JERUSALEM -- Investigators commissioned by the U.N.’s top human rights body on Thursday accused Israel of “delegitimizing and silencing civil society” by outlawing Palestinian human rights groups and labeling their members as “terrorists.”
The findings came in the annual report by the Human Rights Council’s “Commission of Inquiry.” The commission, led by a three-member team of human rights experts, was established in 2021 following an 11-day war between Israel and the Hamas militant group in Gaza. Israel accuses the rights council, and the commission, of being unfairly biased.
The report also accused both Hamas and the rival Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of committing rights violations. But it said most of the violations it had uncovered were committed by Israel as part of a campaign it says is aimed at “ensuring and enshrining its permanent occupation at the expense of the rights of the Palestinian people.”
Former U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay, who leads the commission, accused Israeli and Palestinian authorities of “limiting the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful association.”
“We were particularly alarmed by the situation of Palestinian human rights defenders, who are routinely subject to a range of punitive measures as part of the occupation regime,” she said.
In 2020 and 2021, Israel designated seven Palestinian rights groups as terrorist groups, effectively outlawing them. It later raided and shut some of their offices.
Israel says the groups are connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — a secular, left-wing movement with a political party as well as an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis. Israel and its Western allies consider the PFLP a terrorist organization.
The rights groups deny any connection to the PFLP, and a number of European nations have rejected the Israeli claims, citing a lack of evidence.
Thursday’s report said the Israeli crackdown on the groups was “unjustified and violated fundamental human rights, including the rights to freedom of association, expression, opinion, peaceful assembly, privacy and the right to a fair trial.”
It also took aim at Israel’s deportation of a Palestinian human rights activist last year from east Jerusalem to France. Israel has accused the activist, Salah Hammouri, of PFLP membership.
Chris Sidoti, a member of the commission, said there was “no doubt” that the deportation “constitutes a war crime.”
In a statement released by its U.N. mission in Geneva, Israel rejected the report’s findings.
“The Commission of Inquiry against Israel has no legitimacy. It never had,” it said.
It accused the commission members of having “pre-existing biased prejudices” and compared the commission’s public hearings to gather information for the report to “kangaroo trials.”
“Israel has a robust and independent civil society which is composed of thousands of NGOs, human rights defenders, national and international media outlets, that can operate freely throughout the year,” it said.
The commission is the first to have an “ongoing” mandate from the U.N. rights body. Critics say its annual scrutinizing of Israel testifies to an anti-Israel bias in the 47-member-state council and other U.N. bodies.
Last year, Israel, the United States and Britain accused one of the commissioners, Miloon Kothari, of making antisemitic remarks by questioning Israel’s right to be a U.N. member and alluding to a “Jewish lobby.” Kothari later apologized.
Proponents say the commission is needed to keep tabs on persistent injustices faced by Palestinians under decades of Israeli rule.
In the report, the commission also criticized the rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza, accusing them of targeting human rights activists “with the aim of silencing dissenting opinions.”
It said authorities in both areas have forcibly closed civil society activities.
“In Gaza, organizations seen to be challenging the social, religious and political status quo have been particularly targeted,” it said.
In the West Bank, it said many activists have been arrested for protests and online activism and charged with defaming officials and participation in illegal gatherings.
The Commission found that Palestinian security forces “routinely intimidate” activists and journalists “through threatening phone calls, interrogations or cautionary interviews and arbitrary arrest and detention,” it said.
It said it had received information about “torture and ill-treatment to punish and intimidate critics” both in Gaza and the West Bank.
“The frequency and severity, and the absence of accountability indicate that such cases are widespread in nature,” it said.
It accused Palestinian forces in the West Bank of arresting or allowing violence against LGBTQ+ people, and using sexual and gender-based violence to silence female human rights defenders.
There was no immediate reaction from either the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or Hamas in Gaza.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three areas for a future independent state.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a step that is not internationally recognized and says the West Bank is disputed territory, and that its fate should be determined through negotiations. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The international community overwhelmingly considers all three areas to be occupied territory.