JERUSALEM — Israel designated six major Palestinian rights watchdogs as terrorist organizations on Friday, a move that critics said would restrict the ability of Palestinian civil society to scrutinize and challenge Israeli government activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, ruled that the six groups were a front for a small leftist militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that does not recognize the State of Israel. The group rose to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s for its hijacking of several passenger aircraft, and later claimed responsibility for suicide attacks during a Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s.
The six are variously involved in highlighting rights abuses by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, as well as in promoting the rights of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, women, farmworkers and children.
Some of the groups were prominent in a campaign to prosecute Israeli leaders for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. They have often worked in partnership with leading global rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; were frequently cited in international news outlets, including The New York Times; and have received funding from foreign countries and institutions, including the European Union.
The Ministry of Defense said in a statement that the groups used rights activism as a cover, “but in practice belong and constitute an arm” of the Popular Front, “the main activity of which is the liberation of Palestine and destruction of Israel.”
The statement said that the groups funneled their foreign funding to the Popular Front, and used it to promote terrorism.
The Popular Front is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries, as well as by the European Union.
An Israeli counterterrorism law mandates jail terms for members of groups designated as terrorist organizations, as well as for people who express support for these groups.
Israel has often targeted rights campaigners in the past: barring them from travel, raiding their offices, or deporting them. But international rights groups said the designations on Friday were a watershed.
In a joint statement, Amnesty and H.R.W. said: “This decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations.”
The statement added: “They represent the best of global civil society. We stand with them in challenging this outrageous decision.”
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Ned Price, said in a statement that the United States had not been given advance notice about the designations and would ask Israel to clarify its reasoning.
Mr. Price said: “The U.S. believes respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance.”
He added: “We would refer you to the Government of Israel for an explanation of their rationale for making these designations.”
The highest-profile target of the designations was Al Haq, sometimes described as the leading Palestinian rights group. Its director, Shawan Jabarin, has frequently been accused by Israelis of being a member of the Popular Front, and he was jailed during the 1980s for his association with the group.
Mr. Jabarin denied the accusations in a telephone interview.
“This is a false claim, completely,” Mr. Jabarin said. “I am not a member, and I wasn’t.”
He added that his group was being targeted because of its efforts to hold the Israeli government to account, for example at the International Criminal Court.
“This is a very political decision,” he said. “This is because of the nature of the work we are doing at the international level.”
A spokesman for Defense for Children International-Palestine said the group rejected the claims and said that its critics in Britain had been forced to recant similar claims after a libel case in 2020.
Some of the groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The six groups have two months to appeal the decision. The Israeli Army declined to comment on whether a similar edict had been issued in the occupied territories, where all the groups are based.
Israeli rights activists criticized the designations, with some saying that it undermined the new Israeli government’s stated aim of “shrinking the conflict” with the Palestinians.
B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, said in a statement: “The current Israeli government is not one of change, but rather of a continuation of the violent apartheid regime.”
The Israeli government denies it runs an apartheid system in the West Bank, and says it is taking steps to improve the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. In recent days, it has given identity papers to thousands of West Bank Palestinians who had been living without proper documentation for years, and issued an additional 3,000 work permits to Palestinians in Gaza.