Israel and the Palestinian authorities seek to shut down civic society through intimidation, violence and criminalization, the United Nations’ permanent Commission of Inquiry warned in a new report it released on Thursday warning that women and journalists were particularly vulnerable.
“Today we issued a report that focuses on the silencing of civil society in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, and we concluded that all duty bearers are engaged in limiting the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful association,” said Navi Pillay, who chairs UN’s the “COI on the Occupied Palestinian Territory including East Jerusalem and Israel.
The third report is the third one released by the three-member permanent COI established in 2021 and mandated to issue such investigatory documents twice a year, once in Geneva and once in New York.
What did the new report look at?
The new release looked at the actions of Israel, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas, which the report referred to as the de facto authorities in Gaza.
The “use of torture and ill-treatment to punish and intimidate critics and opponents” in Gaza is widespread, the COI charged.
A number of Palestinian human rights activists in Gaza reported they had been subject to “sleep deprivation, threats of violence (including against female family members), prolonged use of solitary confinement, beatings, including on intimate parts of the body and on the soles of the feet (falaqa), and being forced into painful stress positions for prolonged periods (shabeh).
“One activist in Gaza reported that, during 15 days in detention, he was severely beaten, including on the soles of his feet and back, with a whip and metal sticks, and suspended by his arms from the ceiling for prolonged periods of time,” the report said.
The COI accused the Palestinian Authority of beating well-known Palestinian political critic Nizar Banat to death in June 2021 and of arbitrarily detaining journalists. Gaza journalists told the COI they practiced self-censorship in order to prevent the security services there from targeting them.
Palestinian women human rights activists in the West Bank and Gaza face gender-based violence and are targeted on social media, the COI charged.
“Women human rights defenders also reported that fake sexually suggestive videos and pictures with their names were circulated on Facebook accounts associated with the Fatah movement in an attempt to discredit and stigmatize them,” the COI said.
But it leveled its harshest criticism against Israel without mentioning the ability of a large Israeli pro-democracy movement to peacefully protest government activities in the last months.
The COI took issue in particular with Israeli and IDF actions against Palestinian civic society, particularly in the West Bank where in October of 2021 it designated as terror groups six Palestinian non-governmental groups as terror organizations. The six NGOs are Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defense for Children International – Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees.
Pillay said her committee was “particularly alarmed by the situation of Palestinian human rights defenders, who are routinely subject to a range of punitive measures as part of the occupation regime.”
The COI charged that Israel’s silencing of civic society was linked to its goal of “enshrining a permanent occupation” at the expense of Palestinian rights.
“The report found reasonable grounds to conclude that several Israeli actions undertaken against civil society organizations amount to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and may constitute crimes under international law,” the COI said.
This included Israel’s forced deportation in 2022 of the Palestinian-French attorney Salah Hammouri, which the COI alleged was a war crime.
The Palestinian activist has lived in east Jerusalem and had worked for the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. He had been accused of membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is recognized by the US as a terror group. Hammouri had served time in an Israeli jail on charges of plotting to assassinate former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but was freed as part of the 2011 prisoner swap with Hamas for the release of Gilad Schalit.
Overall, the report found “reasonable grounds to conclude that several Israeli actions undertaken against civil society organizations amount to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and may constitute crimes under international law,” the COI said.
It looked at statements by Israeli politicians including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (RZP), who compared left-wing NGOs to a swarm of mosquitos just months before taking office. It also pointed to a statement by MK Ariel Kellner (Likud) who accused the left-wing Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence of antisemitism based on the definition set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Some right-wing Israeli NGOs have bolstered the government’s efforts to silence civic society, the COI charged.
“Right-wing organizations operating in Israel and abroad effectively implement and promote the Israeli Government’s strategy against civil society. Palestinian anti-gender rights groups operating in the occupied West Bank, have targeted Palestinian women human rights defenders,” it said.