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Who’s sending death threats to Palestinian advocates in The Hague?

In an interview with +972, the Hague representative of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, talks about the slew of threats she and her organization have received for months, and why she believes the Israeli government is behind them.

“Israel’s trusting that people will be ignorant.” Nada Kiswanson, a Palestinian-Swedish lawyer and representative of Al-Haq in The Hague, has been receiving persistent death threats since February 2016.

“Israel’s trusting that people will be ignorant.” Nada Kiswanson, a Palestinian-Swedish lawyer and representative of Al-Haq in The Hague, has been receiving persistent death threats since February 2016.

In a small ceremony in The Hague on April 1, 2015, the Palestinian Authority officially signed the Rome Statute, the legal covenant enabling the prosecution of individuals at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Saeb Erekat, the PA’s chief negotiator, called it “a historic day in the struggle for justice, freedom and peace for our people and all those seeking justice worldwide.”

A few months later, four Palestinian human rights organizations – Al-Haq, Al Mezan, Aldameer, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – submitted communiqués to the ICC detailing numerous counts of suspected war crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza War, codenamed “Operation Protective Edge” by the Israeli military. Raji Sourani, Director of PCHR, stated that “Israel is unwilling and Palestine is unable to domestically hold to account Israeli perpetrators of international crimes. We need the ICC to break the cycle of impunity.”

The four organizations anticipated a backlash from Israel, which made no secret of its hostility towards the Palestinians’ attempt to pursue an international legal track to seek accountability. What they didn’t anticipate was how severe that backlash would be.

Since September 2015, several of the organizations have faced ruthless smear and intimidation campaigns seeking to discredit them and stoke insecurity among their staff. The harassment culminated in death threats made against two individuals: A senior Palestinian advocate in Al Mezan, whose identity has been kept confidential but who will be discussed in Part II of this series; and Nada Kiswanson, 31, a Palestinian-Swedish lawyer who is Al-Haq’s representative in The Hague.

The new headquarters of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. (Wikimedia Commons).

The new headquarters of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. (Wikimedia Commons).

Although the death threats began in February 2016, Kiswanson initially kept a low profile, concerned first and foremost for the safety of her family including her husband and two-year-old daughter, and in the hope that the Dutch authorities would find the culprits immediately. But the authorities still haven’t tracked them down, and the attacks only escalated. Kiswanson finally went public about her case last week.

The Dutch newspapers that first covered the story highlighted a few examples of the threats. In late February, Kiswanson received obscure phone calls from people calling themselves “Rami” and “Abu Rami,” who contacted Kiswanson and her family and left threatening messages in broken and accented Arabic: “If she doesn’t stop her work, we’ll eliminate her off the face of the earth,” “Honey, you are in grave danger,” and others. In May, flyers were distributed throughout Kiswanson’s larger neighborhood claiming Al-Haq was “working to strengthen the Islamic base in the country.” In July, “Rami” reached Kiswanson through a family member’s phone number while she was visiting Jordan. Earlier this month, “Abu Rami” contacted Kiswanson through an encrypted messaging platform she was using and told her that she was “not safe at all and hopefully this will remain.” These are only glimpses into the threats she has been getting on an almost weekly basis for the past six months.

Kiswanson and Al-Haq have little doubt that Israel is behind these attacks. “This was a reason why I went public,” she told +972. “A criminal investigation [by the police] is not enough…this issue is in need of political intervention.”

Israeli officials who were asked by Dutch newspapers to comment on the case have flatly denied any knowledge or involvement. A spokesperson at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the allegations “absurd,” while another added, “Threats via telephones? That sounds like nonsense. That’s not how we work. If we have a legal problem with someone’s work, we take them to court. I don’t think this is worth an article.”

+972 begs to differ.

Photos of seven of the 8 members of the Al Khalili family killed, put on the location on the attack, Gaza Strip, November 12, 2014. (Anne Paq / Activestills.org)

Photos of seven of the 8 members of the Al Khalili family killed, put on the location on the attack, Gaza Strip, November 12, 2014. (Anne Paq / Activestills.org)

Deliberate, strategic choice

+972: This wave of attacks first began in September 2015 against Al-Haq as a whole, but then it shifted to targeting you specifically. Why do you think this happened?

Kiswanson: The attackers’ initial strategy was to try to undermine the support and credibility of the organization itself. Emails were sent to our donors and partners, with some pretending to be Al-Haq staff members claiming that they were too afraid to criticize or speak out against the organization. But the attackers realized early on that this strategy was failing; none of the donors and partners bought the lies, and the staff was firmly behind the organization. So the attackers decided instead to try intimidating and dissuading individual staff members from continuing their work, to break and weaken Al-Haq’s capacity internally.

How often are you receiving these death threats?

For the first two months there were threats almost every week. I received strange texts on my phone and my email account sent itself ominous messages. I would get phone calls that were silent on the other line or that hung up before I picked up. I bought new prepaid phones with new numbers, and as soon as I had used them, I got calls and texts to those phones with the same threats. That aspect in particular indicated that I was under heavy surveillance by an actor with strong intelligence capabilities. Emails would also be sent to Al-Haq’s email group saying that I wasn’t loyal to the organization’s “ideology,” thinking they could turn the staff against me. They basically used every channel they could to reach me in multiple countries – in the Netherlands, in Jordan, anywhere in Europe. I’m still receiving these threats every two to four weeks.

Why are the threats focusing on you as an advocate based in The Hague? Why aren’t they doing the same to your colleagues based in Palestine?

At first glance it seems strange that they are coming after me; I’m not the face of the organization nor its General Director. But there’s a reason these attacks are happening in Europe and not in Palestine. Our work on the ground – in raising human rights awareness and strengthening the Palestinian community against the occupation – is not Israel’s biggest concern at the moment. Israel is, of course, continuing to obstruct and silence dissent in Palestine through arrests, incitement, laws, and other methods, but this has not stopped our work and we are still operating actively.

Al-Haq director Shawan Jabarin hands a confidential communication to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in the Hague, November 23, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Al-Haq)

Al-Haq General Director Shawan Jabarin hands a confidential communique to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in The Hague, November 23, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Al-Haq)

Israel’s biggest concern, however, is how Al-Haq and other human rights groups are portraying the state to the world. Israel is worried about the fact that we are mobilizing the international community to act against the occupation, and in particular through legal mechanisms such as the ICC. The Israelis know that what they’re doing is inconsistent with international law, including the Rome Statute, and we have compiled and submitted extensive evidence to prove it.

The strategy behind the current attacks is therefore to cut the link between Palestine and Europe, including The Hague, when it comes to human rights advocacy and the pursuit of accountability. The Registrar of the ICC spoke to this effect in response to my case, saying that “an attack against an NGO indirectly undermines the work of the court.” This is why the decision to target me was a deliberate, strategic choice, because Israel knows that even if they harassed my colleagues in Palestine, it won’t stop my work and presence here in The Hague.

Global Reach

And you believe that Israel is behind these threats?

Yes. Al-Haq has been targeted and harassed by the Israeli authorities for years. And there’s no debate that Israel has the biggest motive, experience, and capacity to carry out this kind of relentless campaign. We’re dealing with an actor that has a global reach and is unashamed and extremely comfortable with operating in territories outside its own. A hacker could pretend to be present in several countries, but the sheer amount of effort that has been put into attacking the organization, and ensuring that they can access me in any part of the world and through any method, is not an indication that this is just some group of people who have a grudge against me.

The people behind these attacks have been clever in making it easy for pro-Israel supporters to dismiss the threats as acts of crazy people. But when you see all the threats, and the sophistication and technology needed to pull them off – such as reaching me on prepaid numbers and making their sources untraceable – it is clear that this is being done with government backing. It takes a lot of technical power and political arrogance to do this.

A tent sits among the rubble in a destroyed section of the Shujayea neighborood, which was heavily attacked during the latest Israeli offensive, Gaza City, September 4, 2014. During the seven-week Israeli military offensive, 2,131 Palestinians were killed, including 501 children, and an estimated 18,000 housing units have been either destroyed or severely damaged, leaving more than 108,000 people homeless.

A tent sits among the rubble in a destroyed section of the Shujayea neighborood, which was heavily attacked during the latest Israeli offensive, Gaza City, September 4, 2014. During the seven-week Israeli military offensive, 2,131 Palestinians were killed, including 501 children, and an estimated 18,000 housing units have been either destroyed or severely damaged, leaving more than 108,000 people homeless.

As you mentioned, the tactics we’re seeing against Al-Haq today seem more sophisticated compared to the blatant methods often used against other Palestinian human rights activists. Why do you think this is the case?

In the past, Israel would just detain human rights defenders and sometimes even torture them. This still happens of course, but the situation has changed somewhat: Palestinians have been able to mobilize extensive international political and media attention towards the occupation and the people fighting against it. It’s much harder for them to detain someone like Al-Haq’s General Director to try to silence him; if anything that would just make Al-Haq stronger.

At the same time, Israel is still intensifying its campaign against human rights organizations and activists. This has especially been the case since the 2009 Goldstone Report that investigated Operation Cast Lead in Gaza [2008-2009], because human rights organizations are showing that they are playing a more crucial role and exerting a greater degree of influence on behalf of the Palestinian cause. The impact and changes we’ve had on Europe in the past few years, for example, shows that these organizations can’t be seen negligible.

So Israel is still trying to achieve the same goals, but with smarter and different tools. They’re passing laws under the guise of “transparency;” they’re trying to undermine organizations’ financial and political credibility; they’re inciting against human rights and anti-occupation discourses to turn the Israeli public against them. The post-Goldstone changes were a learning process for Israel, and it’s now implementing its new strategies to counter them.

An Israeli tank amid the rubble of a destroyed mosque in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy of Breaking the Silence)

An Israeli tank amid the rubble of a destroyed mosque in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy of Breaking the Silence)

This sounds similar to the crackdown today on BDS and pro-Palestine activism in Israel and various countries through laws, pressures, and demonization of anti-occupation activists.

Exactly. Israel doesn’t make a distinction between human rights organizations and the BDS movement. For the state, they’re one and the same because they are exposing to the world what is happening on the ground in Palestine and Israel. You now have Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan who have openly stated that they view both BDS and human rights groups as strategic threats that require strategic responses. Any kind of activism to help Palestinians is therefore a target.

What do you think must be done to end the threats against you?

We are at the stage where this issue is in need of political intervention. European countries need to realize that they have been a part of making Israel feel that they have the impunity to repress Palestinian activism whenever and wherever they wish. They know that Israel has intelligence operations in their countries, and some are probably giving their consent for those activities. None of them are telling Israel that Europe isn’t a place to act as they will, that there are consequences for threatening and delegitimizing basic human rights work.

This was one reason why I went public about the threats against me. A criminal investigation is not enough; I went to the Dutch police in February, and the threats have only escalated since. Israel is trusting that people will be ignorant of what is happening, and that they won’t ask questions. It’s time for governments to speak out and say this is unacceptable.

This is the first in a two-part series about the attacks against Palestinian human rights defenders working with the ICC.

Full disclosure: The interviewer is a friend and professional associate of Kiswanson as an advocacy coordinator at Adalah. This interview was done strictly in a personal capacity as a writer on +972.

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    COMMENTS

    1. i_like_ike52

      If you want to talk about death threats, the official FATAH and HAMAS leadership has made death threats against the whole Jewish population of Israel. During the recent supposed “lone wolf attacks”, their propaganda organs said that all Jews are legitimate targets. Both the Palestinian Authority and HAMAS honor all Palestinians who kill Jews under any circumstances.
      As a matter of fact, these threats have been acted upon, unlike the supposed threats the Palestinians are complaining about

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jimmy

      I don’t believe anything in this article. I don’t believe that there are any threats being made against these people. These are the same people that just pull stuff out of their backside in order to demonize Israel. I presume this too is part of the same campaign.

      Reply to Comment
    3. R5

      Putting Israelis on trial would finish the ICC. Israeli military justice is more strict than its American counterpart – if Bensouda decides that Israeli military courts aren’t up to standard, she’d be setting a totally untenable precedent for every western country that signed the Rome Statute. Even Canada would pull out. Whether she’s willing to sacrifice the court’s legitimacy has yet to be seen. In any case, Israel has very little to fear from the ICC, so its extremely unlikely to have undertaken an embarrassing and amateurish threat campaign against some random Palestinian lawfare person, +972 conspiracy theories notwithstanding.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      Looks like state-sponsored terrorism to me. But wait, I’ve had it drilled into my head that Netanyahu is a highly, highly principled opponent of state-sponsored terrorism in all its forms. And I have heard Netanyahu tirelessly lecture, nay, preach to the Europeans and the whole world on their supposed hypocrisy about state-sponsored terrorism. (The same Europeans who are endlessly indulgent of Netanyahu and give him, on all sorts of things, a pass they give no one else.) Netanyahu is like Jimmy Swaggart preaching against the evils lasciviousness and fornication, but the consequences are infinitely more serious.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      Ike, what are you talking about? Israel kills noncombatants all the time. With almost casual abandon. Have you not been reading the License to Kill series here?

      Reply to Comment
    6. R5

      Ben “With almost casual abandon”? Usually when you “love to hate” anything, people aren’t going to take you very seriously. Its pretty gross to watch you salivate over your nastiness is every single post. Try and reign it in yea? Or find another outlet for your resentment toward Israeli Jews? Sorry, “Hasbara” folks.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Carmen

      “Usually when you “love to hate” anything, people aren’t going to take you very seriously. Its pretty gross to watch you salivate over your nastiness is every single post. Try and reign it in yea? Or find another outlet for your resentment toward Israeli Jews?”

      Me thinks you protest too much, and are projecting like a big dog. His comments are not joyous. The horror that is the fascist Jewish state and its 2 million Palestinian hostages is the problem, not comments about it. The narrative about this won’t sound any better until the reality on the ground changes. See how that works? It’s not happy fun land, ‘the only democracy in the ME’, etc., ad nauseum, because the majority of israelis like to play ‘let’s pretend’.

      Reply to Comment
    8. R5

      Carmen: if Israel were a fascist state, all of the +972 writers would be dead or in jail, because that’s what actually happens to dissidents in a fascist state. Sad to see another one lose grip on reality and understanding of political speech as they succumb to the anti-Israel hive mind.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Carmen

      “Sad to see another one lose grip on reality and understanding of political speech as they succumb to the anti-Israel hive mind.”

      Ok, I see you’re sticking with your story. What is happening here has been gradual and steady especially since Netanyahoooweeee became prime minister, again, in 2008. Slowly, slowly, little by little, the so-called only democracy in the ME is slipping down the slope to fascism. You can dismiss it all you want, we have that freedom to disagree (for now). However, all of the news combined paints an extremely grim picture of freedoms being slowly chipped away. So if all you have to say to me is it isn’t so, I see you’re heavily invested in ‘let’s pretend’. Shame.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben

      “The narrative about this won’t sound any better until the reality on the ground changes. See how that works? It’s not happy fun land, ‘the only democracy in the ME’, etc., ad nauseum, because the majority of israelis like to play ‘let’s pretend’.”

      Very well put.

      License to Kill
      Every year, IDF soldiers shoot and kill unarmed Palestinians in the occupied territories. But time and time again, it seems like the soldiers responsible are never brought to justice. Now, +972 opens up the case files to examine just how the army gives its soldiers a license to kill.
      http://972mag.com/special/license-to-kill/

      What R5 of course fails to understand is that on the western side of “the green line” there are creeping, softer forms of fascism afoot–whatever the hard right thinks it can get away with in terms of internal and external opinion–already the state and its censors strategically control information to a totalitarian degree–but that on the eastern side of “the green line,” if you are a Palestinian, something like fascism or apartheid already exists in force. And I put “the green line” in quotes because Israel wants it both ways: it wants to have an entirely separate system of crime and punishment on one side but not the other based on ethnicity, but with respect to settlement and creeping annexation it wants to erase “the green line” and is actively at work doing so. So one cannot speak of “Israel” and “the territories” as two separate entities without “playing pretend” as Carmen put it.

      Reply to Comment
    11. R5

      Carmen: So there is no “fascist Jewish state” YET, but its totally getting there? Thanks for the retraction and maybe let’s wait for fascism to occur in some form before starting in with the hysterics.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Carmen

      Carmen: So there is no “fascist Jewish state” YET, but its totally getting there? Thanks for the retraction and maybe let’s wait for fascism to occur in some form before starting in with the hysterics.

      I didn’t say there is no fascist Jewish state. There is. It hasn’t fully blossomed to its inevitable horror, with even more inevitable destruction. I think the solution to ‘wait for fascism to occur in some form’ makes about as much sense as waiting for that precancerous lesion to become a full blow metastasis before thinking about treatment. And why do folks such as yourself (israel apologists, zionists, hasbarists) find it necessary to label the any critiques as ‘hysterics’, or is that the misogyny coming out?

      Reply to Comment
    13. Ben

      “The narrative about this won’t sound any better until the reality on the ground changes. See how that works? It’s not happy fun land, ‘the only democracy in the ME’, etc., ad nauseum, because the majority of israelis like to play ‘let’s pretend’.” Very well put.

      What R5 of course fails to understand is that on the western side of “the green line” there are creeping, softer forms of fascism afoot–whatever the hard right thinks it can get away with in terms of internal and external opinion–but that already the state and its censors strategically control information related to the eastern side of “the green line” to a totalitarian degree under the excuse of “security” and that on the eastern side of “the green line,” if you are a Palestinian, something like fascism or apartheid already exists in force. And I put “the green line” in quotes because Israel wants it both ways: it wants to have an entirely separate system of crime and punishment on one side but not the other based on ethnicity, but with respect to settlement and creeping annexation it wants to erase “the green line” and is actively at work doing so. So one cannot speak of “Israel” and “the territories” as two separate entities without “playing pretend” as Carmen put it.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Carmen

      “Thanks for the retraction and maybe let’s wait for fascism to occur in some form before starting in with the hysterics.”

      I didn’t make a retraction. Say, if your doctor told you, “You have a precancerous lesion with a 60% likelihood of become malignant. Don’t worry though, there’s a 40% chance it won’t!” Would you get another opinion or take her advice?

      “Let’s wait for facism to occur in some form(?)”. WTH? Like a precancerous lesion or wait until it’s a full blown metastastatic tumor? Sounds like extremely bad advice and if I were you, I’d find another doctor.

      Reply to Comment
    15. RE: A spokesperson at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the allegations “absurd,” while another added, “Threats via telephones? That sounds like nonsense. That’s not how we work. If we have a legal problem with someone’s work, we take them to court. I don’t think this is worth an article.”

      MY SNARKCASM: That’s our environmentally conscious Israel, always trying to discourage imprudent use of paper and ink!

      Reply to Comment
    16. Monir

      Doesn’t any body , specially Jews see how dangerous and blatantly criminal this behavior is? Don’t they see that is why Israelis /Jews ( because Israel speaks for all jews)are not liked by many people in the world, and not just the Palestinians? The are not helping eliminate Antisemitism , they are increasing anti Israel which Israel and some Zionists translate to the rest of the Jews as anti Jewish? Lies, threats, aggression, occupation , black mailing, assassinations, stealing land, stealing water, ripping off most of the international aid to the Palestinians, in fees, banking, storage and transportation ? That kind of behavior translate to the rest of the world as disregard and disrespect to the international community , laws and human decency . Jews who want to be just decent human beings and live to raise their own children and have a good happy life, should the first to stand against this kind of criminal acts as its done in their name, and some might end paying the price.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Ben

      Actor Viggo Mortensen, who became a major Hollywood name with his performance as Aragorn in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, blasted Israel in an interview The Daily Beast published Saturday. He accused Israel of engaging in terror and complained about a double standard in the media. The actor asserted, “No one in the media seems to have a problem with anyone criticizing Palestinian terrorism, but if anyone dares express any objection to the Israeli government’s acts of state terrorism against Palestinian civilians, one is rapidly vilified and censored.”

      Reply to Comment

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