Israel designated six leading Palestinian civil society groups as outlawed "terrorist organisations" Friday in a move swiftly condemned by the Palestinian Authority and international human rights groups.
The Jewish state said its move was due to the groups' alleged financing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), after it earlier this year informed European donors of their alleged financial misconduct.
The Israeli defence ministry accused the six groups of working covertly with the PFLP, a leftist group which pioneered plane hijackings in the 1970s to highlight the Palestinian cause and is blacklisted by several Western governments.
According to the ministry, the six groups "constitute a network of organisations active undercover on the international front on behalf of the PFLP to support its activity and further its goals."
The ministry named the groups as the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees (UPWC), Addameer, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Al-Haq, Defense for Children International - Palestine (DCI-P) and the Union Of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC).
A ministry statement said that while the groups functioned as civil society organisations, they were in fact "controlled by the senior leaders of the PFLP" and employed many of its members, "including activists who participated in terror activity".
The groups used the humanitarian funding they obtained from European governments and other sources, some of it fraudulently, "as a central source for the financing of the PFLP's activity," the ministry alleged.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz called on governments and organisations around the world "to refrain from contact with organisations and groups that feed the flames of terror".
The Israeli move was met with outrage from the Palestinian government and human rights groups.
The Palestinian foreign ministry "unequivocally condemns and rejects Israel's unhinged assault on Palestinian civil society and human rights defenders," it said in a statement.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Palestinian territories said it was "alarmed" by the move, accusing Israel of "a long stigmatising campaign against these and other organisations" that damaged "their ability to deliver on their crucial work."
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US would "be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations."
"The Israeli government did not give us advance warning" that the groups would be designated, he said.
"We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance," Price told reporters.
Shawaan Jabareen, who heads one of the outlawed groups, Al-Haq, told AFP the designation was a "political decision" that had nothing to do with security matters but was aimed at "stopping the work of these organisations."
In a joint statement, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch noted that the Israeli designation "effectively outlaws" the activities of the six groups, subjecting their members to raids and arrests by security forces.
"This appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement," Amnesty and HRW said.
Israel-based rights groups protested the move too.
Adalah called it an "unprecedented attack" that "fits totalitarian and colonial regimes and constitutes political persecution under the pretext of anti-terrorism legislation".
And B'Tselem said the move was "characteristic of totalitarian regimes, with the clear purpose of shutting down these organizations."
In May, Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency said it had proof the civil society groups had "defrauded and deceived" European states, whose millions of euros in donations ended up funding PFLP "militant terror activities".
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