Washington, DC – Palestinian rights advocates have raised the alarm over US plans to remove a violent, far-right Israeli group from Washington’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTO), warning that such a move may embolden Kahane Chai’s supporters.
A United States official confirmed that the State Department has notified Congress of plans to delist the organisation, originally known as “Kach”, because it considers it defunct.
Yet while critics acknowledge that the group – founded by ultranationalist, US-born Israeli politician Meir Kahane – officially has been inactive, they say adherents who espouse its ideology are still operating both in the US and Israel.
Before establishing Kach in Israel, Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in the US, a hardline pro-Israel organisation linked to several violent attacks on US soil, including the assassination of Palestinian-American organiser Alex Odeh in California in 1985.
“Kach and Kahane Chai splintered into various groups and political parties that continue to espouse, inspire and carry out acts of violence against Palestinian civilians,” said William Lafi Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington University who is working on a documentary about the assassination of Odeh.
“Rather than removing the designation, the State Department should have updated and expanded it. Simply dropping these groups from the list is going to be seen as the United States continuing its light approach towards right-wing violence against Palestinians,” he told Al Jazeera.
Odeh, who served as a regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a civil rights group, was killed in a bombing as he opened his office in Santa Ana, a city in Orange County.
No one has been convicted for the attack, but ADC and Arab-American groups have long accused Kahane’s JDL of being behind the assassination. Numerous media reports also have connected the group to the killing.
Over the years, advocates have urged Washington to extradite JDL members residing in Israel and in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory who had been identified by law enforcement as possible suspects in Odeh’s assassination.
Kahane, who was elected to the Israeli Knesset in 1984 on a platform that openly advocated for Palestinians to be expelled from their homeland, was killed in New York in 1990. But long after his death, his followers continued to carry out violent attacks.
In 1994, a US-born member of both the JDL and Kach gunned down dozens of worshippers at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. And in 2001, JDL leaders plotted to blow up a mosque in California, as well as the office of Lebanese-American Congressman Darrell Issa.
Kach has been banned in Israel, but rights advocates say the group’s supporters still operate under different far-right organisations in the country – and some of its adherents have gone on to hold public office.
The US official told Al Jazeera in a statement that the State Department is “required to review FTO designations every five years to determine if a designation should be revoked” under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
In addition to Kahane Chai, the official said the State Department notified Congress of plans to delist another group it deems defunct, the Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC), which had been active in Gaza and Egypt’s Sanai Peninsula.
The official said Kahane Chai had not been linked to a “terrorist attack” since 2005, while MSC has not claimed an attack since 2013. They also noted that the groups will remain under the less potent Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) label, which will maintain restrictions on their financial activities in the US.
The US added Kahane Chai to the FTO list in 1997. As a domestic US group, the JDL is separate from Chai, but advocates say both are part of the same Kahanist movement.
“FTO revocations also do not impact any prior law enforcement actions related to the groups’ past terrorist activities while the groups were designated,” the official said. “Revoking FTO designations ensures our terrorism sanctions remain current and credible and does not reflect any change in policy towards the past activities of any of these organizations.”
Abed Ayoub, legal director at ADC, said removing Kach from the US “terror” list was “shocking” and an indication that President Joe Biden’s administration is moving further to the right than that of his predecessor Donald Trump.
“Not only does it pose a threat to Palestinians in the homeland, it also poses a threat to Arab Americans and Palestinian Americans here in the US,” Ayoub told Al Jazeera.
He likened the assassination of Odeh to the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last week, noting that they were both American citizens and Palestinians, and their deaths were not taken seriously by the US government.
Ayoub added that the delisting of Kahane Chai will be “felt in November” during the crucial midterm elections, in which Arab and Muslim Americans could play a decisive role in some races.
“The US government as a whole has failed to bring action and have failed to hold those responsible” for assassinating Odeh accountable, he said. “The [US] State Department is siding with terrorists over the murder of a US citizen.”