Recent Developments in the Situation of Palestinian and Israeli Human Rights Defenders – April 2023

With the November 2022 elections, and the formation of the most extreme, ethno-nationalist coalition government in Israel’s history, there have been several political developments that impacted the work of human rights defenders on the ground in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Since December, there has been a massive mobilization of Israelis across the political spectrum demonstrating weekly against the proposed judicial reforms, which were temporarily halted after a turnout of 600,000 across the country on the eve of the scheduled Knesset vote in late March.

Echoing in the mainstream discourse around this judicial overhaul is a worrying refrain that this was “not the time” to discuss occupation, and that Israelis need to “save democracy” before distracting themselves with so-called Palestinian issues. However, it has been alarmingly clear to anyone paying attention that the purpose of this power-grab has everything to do with entrenching occupation, making possible West Bank annexation, depopulating Palestinian residence in Area C and East Jerusalem, allowing military and police to act with impunity, and paralyzing what’s left of open civil society in Israel.

Since the assumption of the coalition to government last December, this agenda has only been made increasingly evident. In February, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich was transferred sweeping powers over the administration of the West Bank to Smotrich, paving the way toward de jure annexation. (Smotrich has made it no secret that he is committed to the expulsion of Palestinians from this land – take, for instance, his comments that the Palestinian village of Huwara should be “wiped out” in the wake of the vicious settler pogrom in February, or his statement at a private event in Paris in March that there is “no such thing as the Palestinian people.”) In March, as a concession for the halting of the judicial reforms, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir of the Jewish Power party (who has for years made it his mission to enflame tensions in Sheikh Jarrah and evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem) was authorized to establish a National Guard (or personal militia, as many have described it), which would only serve to ignite major conflict in the mixed cities and suppress Arab citizens of Israel.

While these events have been heavily reported on in domestic and international media, there are several additional developments that pose major concern to the human rights community in Israel and the oPt. The danger that this government will impose hefty taxes on civil society organizations (CSOs) is more real than ever. Although there have been successive attempts in the past to impose taxation on donations made by “foreign state entities” to human rights NGOs, this government has included a clause in its Coalition Agreement that gives itself 180 days to pass a punitive taxation law, which would tax donations made by foreign state entities up to 65%. If passed, this would effectively cripple the operations of most human rights organizations in Israel, who rely heavily on grants from partner foundations funded by foreign state entities. Another bill on the table, proposed by Miki Zohar and Eli Dellal of Likud, would make it a felony to film or record any members of the military or security personnel without their permission, thereby criminalizing the work of all field researchers, photojournalists, or individuals who document human rights violations by state authorities in the oPt. Additionally, last month, the Knesset voted to repeal the terms of the 2005 Disengagement Law in the West Bank, thereby legalizing the return of settlements to areas in the northern West Bank recognized as private Palestinian land, expediting additional land theft and settlement expansion. Efforts to suppress freedom of expression and protest have also been pursued through extralegal means: in January, Ben Gvir instructed the police force to confiscate Palestinian flags waved at protests and arrest those holding them (a command for which there is no legal basis under Israeli law), and there have been dozens of confiscations and arrests made in every city in which demonstrations occur like in Haifa, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, and intermittently also in Tel Aviv.

All of these developments, and more, have acute ramifications for the work of human rights defenders (HRDs) on the ground in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). In the past months, HRDF has rendered legal aid to dozens of HRDs impacted by a political climate that serves only to further criminalize them and suppress their activities. HRDF has monitored several trends that are threatening the work and lives of human rights defenders, including: persecution of field researchers and journalists; impunity of ongoing settler harassment and violence; restriction on freedom of movement against HRDs safeguarding Palestinian land; and suppression of freedom of expression, especially vis-a-vis Palestinian flags.


Persecution of Journalists, Field Researchers, and Documenters

The Baseless Prosecution of Nasser Nawajah

Nasser Nawajah is a longtime human rights defender who has worked as field researcher at the eminent human rights organization B’Tselem for 15 years. A resident of the Palestinian village of Susiya (the site of several successive expulsion and land expropriation attempts by the Israeli state and military since the 1980s), Nawajah consistently documents human rights violations occurring in the south Hebron hills on a regular basis. He is well-known among the residents of Masafer Yatta as someone to call when a demolition, or military confrontation, or settler attack occurs, and his work has been vital to the documentation of and reporting on human rights violations in the area for the past several years.

Last May, Nawajah was indicted on baseless charges from an event that occurred in September 2021 in Susiya, in which nearby settlers stormed a playground at the entry to his village of Susiya following a visit of the village by representatives of the British consulate. Three weeks after the event, Nawajah was summoned for interrogation for assaulting a solider, despite the fact that he was never arrested on the day of the event for such a charge. This accusation was completely false and had no evidence to support it – Palestinians in the oPt are arrested for much less, and if Nawajah had in fact assaulted a soldier, he would have been arrested and detained immediately on the spot.

It is clear that this indictment is meant to target Nawajah in order to put a stop to his documentation activities. Throughout the past several years, Nawajah has been continually harassed by Israeli security services with the primary goal of intimidating him into ceasing his activities – most recently, this past August, Nasser was arrested in the middle of the night from his home in Susiya, and detained for 12 hours, after which he was verbally threatened by a Shin Bet officer to “stop causing trouble” and then released without charge or explanation.

Nawajah’s trial began in Ofer Military Court in February, and his first evidence hearing will take place in the coming weeks. The persistent targeting and harassment of Nawajah represents a concerted attempt to prevent HRDs from documenting expulsion efforts in Area C and human rights violations by state authorities and settlers. Without HRDs like Nawajah who continue the crucial work of camera documentation, it would be almost impossible to monitor such violations or protect the rights of local communities.

Nasser Nawajah addresses a group of demonstrators standing in solidarity with him during his February 2023 hearing in Ofer Military Court. Photo courtesy of Oren Ziv / Local Call.


Arrest of Journalists in East Jerusalem

On March 20, Itamar Ben Gvir signed an order banning the broadcasting of the radio station “Voices of Palestine,” which is based in Ramallah but also has offices in East Jerusalem, implying that the radio station’s programming constituted “incitement and support for terrorism.” The same day, Israeli police arrived at the station’s Jerusalem office in the Beit Hanina neighborhood to notify them of its closure, and summoned several Palestinian reporters in East Jerusalem for questioning.

Lyali Eid, a journalist from East Jerusalem who has documented police and settler violence against Palestinians in the city for several years, was one of the journalists summoned for interrogation on March 20. The Special Division Unit of the Jerusalem police questioned her over the course of two hours on her journalistic activities, her cooperations with Radio Palestine, and acts of “incitement” during Ramadan. Eid is a prominent HRD who has been targeted in the past – in 2018 she was similarly investigated by Jerusalem police in an attempt to deter her from her journalistic activities. After interrogation, Eid was released from detention without conditions.

SLAPP Suit to Silence Land Policy Research Organization Begins

Kerem Navot is a crucially important human rights organization that monitors Israeli land policy (including expropriation, seizures, and theft) in the oPt. In 2020, they were sued for libel by the extremist settler Zvi Bar Yosef, who founded a massive unauthorized outpost on thousands of acres of Palestinian land, after describing him as “violent” in a Facebook post reporting on his activities. Bar Yosef has been involved in a number of violent confrontations against local Palestinians, some of which have been reported on in Israeli media, and in the past has had multiple police complaints filed against him.

In February 2023, the evidence hearings in the lawsuit against Kerem Navot commenced. Ten Palestinian residents of the West Bank arrived in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court to provide their witness testimonies and corroborate the description of Bar Yosef’s as violent. Most of the witnesses testified to being personally injured in attacks by Bar Yosef and his accomplices. For many of the witnesses, this evidence hearing provided a rare opportunity to have their voices and stories heard in an official judicial setting, as there is often no legal recourse for Palestinians harmed by settler violence to get justice in the Israeli court system. (In a report released by Yesh Din last year, of all of the investigations into settler violence monitored by them between 2005-2022, indictments were filed in only 7%, and only 3% led to conviction. Most instances of settler violence rarely even prompt an investigation.) Despite the fact that most of the witnesses had clearly been victims of assault and spoke little to no Hebrew (requiring an Arabic translator), the defense attorneys were exceptionally hostile to the witnesses. On several occasions they raised their voice at the witnesses belligerently, and at one point invaded the personal space of one witness in a manner that can only be described as physically threatening.

Both sides are currently submitting their concluding statements, and we will then await the judge’s decision on the case. This politically-motivated lawsuit is only one of several in a sea of baseless civil suits against human rights organizations and activists intended primarily to drain financial resources and energy from their work. Organizations like Kerem Navot are critical to the monitoring of land theft in the oPt, and it is imperative that they are not silenced by the litigious efforts of privately-funded settler extremists.

Targeting of Documenters during Protest

Over the past several months, several civilian documenters have been arrested and detained during demonstrations while filming police conduct. During a January 16 demonstration against the judicial reforms organized by students of Bezalel Arts Academy in Jerusalem, a student was arrested while filming the police violently dispersing and arresting demonstrators who had blocked the road during the demonstration. He was questioned on multiple charges relating to the demonstration and released with a 15 day ban from participating in a public assembly and from returning to the scene of the incident.


Criminalization of Land Defenders in Area C

Continued Harassment of Palestinian Farmer and Severe Criminalization of Israeli and International HRDs Escorting Him

Said Awad is a Palestinian human rights defender and resident of the village of Umm Lasfa in the South Hebron Hills, whose private land is under constant threat of seizure and expropriation by settlers from the nearby unauthorized outpost of Mitzpe Yair (founded in 1998 on privately-owned Palestinian land). Every Saturday, Awad visits his land, often accompanied by his family or Israeli and international HRDs, in the struggle for freedom of movement and access and in effort to prevent the further expansion of the Mitzpe Yair outpost onto his land. Awad and those who accompany him often risk grave dangers of settler violence while attempting to visit his private land (such as this attack on his family in 2021). He also comes face to face with the IDF on a regular basis in their attempts to deny him access, and has been arrested several times in the past in attempts to deter him from his activity.

On February 18, 2023, Said Awad was accompanied by three HRDs (2 international and 1 Israeli) while attempting to visit his private land, and were stopped by soldiers who had declared the area a “closed military zone” in an effort to deny access. The four of them complied with the order and exited the demarcated boundaries presented in the order. However, almost two hours later, the 3 HRDs were approached and detained by soldiers despite the fact that they were already outside of the “closed military zone.” The Israeli HRD was released to 5 days of house arrest, and the two international HRDs were threatened with deportation, and instructed to appear in the Population and Immigration Authority office in Ramla for the pre-deportation hearing. The threat of deportation was an unusually severe and unwarranted response to the minor and common infraction of violating a closed military zone (which they were not even doing at the time of arrest). Although the deportation case was ultimately dropped, it signifies a worrying direction in the escalation of punitive crackdowns on human rights activities in the past several months.

For the next several weeks, Said Awad was continually denied access to his land by military personnel awaiting him. On February 25, the army declared it a closed military zone, detained him, and banned him from the site for 10 days as terms of his release. Two weeks later, on March 11, he attempted to access his land once more, and was again issued a closed military zone order and detained. This time, HRDF-funded lawyer Riham Nassra was able to secure his release from detention without restrictive conditions. Again, on April 4, during a visit to Awad’s land, Awad and a group of activists were blocked by soldiers without being presented with a closed military zone order. 7 HRDs were arrested (Oneg Ben Dror, Yasmin Eran Vardi, Itai Feitelson, Guy Avni, Eran Maoz, Alma Rokas, Aryeh Miller) and were only shown the closed military zone order after their arrest. All were ultimately banned from the site of arrest for a week, in a clear bid to deter the activities of HRDs who provide protective presence to Palestinian shepherds and farmers in Area C and document settler and military violence against them.

The continued harassment of Palestinian residents of Area C like Said Awad, and the use of “closed military zone orders” to deny him access to his land and restrict the freedom of movement for him and other HRDs, is but one of the many insidious ways that the occupation enables land theft, settlement expansion, and expulsion of Palestinians from their lands.

Sa’id Awad (prominent land defender in Masafer Yatta) confronted by IDF soldiers and threatened with arrest during a weekly visit to his private land with Israeli and international solidarity activists in December 2022. Photo courtesy of Layla Gordon.


Criminalization of HRDs who are Victims of Settler Violence

Victims of settler harassment and violence are often reluctant to submit complaints to police because, more often than not, those victims are then ultimately placed under suspicion, interrogation, and penalization by the same police to whom they turned to report on the settler violence. In the past several months, HRDF has provided legal aid to several HRDs who were victims of settler violence and in turn became the targets of detention and interrogation themselves.

On January 19, prominent HRD and rabbi Arik Ascherman (also Executive Director of the human rights organization Torat Tzedek) arrived at the Binyamin police station in the northern West Bank to submit a complaint against a settler who had harassed him and several Palestinian shepherds. Not only did the police refuse to submit the complaint, but they in turn detained him to interrogate him on unrelated suspicions of disorderly conduct and assault for several unrelated incidents. Again, on January 25, Ascherman returned to submit the same complaint, and was once more held for interrogation. Upon release, Ascherman was banned for 14 days from the area where he accompanies Palestinian shepherds. The police’s conduct toward Ascherman served not only as an attempt to discourage Ascherman from his human rights activities, but also is one of the primary reasons why so many instances of violent settler activity go unmonitored, undocumented, and unreported.

In Sheikh Jarrah, HRD Nabil Shreteh was arrested by police on January 8 after a settler attempted to run over Shreteh and several other neighborhood residents with his car following a confrontation. While Shreteh was falsely accused of stone throwing, vandalism, and racially-motivated hostility, and detained for multiple days, the attacking settler was released almost immediately after the incident with no charges. Despite the fact that video evidence showed that Shreteh did not commit any of the charges, and did not engage in any violent confrontation, Shreteh was nonetheless released to house arrest for 2 days and required to deposit cash bail. This is a glaring example of selective enforcement, unwarranted arrests, and punitive targeting of Palestinian residents while allowing settler harassment in East Jerusalem to continue unchecked.

On March 27, during a solidarity activity escorting a Palestinian shepherd in the south Hebron hills, international solidarity activist Paul Gibson called the police to report an incident of settler harassment and intimidation. When police arrived at the scene, they elected to detain Gibson (rather than the harassing settlers), and warned against submitting “false complaints” to the police. Gibson was provided a phone consultation with HRDF-funded attorney Riham Nassra, and ultimately released from detention without interrogation.

On March 13, in the Masafer Yatta village of Tuba, a settler from the unauthorized outpost Havat Ma’on began to graze his sheep on the private land of the Abu Jundiya family. When Hamza and Saleh Abu Jundiya requested that the settler leave their land, they were attacked and pepper sprayed. Upon police arrival on the scene, Hamza (rather than the attacking settler) was arrested and interrogated for assault. His brother Salah arrived shortly after to submit a complaint of settler violence. Prominent HRD Avishai Mohar provided eyewitness testimony of the entire interaction.

These are shocking but all-too-common examples of victim-blaming in events of settler harassment and violence. Instead of pursuing investigations into the instances of settler assault, the police systematically choose to penalize and criminalize HRDs who bear the brunt of the violence. This routine punitive behavior by the police is one of the main reasons why Palestinians in the oPt so often choose not to report incidents of settler violence, further decreasing the slim chances of prosecution and making the phenomenon even more difficult to track and monitor.


Suppression of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly

Arrest of HRDs waving Palestinian flags

In the past several months, there have been countless instances of confiscation of Palestinian flags and arrests of protestors waving Palestinian flags at demonstrations, despite the fact that it is completely legal under Israeli law and theoretically protected under freedom of political expression. Since the start of anti-government protests last December, HRDF has represented 13 HRDs in incidents and arrests relating to Palestinian flags in public demonstrations.

During a January 26 demonstration in Haifa against the multi-day IDF military incursions in the Jenin refugee camp that left dozens of Palestinians dead and hundreds injured, prominent HRD Gil Hamerschlag was arrested for refusing to lower the Palestinian flag after police ordered its removal. Several other HRDs were present waving Palestinian flags during the protest, including Hadash MK Ofer Cassif who also refused to lower his Palestinian flag. Police ultimately opted to release Hamerschlag without condition. The following day, January 27, during continuing demonstrations against the Jenin massacre, four HRDs (3 Israeli including Hammerschlag, and 1 Arab-Israeli) were again arrested for waving Palestinian flags, on charges of obstructing a public servant and disturbing the peace. The 3 Israeli HRDs were released immediately, but the Arab-Israeli HRD was held overnight before his release.

During a March 27 demonstration against the judicial coup, prominent HRDs Shir Bram and Avishai Mohar were arrested near the Knesset building by police using excessive violent force while waving Palestinian flags. Mohar was released after interrogation to house arrest and two-week ban from the site of the protest, and Bram was released the following day after a detention hearing with a 15-day ban on participating in illegal demonstrations. Following an appeal filed by HRDF-funded lawyer Nasser Odeh against Mohar’s excessively restrictive release conditions, the terms of his house arrest were withdrawn.

Throughout April, there were a series of arrests in Haifa effectively criminalizing the presence of Palestinian flags in public space.

  • On April 1, HRD Salim Abbas was arrested in Haifa while holding a Palestinian flag after police attempted to prevent the anti-occupation bloc of the protest from joining the mainstream demonstration. Abbas attempted to negotiate with police officers to allow them access, during which time he was arrested with brute force. (He was released following interrogation).
  • On April 2, 4 HRDs were arrested in Haifa at a protest against the murder of Muhammad Elasibi and the violent police raid in Al-Aqsa Mosque, during which demonstrators waved Palestinian flags (3 were immediately released following interrogation and one of the Arab-Israeli HRDs was kept in custody and released to house arrest the following day).
  • On April 5, during a similar protest rally in Haifa against the Al-Aqsa violence, police attacked demonstrators without issuing an order to disperse, and tore down Palestinian flags. HRD Sahar Toma was arrested, detained overnight, and released to full house arrest for 5 days and a prohibition of contact with other political activists. After an immediate appeal by HRDF-funded lawyer Riham Nassra against the excessively restrictive conditions, Toma’s house arrest was canceled.


Excessive Use of Force Against Demonstrators

Over the past several months, police have used violent means to disperse the massive protests proliferating in urban centers throughout the country, including using water cannons, stun grenades, and physical brute force.

On February 9, two prominent HRDs Shir Bram and Omer Sharir were arrested forcefully during a demonstration against the judicial reforms near Azza Street in Jerusalem. During his hearing the following day, Sharir showed clear signs of injury, and the court ordered the police to investigate misconduct after videos from the incident showed police physically assaulting Sharir during arrest.

On March 3, six prominent HRDs (Itai Feitelson, Avihai Batito, Roi Aloni, Guy Avni, Muhammadd Abu Hummus, and Avishai Mohar) were arrested during a weekly Friday protest in Sheikh Jarrah, after settlers and police officials began to attack demonstrators in multiple sections of the demonstration. During the demonstration – which took place against a Writ of Execution hearing scheduled for March 9 on the eviction case of the Salem family which has since been postponed – the officers attempted to disperse demonstrators by riding through on mounted horse and spraying the noxious substance “skunk water.” Four of the HRDs were released after interrogation to one day of house arrest, and all of the protestors were banned from Sheikh Jarrah for a period of between 15 to 30 days.


A protestor in the radical bloc of the anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv waves a Palestinian flag atop a street sign after a group of men try to physically snatch the flag away to prevent it from being raised. January 2023. Photo courtesy of Arielle Gordon.

Special Thanks to HRDF’s Team of Lawyers

HRDF thanks its incredible team of lawyers for providing top-tier legal support in the cases recounted above and in other cases not reported here, so that our HRDs can continue to fight against human rights violations in Israel and the oPt. Special thanks are due to the following lawyers who provided legal support to HRDs between December 2022 – April 2023:

  • Adv. Riham Nassra
  • Adv. Nasser Odeh
  • Adv. Carmel Pomerantz
  • Adv. Karin Torn Hibler
  • Adv. Noa Levy
  • Adv. Lea Tsemel
  • Adv. Shahda Ibn Bari
  • Adv. Asaf Weitzen
  • Adv. Andre Rosenthal
  • Adv. Tamir Blank

In Memoriam

HRDF honors the memory of the late, great human rights defender and activist-journalist Yossi Gurvitz, who passed away this past February. In the words of Noam Sheizaf, who penned a poignant tribute to the legendary activist in +972 Magazine, Yossi Gurvitz was “a relentless, fearless, incredibly knowledgeable, prolific, and sharp writer… His ability to speak truth to power, while continuing to challenge his own camp, is today more needed than ever.” HRDF was proud to defend Gurvitz throughout the years.

Yossi Gurvitz refused to be silenced in life and in death. The power of his words lives on in those committed to continuing his legacy.

HRDF stands in solidarity with all HRDs targeted, assaulted, criminalized, and prosecuted due to their work. We will always support them and guarantee that they are able to continue their legitimate human rights work.

We welcome your interest and support. If you have any further questions regarding these and other matters, please contact: [email protected].il