In August 2022, when Israeli authorities raided the offices of Palestinian civil society organizations that they had previously outlawed and ordered them closed, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the moves as “a crime and a brazen assault.” PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh made a solidarity visit to one of the group’s offices and encouraged them to continue their work.
The PA, though, refused to renew the registration of another respected Palestinian legal organization in March: Lawyers for Justice, which has represented Palestinians detained by the PA in the West Bank. A PA official told the group’s head, Mohannad Karaje, that the PA General Intelligence Services are blocking the registration, Karaje said.
The Intelligence Services claim Lawyers for Justice engaged in “nonprofit activities” and accepted foreign funding, in violation of their status as a “civil corporation” under PA law. But Karaje told Human Rights Watch they registered as a civil corporation to comply with Palestinian law, which forbids lawyers from engaging in any work outside of legal representation, including holding a position with a nonprofit,. Palestinian law also does not forbid accepting foreign funding, according to Karaje. The PA has not raised this objection before, even though Lawyers for Justice has been registered as a civil corporation for more than three years.
The PA’s move to muzzle Lawyers for Justice reflects a larger trend of the PA “shrinking the space for civil society organizations and further empowering its security services,” says Karaje. Human Rights Watch has documented how the PA, through its Intelligence Services and other agencies, systematically arrest critics and opponents and tortures those in detention.
Lawyers for Justice has represented many of those detainees and has been one of Human Rights Watch’s closest partners in this work. In July 2022, we submitted a parallel report together to the United Nations Committee Against Torture ahead of its review of Palestine.
Karaje said that, without valid registration, Lawyers for Justice will not be able to access its bank accounts and could have its offices shuttered and staff arrested. Lawyers for Justice has appealed to the Administrative Court of the Palestinian High Court of Justice.
So long as the PA blocks groups from carrying out work focused on their abuses, their calls to safeguard Palestinian civil society and protect Palestinian rights will continue to ring hollow.