Anti-Palestinian Animus at Root of U.S. Anti-Terrorism Laws, New Report Reveals

Recent calls to weaponize terrorism laws against Palestinian rights activists part of decades-long push

February 21, 2024, New York – Opposition to Palestinian rights has shaped U.S. federal anti-terrorism law from its beginnings, according to a briefing paper released today. Dating back to the 1960s, the government has used anti-terrorism law to target the Palestinian movement and supporters and to stigmatize Palestinians as terrorists, the paper says. 

Published by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the paper provides historical and political context for the escalating effort to restrict the rights of activists protesting Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza – and those that extend well beyond the movement for Palestinian rights. In just the past few months, the Anti-Defamation League has called on university presidents to investigate Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters for “material support for terrorism,” and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis used the same rationale to order a ban of SJPs from the state’s public universities – a move that a federal court recognized would likely violate the First Amendment. Efforts to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) have invoked these same “support for terrorism” laws.

“In passing anti-terrorism laws, legislators have made little secret that a primary aim has been to repress Palestinian freedom struggles,” said Darryl Li, author of the briefing paper. “This briefing paper connects the dots, showing how the anti-Muslim policies of the post-9/11 era were built on a foundation of anti-Palestinian animus.”

The intensity of the effort to silence advocates for Palestinian rights since October 7 has escalated despite most Americans supporting a ceasefire and half of Democrats believing Israel is committing genocide. Recent attacks on their rights grow out of a long history in which Israel-aligned groups and their allies in Congress have both shaped anti-terrorism laws and weaponized them against advocates of Palestinian liberation, according to the report:

  • The first mention of “terrorism” in a federal statute, in 1969, dealt specifically with restricting humanitarian aid to Palestinians. 
  • The first U.S. government terrorism blacklist was championed by Israel’s supporters and has been used primarily against governments supporting Palestinian resistance. 
  • The first and only time Congress has designated a group a terrorist organization was in a 1987 law aimed at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). 
  • The first immigration law to include terrorism as a basis for exclusion and deportation singled out the PLO. 
  • Although the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by domestic extremists, the antiterrorism provisions passed in its wake – including the one criminalizing “material support” – targeted only foreign groups, with Palestinians a primary focus.  

“Understanding the ways that Israel and its allies have shaped anti-terrorism laws is essential to challenging their use today as a weapon to shut down both humanitarian lifelines to Gaza in furtherance of this genocide, and the movement in the U.S. that is trying to stop it,” said Dima Khalidi, Director of Palestine Legal. “This briefing paper is a first step toward interrogating this entire regime that has served to undermine fundamental constitutional rights as it has been exploited to criminalize opposition to Israel’s 75 years of oppression of Palestinians.”

In addition, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has urged the FBI to investigate groups advocating for a ceasefire, claiming they “are connected to Russia,” and Palestine Legal has received multiple reports of the FBI visiting and intimidating Palestine advocates for their social media posts. Meanwhile, a House committee is investigating Muslim nonprofits and charities for alleged ties to Hamas and other groups designated as terrorists. 

“Advocates and scholars working at the intersection of national security, civil liberties, and humanitarian issues can no longer ignore the anti-Palestinian origins and uses of many of the laws and policies they are concerned with,” said Diala Shamas, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “In 2024, ignoring Palestine in this work is clearly no longer an option. Developing the right solutions requires properly diagnosing the problem, and this report goes a long way to doing that.” 

Read the full report here.

Palestine Legal is a legal advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom. Since 2014, Palestine Legal has responded to over 2200 incidents of suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy, many involving harassment and censorship attempts by university administrations and right-wing organizations aimed at intimidating Palestinians and their supporters into silence and inaction. Follow Palestine Legal on social media: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at


Last modified 

February 21, 2024