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The long arm of the Israeli occupation?

Attacks on human rights defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are recurrent, and are part of a consistent Israeli policy targeting voices critical of the prolonged military occupation at the hands of the State of Israel.

A demonstrator waves a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli soldiers during a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah August 12, 2016
A demonstrator waves a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli soldiers during a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah August 12, 2016

REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

This statement was originally published on cihrs.org on 19 August 2016.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) stands in full solidarity with its long standing partners and leading human rights organizations and groups working on Palestinians rights, who are currently facing rising attacks, harassment, intimidation and smear campaigns aimed at undermining their human rights work and silencing their voices. We believe that this wave of intimidation is directly linked to their credible, professional work to push for accountability for human rights and humanitarian law violations taking place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

Attacks on human rights defenders in the OPT are recurrent, and are part of a consistent Israeli policy targeting voices critical of the prolonged military occupation regime and the systematic rights violations in the OPT. These attacks have reached an extremely worrying level by turning into death threats, among other serious forms of intimidations, against prominent Palestinian advocates and their families. CIHRS condemns in the strongest terms such attacks, and demands that they be halted immediately. An independent and through investigation should be opened into all incidents documented, and perpetrators should be brought to justice.

At least three leading Palestinian human rights organizations, Al Haq, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, and BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights have reported serious intimidations and death threats received by members of their staff, including staff based in European cities, in recent months. These attacks have taken different forms, including phone calls and messages from individuals believed to be using pseudo names asking them to “stop what they are doing”, death threats by email and messages on their home doorsteps, and pictures sent to them of their loved ones. Some defenders have had their email accounts hacked, and anonymous phone calls made to their families and friends threatening their safety if they continued their work. There is reason to believe that the Israeli security service stands behind these attacks.

The same organizations along with other leading rights groups have also been subjected to what seems to be an organized smear campaign aimed at discrediting their image and work. This has included sending allegations of financial misconduct by unknown individuals and groups to donors, partners and the press. This has also involved posting defamatory content on blogs, social media outlets, and mailing lists. The smear campaign has taken a more organized and recurrent shape starting late 2015 at the time where the aforementioned organizations started actively engaging with the ICC prosecutors' office with regards to the preliminary examination of the situation in the OPT currently being taken by the office.

Israeli attacks on defenders are part of a wider crackdown on grassroots movements, campaigns and other peaceful and legitimate activities undertaken by Palestinian civil society. The de facto travel ban imposed on the coordinator of the Boycott Disinvestment and Sanctions National Committee (BDS) Omar Barghouti, through the refusal to renew his travel document, and the threat to revoke his residency status from East Jerusalem is another, more direct form of intimidation and attack. This administrative punishment is accompanied by an incitement campaign led by high Israeli officials against the whole BDS movement. Israeli Minister of Transport, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Yisrael Katz has publicly called on Israel to “engage in targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders with the help of Israeli intelligence.

Israeli authorities have also directly targeted Palestinian lawyers and social media activists on both sides of the Green Line. Palestinian lawyer Mohammad Ayyad was detained and put under house arrest for his activity in the campaign to retrieve the bodies of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army during alleged violent attacks against Israelis. Currently, Israel is withholding the bodies of 15 deceased Palestinians, denying their families the right to conduct proper burials according to their religious beliefs. Israeli authorities consider that the pain endured by families would deter potential attackers. Under international law, such measures amount to collective punishment, a serious breach of customary law.

In addition, on May 1, Israel detained the media coordinator of the prisoners' rights group Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association Hasan Safadi. Safadi was detained for visiting Lebanon (declared as an enemy state by Israel) to participate in the Arab Youth Forum. Despite the fact that the court ordered his release on bail, which was immediately paid by his family, Israeli authorities issued a six-month administrative detention order against him. Administrative detention orders are renewable indefinitely and are based on “secret evidence” that cannot be challenged before courts.

According to the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, up to 150 arrests have taken place between October and February 2016 on charges related to social media posts expressing political opinions. The Israeli government has openly announced a strategy to fight Palestinian social media activists, including through meetings with Google and Youtube. It has further accused Facebook of helping to spread incitement for terror attacks.

Israel's crackdown is not only directed against Palestinian human rights organizations. Although the scale of attacks is not as fierce, the crackdown has stretched to include Israeli NGOs working on Palestinian rights. The Israeli NGO bill or “Transparency Bill” that passed last month requires extra financial reporting to the state from NGOs receiving more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments. The bill also requires these organizations to disclose their funders to the public. Only 27 organizations are believed to be targeted with this legislation; 25 of which are “left-wing” organizations. The list involves the major human rights organizations working on Palestinians rights. This bill came as part of a smear campaign led by extreme right-wing groups against defenders, with high-level officials also targeting Israeli human rights organizations who work on documenting and advocating against human rights abuse in the OPT such as B'tselem and Breaking the Silence. The smear campaign accuses these organizations of being agents of foreign states who aim to meddle with Israeli internal affairs.

In the meantime, Israel is relentlessly moving forward with its annexation and fragmentation policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, leading to confinement of space for Palestinians, and expansion of settlements. This week, Israeli courts validated a plan of a new settlement in southern occupied East Jerusalem. Last month Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to expand and fortify settlements in Hebron and the Southern Hebron hills. Meanwhile, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2016 has witnessed the highest level of home demolitions and displacement of Palestinian communities. While conducting this expansionist policy, Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights are also escalating, including through extra-judicial killings, a large number of arrests and detentions, torture, deprivation of freedom of movement, of right to family, and a large set on practices that led to the violation of basic civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.

The injustice endured by Palestinians for the past 5 decades – of dispossession, deportation, and a complete denial of self-determination, – cannot be addressed by silencing the voices that challenge it. It can only be addressed by ending the injustice and securing the inalienable rights of the people under occupation. Cracking down on peaceful activity undermines peaceful and legal action carried out by civil society. The international community should take action to force Israel to halt its attacks on Palestinian HRDs and civil society. States where attacks on Palestinian HRDs occur should take serious steps to protect the defenders and ensure their safety and capacity to conduct their legitimate activities. Moreover, relevant United Nations officials and bodies, including the Secretary General and High Commissioner for Human Rights, are urged to express their concern over, and demand credible investigations into, these attacks as possible reprisals against rights defenders for their engagement and cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms and other international accountability institutions.

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