How an Israeli raid on a Palestinian rights group unfolded

| Miriam Berger pour The Washington Post |

The soldiers can be seen busting down doors and rummaging through documents. They casually take selfies and mockingly distribute business cards.

CCTV footage from an Israeli raid last month on the leading Palestinian human rights group sheds new light on the operation and challenges the official narrative about why the organization was targeted.


The Aug. 18 early morning raid on the Ramallah office of Al Haq, as well as six other rights groups, drew diplomatic backlash and international condemnation of Israel’s tightening restrictions on Palestinian civil society.

Israel designated six of the organizations as supporters of terrorism in October 2021, claiming they had ties to the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which has organized deadly attacks against Israel. Al Haq and the other groups rejected the accusations, accusing Israel of targeting them for their work documenting alleged abuses against Palestinians.

“The Israeli occupation has done worse things than [raiding Al Haq],” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing the group in two challenges to its terrorism designation. “But there is something about crossing the line for targeting the organizations that are responsible for criticizing centers of power. It’s the height of subjugation and domination.”

The day of the August raid, diplomatic missions from 17 mostly European countries, including Britain and France, as well as the United Nations, condemned the Israeli operation and gathered at Al Haq’s office in a show of solidarity. The U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem did not participate.

The month before, nine E.U. member states said they would renew suspended funds to Al Haq after Israel failed to provide sufficient evidence that it was supporting the PFLP.

The Forensic Architecture study group, which is based at the University of London and runs an investigations unit in partnership with Al Haq, mapped and synchronized footage of the raid from the office’s four CCTV cameras, and shared it exclusively with The Washington Post.

“The footage shows a real contradiction between what the [Israeli] Ministry of Defense is saying Al Haq and its sister human rights organizations are, and how its soldiers behave in the field,” said the report’s lead researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fears of backlash from Israeli authorities.

Al Haq’s main office is located in central Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The city is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but the Israeli military conducts armed operations there.

The CCTV footage captured the arrival of at least nine Israeli military vehicles carrying more than a dozen soldiers at 3 a.m. Soldiers can be seen busting through the door of an Episcopal Church on the building’s first floor before breaking into Al Haq’s office shortly after 3:20 a.m. The soldiers remained inside for more than an hour.

The footage shows them rifling through documents from a desk and cabinet and breaking into offices, including the director’s, and the IT and server room. They recorded events on their smartphones and took selfies and other photographs together. At one point, a soldier passed around Al Haq’s business cards from the reception desk. Others appeared to casually socialize as they wandered through the office’s white-walled corridors.

Israeli forces cut off the power and access to the indoor CCTV cameras about 40 minutes after the raid began, Forensic Architecture said, leaving roughly 20 minutes unaccounted for.

Outside cameras captured soldiers bringing a large metal sheet from a truck and welding it to shut the front door. They used the same tactic to seal the front doors of the other organizations raided that morning, which included Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and Addameer, which advocates for Palestinian prisoners.

“All of the organizations in question operate undercover and in agency of the PFLP in Judea and Samaria, as well as abroad,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement at the time of the raid, using Israel’s name for the West Bank.

Forensic Architecture has previously analyzed footage of Israeli house demolitions, strikes on Gaza and other incidents of violence against Palestinians. But the researcher said this was the first time they had seen footage of a military raid in such detail.

An Al Haq employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their security, said it appeared no physical documents were taken from the office, though they could not be sure. Workers have returned to the office, but remain concerned about surveillance and digital security.

“It’s still not a safe environment,” the employee said. “We don’t really know the amount of the damages in terms of infiltration, bugs, and stuff like that.”

“It was a military operation against a civil society organization,” they added. “In which dystopia am I living?”

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters after the August raid that the United States was “concerned” about the closures and had “conveyed the message that there must be a very high bar to take action against civil society organizations.”

Price told reporters this weekthat Israel had recently provided further information and they are “continuing to review” it.

The United Nations has condemned the raid and the designation of Al Haq as a terrorist organization, saying it “has not been accompanied by any concrete and credible evidence.”

Al Haq does not accept money from the United States Agency for International Development to protest U.S. support for Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“Unfortunately, we have not seen the United States standing in any way toward human rights or the protection of human rights defenders or even care about democracy and international law,” the Al Haq employee said.

Al Haq is the recipient of several international prizes. The organization also documents alleged abuses committed by the Palestinian Authority and by Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Sfard, the Israeli lawyer for Al Haq, said the legal cases have dragged on for months and Israel has repeatedly refused to provide the evidence it says it has against the group. His appeals have been rejected, and he says he has been threatened with seven years in prison for representing a terror-designated group without the government’s approval.

The military “will probably raid again,” the employee for Al Haq said. “It’s just a matter of time unless there is accountability for their actions.”

- Photo: A screenshot taken from CCTV footage of an Israeli raid on the office of the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq on Aug 18. (Courtesy of Forensic Architecture)