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Opinion: I could face 15 years in prison if stopped by Israeli border patrol on my way home to Cork

Cork woman Dr Susan Power, a human rights lawyer, asks Simon Coveney to advocate for six NGOs designated as terrorist organisations by Israel.

Dr Susan Power

I AM AN Irish citizen and a Human Rights Lawyer with the Palestinian NGO, Al-Haq, one of the six civil society organisations that Israel’s Minister of Defence, designated as “terror organisations” a few weeks ago (October under Israel’s Anti-Terror Law, 2016).

The implications of this indiscriminate targeting of Palestinian NGOs are extremely serious, both for me personally as an Irish citizen but particularly for the Palestinians with whom I am working.

It was a move by the Israeli government that was not without prior warning. Al-Haq has been a targeted NGO for years, conducting independent human rights work in an increasingly repressive and shrinking space for Palestinian civil society, under Israel’s prolonged military rule and defamation campaigns against human rights defenders.

Questioning

During one incident at Allenby Bridge, the border between Palestine and Jordan, a young Israeli soldier took me aside for questioning and asked for my business card. Due to the coronavirus, I explained, I have not needed a business card for over a year. She seemed annoyed and asked me to write the name of Al-Haq, where I work, clearly on a page for her.

Outside, after being questioned, I noticed an imposing Israeli flag waving in the breeze. The location and symbolism are clear to everyone who enters Palestine. Israel considers this territory, under its military occupation, as Israel.

I had paid an Israeli lawyer nearly €2,000 to negotiate entry. “You are allowed in Palestinian territory only,” the soldier warned. “No Jerusalem, no Israel,” she said.

I realised that it wasn’t the moment to mention that the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem are also part of the occupied Palestinian territory. Or that the entire Palestinian people, including those refugees and exiles in the diaspora, are fragmented under an apartheid regime, designed to segregate them into different administrative zones, denied family unification while living under precarious residency status.

In the meantime, Israel carries out its plan for the complete colonisation of Palestine, and the removal and erasure of the majority of its people, and their replacement with Israeli Jews, living in flash newly constructed settlements, on the bulldozed rubble of destroyed Palestinian homes.

Expanded settlements

To date, Israel has constructed nearly 300 illegal settlements and outposts across Palestine, with 700,000 Israeli settlers. Just a few weeks ago, it announced its latest plans to construct 3,000 settlement units in the West Bank, despite international calls for the reversal of this decision.

As I travel on to Ramallah, in a battered service van I watch the newly expanded red-roofed settlements flash past. Rubbish collects below foreboding military watchtowers, as we drive beside the ugly concrete Annexation Wall. Outside the settlements, Israeli soldiers strapped with heavy ammunition packs, clutch loaded machine guns.

These are the very injustices that propel my work and my lifetime commitment to Palestine and to Al-Haq, now itself an indiscriminately targeted organisation.

International recognition

Our legal and advocacy work is noted and awarded internationally. In 2018, Al-Haq co-jointly received the illustrious annual Human Rights Award of the French Republic. In 2019 at the UN in Geneva, it received the Human Rights and Business Award, and in 2020 the prestigious Gwynne Skinner award for corporate accountability. We file communications to the International Criminal Court, submit reports to the Human Rights Council Database, and file amicus curiae briefs for court cases abroad.

At Al-Haq, the day involves emergency response to violations on the ground urgently communicated in by fieldworkers; diplomatic briefings; journalist interviews; quickly preparing urgent appeals to UN special procedures; alerts to Third States to intervene; and, somewhere in the moments of calm, brainstorming our response to the legal and political developments of the day.

Threat of imprisonment

While we are acknowledged by the civil justice and human rights world, our work is also noticed by Israel – a victim of our own success perhaps.

Our General Director has received travel bans, staff have received death threats, and the organisation has been consistently smeared in a targeted campaign led by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Following the latest declaration on 19 October, when Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared our organisation and five others to be “terror organisations”, our organisation and staff, including myself, now face serious criminal penalties, including arrests and prosecutions and the freezing and seizure of assets.

Our General Director, Shawan Jabarin is in grave and immediate risk, facing 25 years imprisonment. Al-Haq’s office can be raided by the Israeli military and closed.

I face potential criminal charges for managing an alleged “terror organisation”, an activity carrying a 15-year sentence. I have already removed precious mementoes of a recently deceased work colleague into safekeeping, just in case.

The designation as a “terror organisation” also has serious implications for Al-Haq’s partners and funders who are now at risk of prosecution and five-year prison terms for supporting a designated organisation.

Even partners who provide services or support to Al-Haq can be prosecuted on arrival to Israel, including Irish-based partner organisations who support the Occupied Territories Bill, for example. Our staff in annexed East Jerusalem where Israel directly applies the Anti-Terror Law to the occupied territory, face even more immediate and threats – many under the radar – like the denial of family reunifications, denial of health insurance and greater risks crossing at checkpoints.

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Back in May 2019, the EU categorically rejected Israel’s initial allegations that EU funding to Al-Haq and other organisations is channelled to terrorism. Nonetheless, Israel’s continuing objective has been to completely cripple our human rights work and decimate Palestinian voices on the ground, culminating in their unfounded designation on 19 October.

International condemnation

The international community of NGOs and academics have reacted angrily to this latest designation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called it exactly as it is and warned that it is “the latest in a long-running series of actions to undermine and restrict human rights defenders and civil society organisations working for the human rights of Palestinians”.

UN Special Rapporteurs also published an immediate response, saying that “the misuse of counter-terrorism measures in this way by the government of Israel undermines the security of all”.

These responses are comforting indeed but they don’t stop the dread of what might happen. I now worry about leaving the country and getting home safely to Ireland.

Unless this law is rescinded immediately, I personally risk 15 years imprisonment when I present at border control to return home to Cork within the next few weeks. I risk this simply because I am a human rights lawyer.

Ireland has also condemned the targeting of eminent Palestinian civil society organisations, which Minister Simon Coveney repeated this week on a visit to the territory. It must now use its leverage further during the minister’s trip, and in the EU, to collectively pressure Israel to immediately rescind the designations.

As Palestine suffers new layers of erasure, we need a strong political commitment by Ireland to fund, reinforce and defend established institutions that protect human rights and the rule of international law in a disappearing Palestine.

Dr Susan Power is Head of Legal Research and Advocacy at Al-Haq.

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Dr Susan Power

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