-term arbitrary detention, without charge or trial. Al-Haq, founded in 1979, is the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists-Geneva, and has issued dozens of meticulously documented reports on the countless human rights violations that Palestinians experience daily. These violations include denials of the right to housing and freedom of movement, lack of protection against settler violence, and a long list of international crimes, most of which are connected to Israel’s regime of apartheid, itself a crime against humanity. The Bisan Center for Research and Development, in operation since the late 1980’s, focuses on the most marginalised communities in Palestine, including women, youth, and workers in the most rural and deprived areas, and advocates for their development needs. Defence for Children International-Palestine has, since 1991, documented serious human rights violations directed against children, including inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment, arbitrary detention, torture, and unlawful killings. The organisation also provides legal assistance and representation to these children in Israeli military tribunals.

The Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) is one of the oldest Palestinian NGOs that advocates for Palestinian farmers’ rights to sovereignty of their land and products. They have played a leading role in documenting settler violence against Palestinian farmers, work that is especially important now as Palestinians across the West Bank are facing massive settler violence when they try to harvest their olive crops. This is confirmed by reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which have documented that from August 2020 up until August 2021, settlers destroyed over 9000 Palestinian olive trees, in addition to increased levels of violence and harassment directed against Palestinian farmers. The Union of Palestinian Women Committees (UPWC), established in 1980, is the umbrella organisation for all Palestinian women’s groups in the Occupied Territories. Its staff have supported Palestinian women’s rights, equal opportunities for men and women, and equity between social classes. UPWC has been a major force in the women’s rights movement in Palestine, and plays an active role in the global movement for women’s rights, including in relation to attention for gender-based violence.

Global reaction to the designation

B’tselem was among the first Israeli organisations to condemn the Israeli government’s designation as a ‘draconian’ measure. In addition, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the designations as “an attack on human rights defenders, on freedoms of association, opinion and expression and on the right to public participation”, and called for the designations to be “immediately revoked”. International human rights NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also issued strong statements condemning the designations. They have been joined by international legal experts, including the celebrated South African law professor John Dugard, who also reflected on the similar treatment of human rights organisations by South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.

On 3 November 2021, more than 30 Dutch organizations addressed the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Parliament; they called on the Netherlands to:

  • publicly speak out against and condemn Israel’s decision as an unjustified violation against civil society;
  • appeal to Israel to retract this military order with immediate effect;
  • continue its support to Palestinian partner organisations and ensure that Dutch banking and financial institutions disregard Israel’s order;
  • openly support the work of these affected organisations.

Above all, the Netherlands has been called upon to ensure support to civil society, and especially to human rights defenders who speak out in defence of the rights of Palestinians.

All of these demands by Israeli, international, and Dutch human rights organisations are fully in-line with the United Nations Declaration and the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. Referring to these sources, the Dutch government has openly declared that it “supports human rights defenders, so that they can do their work effectively and safely”.

Valuable time, however, has been lost since 19 October. Even worse, in January 2022, the Dutch government announced that it was stopping its support to one of the six designated organisations (UAWC), even despite their admission that they lacked evidence of a link to terrorist activity.

Action is needed NOW

Respect for international law, and the UN and EU guidelines on human rights defenders, should compel the government of the Netherlands to reverse its decision to defund UACW, and to urge the European Union to join United Nations experts, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, and others, in irrefutably condemning Israel’s designations.

So, what can we do now?

Both financial and diplomatic support are crucially needed during this time when Palestinian civil society is under great pressure from Israel’s military and apartheid regime. This is why we produced a letter for individual sign-on, to protest the Dutch government’s decision, and why we will be organising a webinar on 27 January 2022 to discuss this further. For more information, please register here, or alternatively contact our network.


An earlier version of this article, which we provide key updates to above, was published in the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Jeff Handmaker is Associate Professor in Legal Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Christian Henderson is Assistant Professor of International Relations of the Middle East at Leiden University. Both are supporters of Dutch Scholars for Palestine.

Marthe Heringa is a student at Leiden University and an organiser of Students for Palestine.

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2 Comments
  • Anonymous
    January 31, 2022

    I think it’s a way of rooting out who are committed pro-Palestinian donors, and who are just ‘trying to look good’. Unfortunately that means less funding, but hope it won’t mean no funding. Can a government do this, just arbitrarily place peaceful groups on the list of terrorist organisations? In that case, what is to stop any dictator from putting his or her enemies on that list? I guess that has been happening all along? The powers of anti-terror laws are far too sweeping. Could we write a letter as ISS colleagues and students?

  • Abdelaziz Nouaydi
    January 27, 2022

    Thank you for this article
    Please send it to my E-mail adress aziznouaydi@yahoo.fr