When the Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by a team of Saudi regime operatives in Istanbul in 2018, the world reacted with horror at the gruesome crime as well as Riyadh's chilling message of repression to dissenters around the world: We will try to silence you wherever you are.
While this led to an increased focus on transnational repression—the effort by various countries to extend their repressive reach beyond their borders—the Israeli government's effort to muzzle its critics has flown largely under the radar.
The recent designation of six leading Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organisations by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz—which has been dismissed by European governments and recently exposed in the Israeli press as based on dubious evidence—is the most recent and perhaps most high-profile step in a long-running campaign aimed at silencing critics of Israel's human rights abuses around the globe.
Because of a robust, global anti-terrorism financing regime, this designation will likely imperil any financial support provided to these human rights organisations, leaving them unable to do their valuable work.
Over the last 20 years, as Israel further entrenched its military occupation and in response to the tireless reporting and advocacy of Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights groups, international organisations and courts began to take unprecedented steps toward holding Israeli officials accountable.
For example, in 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled Israel's wall illegal; various international investigative commissions looked into war crimes during Israel's successive wars in Gaza; the International Criminal Court has begun to look into war crimes charges; and this year Human Rights Watch reported that Israel is practicing apartheid and persecution, both crimes against humanity.
Many global civil society actors, from labor unions to churches to student groups, responded to the Palestinian call for solidarity through the use of nonviolent economic boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to hold Israel to account.
The Israeli government, and particularly its right-wing supporters, understood that global criticism of its abuses would make maintaining the occupation harder. Right-wing groups in Israel began to attack Israeli human rights organisations in the 2000s, and as the Netanyahu government came to power in 2009, they became targets of government policy.
The organisations targeted were put under scrutiny, their funders were targeted, and they faced relentless smear campaigns in the Israeli media.
Then, in 2015, the Israeli government decided to give an entire ministry the mandate to coordinate the international effort to repress global civil society actors.
This ministry, which went by the name the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy and has since been folded into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, set its sights on repressing and silencing Israel's critics around the globe.
To get other governments to crack down on Palestinian rights advocacy and human rights organisations in Europe and North America, the Israeli government needed partners there.
One of the key roles of the Strategic Affairs Ministry was to coordinate and empower—as its director for international cooperation, Jonathan Neuberger, put it—various networks of organisations operating in countries around the world.
This included a network of some 170 pro-Israeli and Jewish organisations worldwide, with specific networks dedicated to social media and the legal arena.
These networked organisations seek to silence dissent in various ways. One is by getting foreign governments to adopt legislation targeting critics of Israel. Anti-BDS laws in the United States are one example of this.
These laws infringe on the First Amendment rights of advocates who are discriminated against for taking a stand against Israeli human rights violations. While various courts have ruled against these laws in the United States, where they have been challenged, the laws themselves have contributed to a chilling effect on constitutionally protected political expression.
But legislation is only one pathway that the Israeli government's repression network employs. Lawfare—whereby legal action is brought against advocacy organisations in an effort to drain their resources or criminalise them—is another. The Strategic Affairs Ministry financed an organisation called the International Legal Forum, which works to support lawfare efforts around the globe.
For example, suits may be brought against organisations through allegations of ties to terrorism. Litigation can take months or years, and even when the suits are thrown out, damage is likely to have been done.
It does not matter if the allegations are entirely bogus, the point is to put human rights defenders themselves on the defensive, smear their reputations, attack or intimidate their donors, and dry up their time and resources in legal defense.
Harassing legal actions have been filed against civil society organisations in recent years, including against groups such as the Carter Center, Oxfam, and the New Israel Fund, and can be linked directly back to the Israeli government's coordinated repression network.
Members of these networks will now seek to use this Israeli designation as the latest advocacy tool in their effort to convince European governments to shut out Palestinian human rights defenders.
Another tactic is to piggyback on or modify existing laws. Like anti-BDS legislation, this strategy seeks to use the coercive power of the state against dissenters. Unlike anti-BDS legislation, however, these efforts hope to sidestep free speech challenges.
A prime example of this is the effort to spread the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism around the globe; the definition classifies some criticism of Israel as antisemitic.
Once this definition is adopted by a government, pro-Israel groups can demand that it be enforced against critics of Israel they want to silence.
Israeli officials are not shy about taking credit for this web of censorship. In 2019, the strategic affairs minister boasted before a gathering of network allies that repressive laws in dozens of U.S. states, France, and the United Kingdom and more than 50 lawsuits had been achieved "because of your commitment, dedication, and tireless efforts, together with those of my ministry and all of the relevant bodies in the Israeli government."
The state-civil society dynamic is supposed to be one that supports democratic norms, limits state abuses, and ensures better governance. By partnering with a range of nongovernmental organisations for explicitly undemocratic purposes, the Israeli government is turning this dynamic on its head.
While such concerns are usually raised about authoritarian powers—most recently regarding China's transnational repressive reach—Israel is providing a template for authoritarian regimes seeking to silence adversaries in ways that pass muster in the West.
Israel's recent terrorist designation of six Palestinian civil society organisations is just the latest step the government is taking to eliminate dissent from human rights groups. These groups have been at the forefront of advocacy demanding accountability for Israeli leaders behind these human rights violations.
Gantz, the Israeli defense minister who declared the six organisations as terrorist front groups, may well have done so because their advocacy before the International Criminal Court may result in his prosecution for war crimes during the bombardments of Gaza that he presided over.
It is important to note that the Israeli government could have taken steps to shut down these organisations at any time; at the end of the day, they are based in occupied territory that Israel's military controls.
But the goal is to eliminate the organisations without having to deal with the bad press of rounding their leaders up and putting them in prison. At first, the Israeli government sought a different route.
In coordination with its network partners, it tried to use spurious allegations of terrorism links to dissuade European governments and funders from financing Palestinian civil society actors. That did not work.
Then, this May, the Israeli government made a full-court press with European governments, putting forward an outrageous conspiracy charge to attack all six groups in one fell swoop, and called on the Europeans to essentially stop funding most major Palestinian human rights organisations. The Israeli government shared secret so-called evidence of its allegations, but the Europeans rejected it.
After reviewing the file provided by the Israelis, the Dutch foreign minister announced that it did not provide "concrete evidence of links." Similarly, in July, the Belgians conducted a review of the same allegations from the Israelis and concluded the file contained "no concrete material evidence of possible fraud."
The European Commission, on two occasions after the Israelis sent their allegations that Palestinian groups were diverting funds to outlawed organisations, said it had found "no substantiated evidence for such misuse or deviation."
A major investigation into the leaked Israeli dossiers provided to European governments shows exactly why they were not buying the allegations.
Several Israel-based journalists, from media outlets including +972 Magazine, the Intercept, Haaretz, and Local Call, who went through the documents provided by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and its Shin Bet intelligence agency to the Europeans, found they "failed to present any documents directly or indirectly linking the six organisations" and that the claims were based on selectively edited hearsay and attenuated guilt by association accusations.
As the director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry once acknowledged, "We are not fighting with facts. We are not fighting by telling the truth."
After failing to convince the Europeans, the Israelis finally designated the organisations themselves. Now, the Israelis are hoping to work with their networked allies to weaponise this designation in a renewed push to get the Europeans to cut funding.
In fact, Haaretz reported this week that a security source acknowledged "the main objective of labeling them as terrorist organisations was to hamper their fundraising" with the specific aim of convincing European governments that were not persuaded previously.
Surely, they are also hoping that Washington will be more receptive to the presentation of their so-called evidence following their string of rejections in Europe.
A representative of NGO Monitor, a group that has been a key driver of disinformation targeting Palestinian rights groups, acknowledged on a podcast for the International Legal Forum that cutting off the money to these organisations is "almost secondary."
More important is to deny Palestinian civil society "access to decision-makers … in the parliaments around Europe and the world where their reports are being quoted and used as references to draw policies and legislate and decide how the EU and other European governments will engage in the Middle East."
Ensuring that European and North American decision-makers hear less and less about Israel's human rights violations has always been the repression network's overarching goal.
In other words, the real threat these organisations pose to Israel is that they are exposing the horrific treatment of Palestinians to the world and demanding accountability for it.
The time has come to shed light on these efforts and to call them out for the undemocratic practices that they are. Most recently, Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian organisation that has been regularly targeted by right-wingers in Israel, called on U.S. President Joe Biden to use Magnitsky sanctions against Gantz due to his push to outlaw Palestinian human rights groups.
The State Department this year also proclaimed a new sanctions policy designed to impose restrictions on individuals who "are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work."
The State Department says the United States "will continue to shine a light on any government that targets individuals, either domestically or extraterritorially, merely for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Israel has long sought to portray itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, but its apartheid policies at home make a mockery of democracy, and its repression efforts targeting civil society groups and their foreign funders put it in league with autocratic regimes—providing ample reasons for Washington to exclude it from Biden's upcoming Summit for Democracy.
Indeed, some parts of the U.S. government seem to recognise that Israel is increasingly situating itself within the transnational repression nexus.
This week, the U.S. Commerce Department added two Israeli companies, NSO Group and Candiru, to its entity list for "engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States."
These companies grew out of Israeli military intelligence units, which hone their surveillance skills on Palestinians, and have their sales authorised by the Israeli Defense Ministry to countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, India, and Rwanda.
The Commerce Department noted that the two companies "enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression. … Such practices threaten the rules-based international order."
Authoritarians around the world seek to silence dissent beyond their borders in various ways. Some opt for bone saws or drops of polonium in tea.
But Israel's repression network seeks similar outcomes in more sophisticated ways designed to get the job done without garnering significant reputational damage in the process. U.S. and European officials should not let an ally carry out such repressive policies without consequences.
Yousef Munayyer is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement