Thursday, January 20, 2011
New Israeli laws targeting human rights groups
It all started last year, in late January/early Febuary 2010, when the ultra-nationalist group Im Tirzu launched an attack on the New Israel Fund (NIF) - a philanthropic fund set up to support Israeli non-profit, civil society organizations - claiming that 90% of the information used in the Goldstone report came from groups funded by the NIF. Shortly thereafter, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, set up a subcommittee for the purpose of looking into foreign funding of Israeli organizations.
Called the ‟NGO transparency bill”, it was the first in a series of three bills introduced before the Summer of 2010 targeting domestic and international activists and Israeli Human Rights organizations. Purportedly designed to render NGO finances more transparent, the bill actually originally provided for more governmental scrutiny into the organizations activities. It required the removal of their tax-exempt status, which would have significantly restricted both their resources and the types of donations they could receive. The bill also stated that any representative of one of these groups appearing - even briefly - in public would have to explicitly say that their organization receives foreign funding.
These provisions sparked considerable debate both internationally and at home. As a result of fierce domestic debates, the bill was amended in August 2010 to remove its most controversial elements, but its core still remains. The rules ensuring non-profit organizations’ financial accountability and transparency already exist, NGOs such as B’Tselem claim. According to them, this bill, even in its modified version, is no more than an attempt at discouraging them from their work towards justice and equality.
The second bill, yet to move past the initial hearing, focuses specifically on boycott of Israeli products. Under this ‟Boycott bill,” any targeted company/group could sue for damages up to NIS 30,000 without having to prove any actual harm resulting from the call for boycott. The text of this bill was amended too, by a ministerial committee that struck provisions targeting third states and foreign citizens, as well as a one-year retroactive clause.
The third proposed piece of legislation - the ‟Associations Law” - would forbid registration of any organization suspected of being involved or providing information in legal proceedings against Israeli officials or army personnel for violations of International Law. Moreover, under the bill, already registered groups partaking in such activities would lose their registration.
More recently, two more bills have drawn public attention. Just last week, on Wednesday 5 December, the Knesset voted to give initial approval to the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry committee into left-wing organizations. The proposal - put forward by MK Faina Kirschenbaum of right-wing party Israel Beiteinu - was approved 41 to 16. According to the statement the party issued in support of the bill, ‟[t]he committee is meant to examine the activities and funding for those groups that habitually support terrorist organizations, including open support for Hizbullah during the Second Lebqnon Watr and Hamas during Operation Cast Lead”.
The vote sparked indignation and concern over democracy not only among NGOs and opposition members, but also within the majority. To Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, the creation of the committee would be a politically-motivated decision that would undermine the legitimacy of any criticism against left-wing organizations. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he warned against turning ‟the Knesset into a legal tribunal to judge political beliefs.” He condemned the ‟use [of] parliamentary tools to enforce a majoritisation of the issues” as endangering democracy.
He is not the only prominent figure concerned by the vote. On Sunday 16 January 2011, President Shimon Peres shared with daily newspaper Haaretz his concern over the proposed probe of leftist NGOs, emphasizing that ‟[t]he investigation of organizations, from the left or the right, must be left to law enforcement, which is the expert, objective system and has all the proper investigative tools.”
Another bill was put forward by MK Yari Levin together with attorney Hila Cohen of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, proposing to give the right to the Interior Ministry to deport or bar from entry any foreign activist who harms Israel’s security or image. This would basically mean enacting into law what is already being practiced by customs officers at Israel’s entry ports.
Just last week, soldiers at the Qalandya checkpoint - between Ramallah and Jerusalem - started applying a new rule requiring all holders of foreign passports - who were until then allowed to stay on buses during crossing provided they could show valid passport and entry visa - to get off the bus and cross on foot so as to have their passport scanned, an efficient way for Israel to monitor internationals’ movements.
All these proposed pieces of legislation betray what many within as well as outside Israel describe as a growing incitement atmosphere reminiscent of McCarthyism in the US or Russian show trials. They have yet to become law and do face criticism and opposition within the Knesset itself.
The multiplication of such proposals, however, as well as the Israeli parliament’s willingness to examine them, is worrisome in itself and does not bode well for the freedom of expression and the status of Human Right activists.