Israel on Friday designated six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organisations and accused them of funnelling donor aid to militants, a move that drew criticism from the UN and human rights watchdogs.
Israel's defence ministry said the groups had ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a left-wing faction with an armed organisation that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.
The groups include Palestinian human rights organisations Addameer and Al Haq, which document reported rights abuses by both Israel and the western-backed Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.
“[The] declared organisations received large sums of money from European countries and international organisations, using a variety of forgery and deceit,” the defence ministry said, alleging that the money had supported the PFLP's activities.
The designations authorise Israeli authorities to close the groups' offices, seize their assets and arrest their staff in the West Bank, watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a joint statement.
Addameer and another of the groups, Defence for Children International — Palestine, rejected the accusations as an “attempt to eliminate Palestinian civil society".
The UN Human Rights Office in the Palestinian territories said it was “alarmed” by the announcement.
“Counter-terrorism legislation must not be used to constrain legitimate human rights and humanitarian work,” it said, and added that some of the reasons given appeared vague or irrelevant.
“These designations are the latest development in a long stigmatising campaign against these and other organisations, damaging their ability to deliver on their crucial work,” it said.
Khaled Quzmar, general director of Defence for Children International Palestine (DCIP), responded to the designation, saying: “For 30 years, DCIP has investigated, documented and exposed grave human rights violations against Palestinian children, held Israeli and Palestinian authorities accountable to universal human rights principles, and advocated at the international and national levels to advance access to justice and protection for children."
Israel and pro-Israel organisations have previously targeted DCIP, including in July when Israeli forces were captured on video reportedly raiding the agency's Ramallah office and confiscating computers and files.
“Israeli forces must immediately end efforts aimed at delegitimising and criminalising Palestinian human rights defenders and civil society organisations. We demand that the international community use all available means to hold Israeli officials accountable,” Mr Quzmar added.
The US was not given advance warning of the move and will engage Israel for more information about the basis for the designations, US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” he said.
But Israel's defence ministry said: “Those organisations present themselves as acting for humanitarian purposes; however, they serve as a cover for the 'Popular Front' promotion and financing.”
An official with the PFLP, which is on US and EU terrorism blacklists, did not outright reject ties to the six groups but said they maintain relations with civil society organisations across the West Bank and Gaza.
“It is part of the rough battle Israel is launching against the Palestinian people and against civil society groups, in order to exhaust them,” PFLP official Kayed Al Ghoul said.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the “decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine's most prominent civil society organisations".
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Palestinians seek the territories for a future state.
Additional reporting by Ellie Sennett