Questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s commitment to democracy have intensified with the reintroduction of a bill designed to cripple the Israeli human rights groups that monitor government and army practices in the Occupied Territories.
The bill, tabled by Yinon Magal, a member of the Knesset from the far-right Jewish Home coalition partner, would undermine the funding of the human rights organisations, which depend heavily on foreign support.
Under the bill, if an organisation receives more than $50,000 (£32,000) a year from foreign governments, it would have to pay a 37 per cent tax on those donations. The bill also specifies that government ministries and the army must refrain from co-operating with foreign-funded non-governmental organisations and that they must make clear their foreign funding sources in their correspondence.
Jewish Home has made it clear that the intent of the bill is to stifle what it sees as “foreign” criticism of Israel.
“Foreign governments come and donate tens of millions of dollars to organisations that act against the policy of the Israeli government and slander Israel and the army of Israel. This has to stop,” Mr Magal told The Independent.
“These governments can say whatever they want but when they spend all this money to change the policy determined by the democratic choice of Israel’s citizens we have to put a stop to it.
“We are an embattled democracy and we have to preserve this democracy from those who would destroy it from outside.’’
Matan Peleg, CEO of the right-wing Im Tirzu organisation which supports the bill, referred to the Israeli human rights organisations as “foreign agents for all intents and purposes” who do “massive damage” to Israel.
Israel’s human rights organisations have been instrumental in bringing to light the abuses of the Israeli government.
The work of two groups that would be significantly hit by the bill – B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence – was drawn on in the report issued on Monday by a UN fact-finding commission into last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip that found that Israel may have committed war crimes.
Mr Magal said the contributions of the two groups amount to slandering “the most moral army in the world” which, he says, takes exceptional measures to avoid harming civilians.
The Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett said the bill can be seen as a response to the role of B’tselem and Breaking the Silence – an organisation which collects the testimonies of Israeli soldiers – in the UN report. Liberal commentators have said the measure is a reflection of a government that has inadequate respect for minorities, human rights or dissent.
They say the bill adds to plans by the Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to limit the power of the supreme court, traditionally seen as the defender of civil liberties, and recent moves by the Culture Minister Miri Regev to cut funding to artists considered harmful to public sensibilities.
If the government gets its way “Israel could lose a very significant part of its democratic character and could become a state that is not a full democracy in the Western sense,’’ says Leslie Susser, political editor of The Jerusalem Report. Mr Magal believes the bill has a better chance of gaining traction now than in the past because the justice ministry is now in the hands of Ms Shaked, who has in the past supported hitting the funding of the NGOs. The Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position on the bill is “not clear”, according to his spokesman, Mark Regev.
One organisation that would be severely affected by the bill is Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), which has received nearly £100,000 this year from the British government. Its work includes fighting land takeovers by settlers and battling in the courts on behalf of the villagers of Susiya, south of Hebron in the West Bank, who are threatened with imminent expulsion and the levelling of their homes by Israeli military authorities.
“Opposing this funding is opposing the right of Palestinians to avail themselves of our legal system and this undermines Israeli democracy,” said Arik Ascherman, the director of RHR.
Rabbi Ascherman notes that the bill singles out donations from foreign governments, while ignoring the foreign private donations that right-wing politicians and settlers thrive on. “This is a cheap shot to go after our funding while leaving theirs intact,” he said.
Yehuda Shaul, who heads Breaking the Silence, which receives funds from Norway, Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, said the move was “very sad”.
“We are proud of receiving funding from democratic countries that are friends of Israel. It is very sad that our current leadership is trying to do everything possible to limit freedom of speech and the space for civil society to operate.”
Even if Mr Magal’s bill, or a variation of it, does not pass in the end, its effect, said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B’tselem, “is still devastating, because the public is told, ‘You have to fight enemies from within who are harming our international standing.’ The government has found a scapegoat, the human rights groups, which are just reflecting reality, not creating it.”Reuse content