The Terrorist Designation is a Crime Against Us: An interview with Tahreer Jaber

Photo by Adli Wahid

On October 19, 2021, the Israeli apartheid state shockingly designated six leading Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations as “terrorist organizations” – Al-Haq, Addameer, Bisan Center, Defense for Children International – Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. The designation effectively outlawed their activities and was an outrageous intensification of Israel’s continual efforts to sabotage and censor all Palestinian activities that expose and resist occupation and settler colonialism. Despite the designation, the six organizations have continued their work with the support of many countries and organizations around the world, mobilizing under the banner #StandWithTheSix. On July 18, 2022, twenty-two members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter calling on the Biden Administration to reject the designation, but so far the U.S. has failed to censure Israel. Then on August 18, 2022, Israel escalated its attack by raiding and locking down the offices of the six organizations (plus a seventh- the Health Work Committees).

The six organizations will be marking the one year anniversary of the designation on Oct. 19, 2022 with a global call to action. In connection with this anniversary, I interviewed the executive director of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), Tahreer Jaber, who highlighted the gendered impact of the designation on their work. In introducing herself to me, Tahreer explained that her name means “liberation” in English.

Diana: Can you give us some background on UPWC – its mission and the type of work you do with women.

Tahreer: The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees is a grassroots organization which was established in 1980 by a group of women, all volunteers, with the goal of empowering and organizing women to defend their rights. We in UPWC consider ourselves part of the Palestinian national movement that struggles against the oppression of our people with a focus on women. We provide key services for women in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza such as psychosocial and legal support and children’s education, always prioritizing the poorest, most marginalized sectors of women, such as those in the refugee camps.

Just last night (October 3rd), we had to respond to an emergency in Jalazone refugee camp. Israeli forces shot three young men, ambushing their car after they were coming back from working at a pizza restaurant. The Israeli Occupation Forces then callously informed the family that two of the young men were dead and one was alive. When we visited the families, the three mothers were crying. One of us is lucky that her son is alive, but we don’t know which one, they exclaimed.

Diana: Do the people on your staff have special training to deal with the level of grief and trauma that is being endured all the time?

Tahreer: Yes, we have a group of young women volunteers who have taken trainings on how to provide psychological aid to women, especially those families of prisoners and martyrs (people who have been killed as a result of the Israeli occupation). They are not professional psychologists, but they have the knowledge and experience which enables them to provide good support for the families in such cases. UPWC also has professional psychologists who provide individual and collective psychological support for women on a long term basis

Diana: Given the work that UPWC does, it is difficult to comprehend how you can be labeled a “terrorist” organization. Can you talk about the designation and the impact it has had on your work.

Tahreer: We first heard on the news that the Israeli Minister of Defense Gantz declared the six groups as terrorist organizations. In some ways it came as a surprise, but living in Palestine you expect anything from the occupation. They basically consider all the Palestinian people terrorists, not only these six organizations. Of course, we reject this designation and consider it illegal and a crime against us. It is an expression of the Zionist hatred towards the Palestinian people and the legitimate organizations we have developed to defend our national, social, cultural, and legal rights.

Over the forty years that UPWC has been in existence, we have advanced our goals to enhance women’s rights and the steadfastness of the Palestinian people. Now we are trying to maintain our achievements, but it’s not easy to close the door to our office and then go to sleep in our homes. We have around twenty-five employees in our West Bank office and more than one hundred strong volunteers whom we depend on. All of these women have been committed to continuing our work since the designation was made.

Fortunately, our funding has not been impacted so far by the designation. The funds we get from European countries are based on partnerships we have with our donors. We take money from groups that share the same values with us. However, the designation affected us in the sense that we don’t have time to submit proposals for new projects because we are so busy just trying to maintain in the current situation. And our focus has to be in the field which means there are too few people working on the technical side of things.

Diana: The right-wing NGO Monitor, which is a mouthpiece for the Israeli apartheid state, tries to make the case for why UPWC should be designated as a terrorist organization because of alleged connections to the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). What is the problem with their so-called evidence?

Tahreer: UPWC is an independent, registered, legal organization according to Palestinian law. We submit regular financial and narrative reports to the Ministry of the Interior in Palestine. We work openly. Israel continually claims that people and organizations are linked to the PFLP, which it has designated as a terrorist organization since the 1980’s, in order to criminalize them and justify its aggressions. The NGO Monitor, like the occupation, uses false and anecdotal evidence to substantiate their claims. They go to employee social media accounts and use any possible post against them and the organization they work for. That is why most of the EU countries have not accepted the “evidence” against the six organizations.

The same methods are used to accuse individuals of having terrorist connections. That’s what they did with the three young men from Jalazone camp whom they shot. They claimed they were planning an attack on Israeli forces with their car. And then there’s hundreds of Palestinian prisoners arrested under administrative detention based on secret files, without providing any evidence or a just trial. I also want to make it clear that belonging to any political party should not be a crime. The PFLP and most of the political parties are part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which is the representative of the Palestinian people and as Palestinians we have a right to join whichever political party we want.

Diana: The former executive director of UPWC, Khitam Saafin, was also held in administrative detention. Can you tell us more about that.

Tahreer: Khitam Saafin was first arrested in November 2020 without any charges and placed in administrative detention. When you are charged and have a trial, there are legal procedures to guide the process. But with administrative detention, the charges are kept secret by the Israelis, supposedly for “security” purposes. Khitam’s administrative detention kept being renewed without charges until after UPWC was designated as terrorist in October 2021. After that, the military prosecutor submitted a list of charges alleging that Khitam held a position in an organization, the UPWC, which was deemed unlawful and that she was affiliated with the PFLP. Khitam was finally released in May 2022. Unfortunately, the terms of her release seriously limit her ability to work with UPWC since the organization has been designated unlawful.

Diana: Can you talk about the raid against the UPWC offices on August 18.

The Israeli forces raided the Ramallah area offices of seven Palestinian rights organizations on August 18th. We woke up and learned about the raid through social media, including a video of the truck in front of the UPWC office which had all of our furniture and equipment. Right after I saw the video, I got a call from the Israeli intelligence agency, Shin Bet. The officer told me that they wanted to see me at nine in the morning at Ofer prison, close to Ramallah. First I had to go see the damage to the UPWC office, so I went with a few others and found the door sealed with a big iron bar and a paper on the door stating that the office was closed indefinitely with an email address to contact if you had a complaint! A group of different human rights organizations opened the door and found a disaster. They had destroyed everything, confiscated about 80% of our files and left the rest on the ground. They took all the equipment even though it was old and damaged and confiscated the materials we use to make embroidery and handmade accessories.

By the time I got home from surveying our office shortly after 9 am, I didn’t want to go to the meeting with Shin Bet and I shut down my mobile phone. But they started making calls to my daughter who is only fourteen years old. That made me decide I had to go to the interview after all.

In the interrogation room, they threatened me that if I went back to work with UPWC, they would destroy my personal life, arrest me and I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids. I left after one hour and 15 minutes of interrogation. I met with my colleagues to discuss the situation and we decided not to try to reopen the office. Everything was destroyed. We decided to work from more secured spaces to provide protection for our staff especially who have kids.

Since August, we’ve been working remotely. During this period, they have called some of our volunteers for interrogation. They intensified the threat for nearly all of our staff, since they know that the threat to our families is something that is very hard for us women.

Diana: So they use specific tactics on you as a women’s organization to exploit your concern for your families?

Tahreer: Yes, we have experience dealing with very difficult situations but when it comes to our daughters, our sons, and the threatening of our families, it’s not easy. In the Palestinian community, the women are responsible for everything in the house, and in our case we are also responsible for financial issues, and for taking care of the children’s education, so we can’t imagine how the house would manage without us there.

Diana: Given all these challenges, how do you keep going?

Tahreer: We know it’s a long battle. The Israeli occupation’s goal is to get to get rid of all the Palestinian people. They want the land without the people and that’s not an exaggeration. We are defending our rights, our right to be alive, our right to live our life. What’s more UPWC is providing jobs for around one hundred women.

Palestinian women suffer from three kinds of violations: the political violation of the Israeli occupation, the economic violation of poverty and the violation of living in a patriarchal community. There is a relation between all these kinds of violence and each one supports the other. Right now, reactionary forces in the Palestinian movement are waging a huge campaign against feminist organization. They say that feminist organizations bring us ideas from outside Palestine and threaten family unity. We know that the campaign is supported and encouraged by the occupation but it still is having an impact.

The terrorist designation of UPWC has large consequences for the women’s movement in Palestine. It causes intimidation and fear of political and civic participation among women. In addition to Khitam, Dr. Shatha Odeh, director of the Health Work Committees (HWC) who is a prominent women’s rights activist, was violently arrested in July 2021 and was imprisoned until June 2022 because she defied the Israeli order to shut down the operations of HWC, an organization that fights for health care for the poor. Shatha was released in June 2022 but is forbidden from working in the HWC or any similar organization for five years. The absence of these progressive women from the leadership of the Palestinian women’s movement is a big blow. These women give priority to the needs of poor women and they make the connections between all of the aggressions and oppressions that women face in Palestine. Their absence has a chilling impact particularly on the participation of the new generation in the women’s movement.

Diana: What can women and others in the U.S. do to act in solidarity with UPWC?

Tahreer: This is a hard question. We don’t want to just use the common phrase that Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against our people. Every day there are hundreds of crimes and yet we don’t see any international media agency sharing the story of the mothers whose sons were killed while they were driving home from work. In reality, we don’t expect anything from the U.S. government, but we expect the people of the U.S. to put a spotlight on the crimes of the Israeli occupation against our people and pressure the government to hold Israel accountable. One of the key ways to do this is to support the BDS movement which helps to isolate Israel and hold it accountable.

It is also important to participate in social media actions to circulate information about what is going on. And we appreciate the chance to let people in the U.S. learn more about UPWC through interviews like this!

Diana Block works with the Bay Area Cuba Saving Lives Committee. She is a founding and active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners , an abolitionist organization that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. She is the author of a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AKPress 2009), and a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History (PM Press 2015). She writes for various online journals.