Nearly one month after the Israeli military raided the offices of seven Palestinian civil society organizations—its latest step in an escalating campaign of repressing Palestinian dissent—the United States remains largely silent, effectively providing Israel with the political space it needs to continue with its crackdown. Even as Israel’s repression intensifies, the Biden administration remains far more committed to Israeli political considerations—especially in light of yet another Israeli election—than to its rhetoric on human rights.
A History of Repressive Tactics
On August 18, the Israeli Army raided the offices of seven Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations in the occupied West Bank, vandalizing workspaces, stealing property, and sealing the offices as it declared them officially closed. As shocking as these actions are, they are simply the most recent and significant steps in a long-running Israeli campaign to quell dissent and to silence organizations that have led the way in documenting and reporting the Israeli military’s gross human rights abuses against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Prior to the raids in mid-August, the Israeli defense minister declared in October 2021 that the county considered six Palestinian human rights groups to be terrorist organizations. The declaration was met with condemnation and concern from the international community and with demands for evidence supporting Israel’s claims—evidence that the Israeli government has to this day never properly provided. But this designation did not come out of nowhere. Rather, it came after years of Israel’s attempts to use other methods to silence these same organizations, including efforts to convince the organizations’ European funding partners to cut them off.
As shocking as these raids are, they are simply the most recent and significant steps in a long-running Israeli campaign to silence organizations that document Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians
One of the main drivers of this effort has been a right-wing Israeli organization euphemistically named NGO Monitor. While the group presents itself as focused on “democratic values and good governance,” it is in fact closely associated with the Israeli government and has worked with it to support lobbying efforts in Europe to cut funding to both Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations that criticize the Israeli government’s human rights record. Even though Israel and this organization’s accusations are utterly baseless, European governments and agencies have been forced to take them seriously, as any responsible government would do when met with a claim that their funds were being misused or, in this case, supposedly financing violence and terrorism. After investigating the matter, these government concluded that Israel’s accusations do not hold water, and have therefore maintained their funding relationships with these Palestinian civil society organizations. That said, the review process and the time and energy that these European actors were forced to invest in responding to these absurd allegations potentially acts as a disincentive to partnering with Palestinian organizations, which is precisely the goal of Israel and its allies’ repressive efforts.
The US vs. its European Allies
European donor countries have been coming out for months now with statements, often in unison, rejecting Israel’s claims. But unlike its European allies, Washington has walked a different path, neither accepting the claims nor rejecting them. Instead, the United States has tried to draw out the process of taking a stance on Israel’s accusations against these organizations for as long as possible. Nearly a year after the Israeli defense minister’s designations, the US still has yet to publicly announce its conclusion on a review of evidence that Israel has provided it, despite the fact that Washington’s European allies, which were presented with the same information, have long since publicly stated that it was insufficient.
Nearly a year after the Israeli terrorist designations of these organizations, the US has yet to publicly announce its conclusion on a review of evidence that Israel has provided, despite the fact that Washington’s European allies have publicly stated that it was insufficient
One of the few statements that has come from the US so far has been an August 18 response by US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price to a question from the press, in which he stated that the administration has “not seen anything that has caused us to change our approach to our position on these organizations.” He also reiterated that the Israelis had promised to provide information justifying the raids, demonstrating that the US was once again going to take a wait-and-see approach to the issue. And on September 13, the State Department acknowledged that the Israelis had in fact conveyed some information the week prior, but said that Washington was not passing judgment on the information, and was instead deferring to an interagency review process which would take time. Israeli sources reportedly confirmed that the country has made an effort to convince US officials of the basis of its accusations, even meeting with the State Department and intelligence officials to try and do so. Their efforts appear to be working, since Washington is once again accepting Israeli information and evaluating it without passing judgment. This stance can only be interpreted as a wink and nod granting permission for even greater Israeli repression.
Washington is accepting Israeli information and evaluating it without passing judgment, which can only be interpreted as a wink and nod granting permission for even greater Israeli repression
By responding this way, Washington is granting Israel the time and the space they desire to continue their crackdown on Palestinian human rights organizations. The State Department has even worked to draw a distinction between the US and its European allies who continue to fund these organizations by noting that the US did not have a pre-existing funding relationship with them. However, the absence of a funding relationship has not prevented the United States from speaking up when human rights defenders are targeted elsewhere. Furthermore, the United States actually does have a funding relationship in this case, namely with the Israeli military that is conducting this crackdown, a fact that makes it even more important for the United States to take a clear and decisive stance against Israel’s repression campaign, which is essentially being supported by US dollars.
Emboldened by Washington’s willingness to cover for them, Israel will likely further intensify its attacks on human rights organizations and the human rights defenders who work for them
But Israel seems emboldened by the United States’ inaction, and has been intensifying its crackdown. After working for years to silence these human rights organizations by lobbying European governments to cut off their funding, the Israeli government took the draconian step of designating them as terrorist organizations, thereby enabling the state to take even greater action against them. The raids that followed were the logical consequence of this designation and the latest escalation of the Israeli repression campaign. With raids now checked off the list, next steps will likely include targeting these organizations’ staff members—a process that seems to have already begun. In the weeks since the raids, Israel has extended its detention of Salah Hammouri, a French Palestinian attorney who works with Addameer, one of the targeted human rights organizations. And directors of other targeted organizations have been on the receiving end of threats and interrogations. Emboldened by Washington’s willingness to cover for them, Israel will likely further intensify its attacks on human rights organizations and the human rights defenders who work for them.
Elections Shape US Silence and the US-Israel Agenda
The United States under the Biden administration made a point of proclaiming that human rights would be at the center of its foreign policy. This lofty rhetoric has often featured as part of a rallying cry to bring western nations together in opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where the US has invested heavily to support Ukrainian troops pushing back Russian forces. But when it comes to the rights of Palestinians and those who defend them, the United States appears to be committed to silence. And we have seen the Biden administration take a similar stance on the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist who was killed by an Israeli soldier in Jenin in May. Instead of pressing the Israelis for accountability, the United States has allowed for Israeli impunity by stopping short of conducting its own investigation and by limiting its response to a request that Israel simply review its rules of engagement. While Washington has never been a leading voice on Palestinian human rights, its failure to press Israel at this time is likely due to other issues in the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Elections in both Israel and the United States are conditioning a great deal of what each side is now publicly saying, while negotiations around the nuclear deal with Iran add another complicating factor to this dynamic.
The Biden administration surely does not want to see a return of the Netanyahu era and therefore does not want to offer him any ammunition with which to attack his leading political rivals
The next Israeli election—like all Israeli elections in recent memory—will likely be determined by a very slim number of votes and will either result in the most right-wing government in the country’s history or in yet another election. While not wanting to openly interfere in Israeli politics, the Biden administration surely does not want to see a return of the Netanyahu era and therefore does not want to offer him any ammunition with which to attack his leading political rivals. Netanyahu will likely go after his two main competitors, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, on several fronts, including what he will frame as a mishandling of the relationship with Washington over the Iran deal and other issues. But Washington’s reluctance to take steps that could be exploited by Netanyahu has meant biting its tongue while American journalists are killed, while human rights defenders are attacked, and while the current Israeli prime minister flatly rejects even the most toothless American requests to review his military’s rules of engagement. While sitting silent and taking every Israeli slap in the face with a smile might be Washington’s idea of the best way to keep Netanyahu out of office (an outcome that is far from assured), it is Palestinians who are ultimately on the receiving end of Israel’s greatest abuses. Regardless of election outcomes, unless Washington changes its tune, Israeli abuses and violations are certain to continue.