In April 16, 2018, Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed on Twitter that the Elia Association for Youth in East Jerusalem is a terrorist organization. The accusation came after a months-long surveillance operation by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. Based on this surveillance, Shin Bet recommended that Elia be shut down for supposedly inciting violence against the State of Israel and serving as a front for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a leftist-nationalist political and military organization active in the occupied Palestinian territories, by creating “propaganda” videos for the group. The PFLP is a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and considered a terrorist group by Israeli authorities. According to local NGOs, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Israeli government has yet to present any specific evidence supporting Elia’s designation as a terrorist group.
Shortly following Lieberman’s Twitter announcement, the Israeli defense ministry issued a closure order against Elia. The order was based on section 3 (a) of the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Law, which allows the defense ministry to designate any “body of persons” a terror organization, as long as its activities fit within the legal parameters of the term. Israel’s counterterrorism laws are meant to empower the security establishment, with a particularly broad-ranging definition of “terror” that legally implicates even organizations that express solidarity with Palestinian militant groups. On April 18, Israeli security forces posted the order on the doors of the association’s headquarters, shutting it down. Elia remains closed to this day.
Elia is a Palestinian community youth center and media training institution located in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem. According to director Ahmad al-Safadi, its purpose is to develop youth capacity in the media sector through trainings and skill-building, and “provide important information and reports about the situation in Jerusalem” among Palestinians. Al-Safadi insists that the terrorism allegations against the group are a fabrication designed to limit media exposure of Israeli rights abuses, and push Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem further into the West Bank.
Indeed, the closure fits into a larger Israeli effort to limit the documentation of information and prevent the spread of compromising video footage of the government’s crimes against Palestinians. Since the Great Return March in Gaza began on March 30, Israel has been deliberately targeting journalists covering the demonstrations with sniper fire. Israel has also deported or barred from entry staff members of international rights organizations critical of Israeli policy. For example, on May 7, 2018, Israel revoked the work permit belonging to Omar Shakir, the Israel/Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch, forcing him to leave the country.
As part of a wider campaign against so-called Palestinian incitement, Israel has targeted several media offices in the West Bank over the past year. In addition, hundreds of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories have been detained by Israeli police and military authorities in connection with social media posts since 2015. Many of these arrests were done in coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is interested in criminalizing dissent and silencing its political rivals. According to Palestinian prisoner support organization, Addameer, twenty-six Palestinian journalists are currently sitting in military prisons, accused of “incitement” and support for terror organizations.
Elia’s closure also reflects an extensive, decades-long crack down on Palestinian political activity and development in East Jerusalem. Since June 1967, when Israel’s occupation began, Palestinian Jerusalemites have depended on youth and cultural centers not only as sites of leisure, education, and service provision, but also as spaces of protest and collective assertion. After its invasion, Israel set out to transform Jerusalem into a bona fide Zionist capital. Israeli authorities dissolved Arab political bodies and established relations with a select number of pre-1967 Palestinian institutions and professional associations, to create a network of mediating authorities and instill a false sense of continuity among residents. Israel believed this would also give it a basis to justify its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem as an “enlightened occupation.” To combat these corrosive activities, expand their severely constricted institutional networks, and help maintain a sense of political community in a colonial city, Palestinians were forced to use everyday private and public spaces for political and organizational purposes.
Since the 2000 intifada, Israel has targeted dozens of Palestinian NGOs, charities, research centers, and commercial associations in East Jerusalem, forcing them outside the city’s municipal limits. This development has made Palestinian Jerusalemites even more dependent on existing youth and cultural centers to resist complete subordination to Israeli policy and designs. Israel’s closure of Elia represents another assault on these efforts and the Palestinian people’s right to maintain its communal identity, rights, and political activities.