Israeli parliament backs 'McCarthyite' investigation into human rights groups

A right-wing proposal to investigate some of Israel's best-known human rights organisations for "delegitimising" its military was approved by the country's parliament yesterday amid left-wing charges of McCarthyism.

After a highly charged and noisy debate, the Knesset approved by 41 votes to 16 the plan for a parliamentary panel of inquiry into the funding of a series of organisations which have criticised and documented human rights abuses by Israeli authorities, mainly in the occupied Palestinian territories. The vote is a political victory for the hard-line nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party led by the country's controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of whose Knesset members, Faina Kirshenbaum, introduced the proposal and is likely to chair the panel.

The long-established Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) described the decision as a "severe blow" to Israeli democracy designed "to weaken human rights groups and make them less effective in exposing, questioning, and affecting government policies".

Ms Kirshenbaum declared: "These groups provide material to the Goldstone commission [a UN enquiry led by a South African judge] which investigated the [2008-9] Gaza war."

Without citing evidence, Ms Kirshenbaum claimed that the groups were behind arrest warrants sought against Israeli officials abroad – including in Britain – by pro-Palestinian groups and that they encouraged "draft-dodging".

Yehuda Shaul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, one of the groups reported to have been targeted by proponents of the inquiry which has taken hundreds of testimonies over the past six years from former soldiers perturbed by their service in the occupied territories, said: "This is a very sad day for Israeli democracy. Yisrael Beiteinu and the Israeli parliament have handed weapons to the enemies of the state of Israel and made Israel a less welcoming country for young people like me."

Other groups in Yisrael Beiteinu's sights reportedly include B'Tselem, which – among much else – furnished the army with reports which led to a number of investigations by military police of alleged violations during the Gaza offensive; Machsom Watch, a women's organisation which monitors soldiers' conduct at checkpoints, and the legal rights organisation Yesh Din. The parliamentary panel will have limited powers and may simply provide a platform for further attacks on the organisations – some of whose donors include EU governments.

But, criticising both the proposal for a panel and a subsequent one for investigation of organisations buying land in Israel, Dov Khenin of the leftist Hadash Party declared that McCarthyism in the 1950s US "started just as it is starting here".

The groups, which point out they already comply with legal requirements for funding transparency, are among 16 in total which sent a letter before the vote declaring: "Go ahead and interrogate all of us. We have nothing to hide... Similar attempts to silence criticism have failed in the past; this attempt will fail too".

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