Israeli law on NGOs draws outcry

Sunday 31/07/2016
Peace Now tracks and opposes Jewish settlements

TAYBEH (Israel) - Foreign-funded non-gov­ernmental organisations in Israel criticised a new law which they say will stifle them on the grounds that they are outspoken about Israeli violations in Palestinian lands.

The law would muzzle 27 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that receive funding mostly from the European Union which have been outspoken about Israeli ac­tions against Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“The bill will allow for the del­egitimisation of Israeli human rights NGOs,” said Amjad Iraqi, an inter­national advocacy coordinator at Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, one of the affected NGOs. “It will also allow for NGOs to be treated as foreign entities working against Israel, en­couraging the public to view human rights as something dirty.”

He said Adalah would fight the law but declined to say what steps it would take.

The law was passed July 11th on a 57-48 vote in the Israeli parliament. It goes into effect January 1st, 2017, but NGOs have until June 2018 to submit their first reports, said Yariv Oppenheimer, director-general of Peace Now, another affected NGO.

A handful of Israel-based NGOs linked to the country’s ruling hard-line cabinet are exempt from the law since their funding is consid­ered “private”, coming from Jewish foundations and individuals abroad and are vehemently opposed to Pal­estinian statehood.

The brainchild of Israeli Jus­tice Minister Ayelet Shaked — and backed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — the law’s stated inten­tion is to increase transparency with new reporting guidelines on NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments.

Right-wing Israeli politicians accuse Europe of being overly in­volved in Israel’s internal affairs. Shaked said the new law would pre­vent “the absurd situation in which foreign countries interfere in Israel’s internal affairs by funding NGOs without the Israeli public being aware of it”.

The European Union hit back at the accusations. A European Com­mission statement said Europe “supports organisations that pro­mote democracy or help the Pales­tinians develop their economy and governing institutions as a step to­wards establishing an independent state at peace with Israel”. European parliamentarians cautioned that the Israeli measure could hinder Eu­rope’s cooperation with Israel.

“The reporting requirements im­posed by the new law go beyond the legitimate need for transparency and seem aimed at constraining the activities of these civil society or­ganisations working in Israel,” the commission statement said.

The European Commission said the law “weakens democracy and freedom of expression in Israel”.

Current law requires NGOs to re­port all sources of funding to Israel’s state registrar four times a year. Un­der the new measure, NGOs that re­ceive more than 50% of their budget from foreign sources must state that fact when communicating with parliamentary committees during meetings, government and public of­ficials, the media, on billboards and on their websites. Violators could be fined $7,540.

Iraqi, the Adalah coordinator, said: “It’s clear the affected NGOs are highly critical of the Israeli gov­ernment’s policies particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories and, therefore, they are being spe­cifically targeted.”

The NGO law was proposed in No­vember 2015 but was put on hold. Bringing it back coincided with right-wing organisations claim­ing left-wing NGOs were “foreign agents” in Israel, Iraqi said.

Oppenheimer of Peace Now, which is known for its opposition to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, stated: “The true intention of the bill is to divert Israeli public discourse away from the occupation and to silence opposition to the gov­ernment’s policies.

“The occupation of Palestine is weaker now. There is more criticism of Israel for its actions in the West Bank and more pressure on Israel from abroad.”