One of the world’s oldest Zionist organizations with close ties to the Israeli government, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), is using American anti-terror laws to sue a major Palestinian rights group in the United States over its support for the international boycott movement. .
The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a coalition of groups seeking to end the decades-long occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, said the lawsuit was part of a broader, Israeli-led strategy to harass organizations that are critical of the oppression of the Palestinians.
The JNF and a group of American Israelis are seeking compensation from the US Palestinian Rights Campaign for its support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, led by Palestinians to mobilize non-violent international pressure on Israel. The JNF claims that the BDS movement is a front for terrorist groups.
The Israeli government has banned support for the BDS movement, saying it wants Israel to cease to exist as a Jewish state and therefore antisemitic. But the JNF itself has faced accusations of racism for refusing to let non-Jewish Israelis live on its substantial land holdings.
Diala Shamas, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights representing the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, describes the legal action as part of a wider Israeli-led strategy to discredit and criminalize the Palestinian cause, alongside measures such as laws in more than 30 US. states punishing support for boycotting Israel.
“The aim here is to harass the US Campaign [for Palestinian Rights]. This is something we are seeing more widely: smearing human rights advocates with charges of terrorism, and attempts to drag human rights advocates and protesters to court, to extended litigation that distracts them from their advocacy. In the Palestinian context we see that happening a lot, both in the United States and from Israel,” he said.
The JNF lawsuit was brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of attacks by groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the US government to sue for damages in US courts.
The lawsuit alleges that the BDS movement is largely controlled by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups banned in the United States and Israel as terrorist organizations. The legal action argues that by raising money for BDS and supporting the boycott movement, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights is materially supporting terrorism. Along with the JNF, the plaintiffs include American Israelis who claim to have suffered trauma living in communities that have come under rocket attack from the Gaza Strip.
A federal court in Washington DC dismissed the lawsuit in 2021, saying the JNF and other plaintiffs had made “bare-thread assertions” of financial support for terrorism. The JNF appealed, telling a court hearing last week that the decision to dismiss had been wrong in view of “very serious breaches of the anti-terrorist statute”.
Lawyers for the US Palestinian Rights Campaign say the BDS movement is not an illegal organization and was founded by a variety of legitimate Palestinian groups as a peaceful way to fight for their rights.
The lawsuit also seeks damages from the US Palestinian Rights Campaign for its support of the “Stop the JNF” movement due to the fund’s controversial policies, including discrimination against non-Jews.
Founded by the early Zionist movement in 1901 to purchase land for Jewish settlement in what was then part of the Ottoman empire, the JNF took control of a large amount of territory confiscated from the 700,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled during Israel’s 1948 war of independence.
The JNF is now a quasi-governmental body that works closely with the state-run Israel Land Authority.
For decades the fund refused to lease its land, which covers about 13% of the country, to non-Jewish Israelis. In the face of legal action in 2009, a compromise involving a land exchange was reached with the government so that the JNF would not have to own property inhabited by non-Jews. The fund has also been part of movements to expel Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem in order to make room for Jewish settlers.
Ahmad Abuznaid, director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said that given the JNF’s close relationship with the state of Israel, he has little doubt that the lawsuit has official sanction and is an attempt to “criminalize the boycott movement”.
“We see this case as an attack on the Palestinian rights movement and a violation of our ability to exercise our constitutional right to freedom of speech,” he said.
“The Israeli government has been heavily involved not only in targeting Palestinian rights activists in Palestine and abroad, but the Israeli government, as it proudly states, has also played a role in moving US policy, enacting legislation to be used at the state level, at the national level.”
The Israeli government is increasingly concerned about the threat posed by a popular international boycott movement in support of the Palestinians, modeled on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. He is also alarmed by the growing acceptance of claims by respected human rights groups that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory amounts to a form of apartheid.
The strategic affairs ministry in Jerusalem is leading the government’s campaign against the BDS movement, including by funding groups such as the Tel Aviv-based International Legal Forum, which has pursued lawsuits to close bank accounts and block financial aid in the United States to Palestine. rights groups by claiming links to terrorism. The ministry has also supported anti-boycott laws in the US states, an issue that could go to the supreme court.
In August, Israel banned six Palestinian rights organizations, accusing them of links to terrorist groups. Nine EU countries said that Israel had failed to provide evidence to support the accusations and that they would continue to fund the organisations.
The UN accused Israel of using anti-terror legislation “to restrict legitimate human rights and humanitarian work”.
The banned groups said the Israeli move was “an attempt to eliminate Palestinian civil society”.