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Most Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs that fight against the Israeli occupation of Palestine face the same problem: vilification by Israel. For the Palestinian NGOs, there is an extra hardship: financial cuts by the United States (US).
Consider the case of Breaking the Silence. This Israeli NGO, which consists of army veterans who, after their military service, speak out against the military occupation of Palestinian land, has never been a popular movement; Israelis do not like to hear that their army, the most respected organization in the country, contributes to the subjugation of another people. That is exactly the message Breaking the Silence spreads, by means of – mostly anonymous – testimonies of army veterans. These testimonies are published in reports and, in a bid to garner international attention, are being translated into English. This is what many Israelis dislike the most. If there is something wrong with our army, they say, can’t you just tell the generals? Is it really necessary to broadcast it? Breaking the Silence itself says that the army takes care of incidents but ignores more structural criticism.
In November 2015, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (The Jewish Home) tabled a law that would oblige NGO staff to wear badges displaying the amount of money they receive from foreign governments. Moreover, in every conversation with government officials, they would need to make clear where their funding comes from. Shaked later removed the badges from the proposal, but NGOs still have to account for their cash flow extensively. The law is directed against leftist organizations. Right-wing movements receive foreign money as well, but it predominantly comes from private sources – and the rules do not apply in that situation.
Like other Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs in the region, Breaking the Silence is vilified by the Israeli government. Former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon (Likud) accused the organization of having “malicious motives”. President Reuven Rivlin had to defend himself after he attended a conference in which Breaking the Silence was participating. The latest addition to this kind of bullying is a bill nicknamed the ‘Breaking the Silence Law’, which bars people who present Israel and its army in a bad light from entering schools. The bill was approved by a majority in the Knesset (Israeli parliament).
This delegitimization of NGOs has real-life consequences. In November 2015, Breaking the Silence had to cancel an event in a café in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva. Right-wing activists published the phone number of the café owner and he received numerous threats. The authorities feared riots if the event went ahead as planned.
The Jewish Home party subsequently filed a bill that would have outlawed Breaking the Silence altogether. This attempt failed, but the organization still had to deal with cyber-attacks, infiltrators in the organization and at least four deliberately false testimonies. One of these came from Oren Hazan, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Other local NGOs feel the same pressure. According to Hagai el-Ad, director of the human rights organization B’Tselem, in the current Israeli climate any member of his movement a price for their activism in their social lives. The grandparents of former Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak received a nightly phone call in which their granddaughter was called a whore.
International NGOs are not immune either. In August 2016, the Shin Bet secret service discovered that a Palestinian manager of the Christian aid organization World Vision in the Gaza Strip was allegedly planning to channel €45 million to Hamas. The only problem: the amount was twice as much as World Vision’s total budget in Gaza. The Israeli authorities never produced any evidence to support the allegations, but the damage had already been done: Australia and Germany decided to stop their annual funding to the organization. In the Gaza Strip, where World Vision worked with poor and marginalized children, the NGO had to suspend its activities and 120 people lost their jobs.
Israel considers the work of many other organizations as anti-Israel. The World Vision case was widely publicized by the authorities. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs even posted a tweet accusing World Vision of donating food for poor children to Hamas militants. This claim was not substantiated either. A year later, World Vision was cleared of diverting any money to Hamas.
In its incitement campaign against NGOs, Israel is being aided by the right-wing NGO Monitor. Contrary to its ‘neutral’ name, NGO Monitor is a highly partisan Israeli government proxy that polices and bullies left-wing NGOs. In September 2018, an Israeli organization called the Policy Working Group – consisting of academics, journalists, political activists and former diplomats – published a revealing report uncovering NGO Monitor’s strong ties with the Israeli government. The government and NGO Monitor have unleashed nothing less than a smear campaign on human rights NGOs. Their shared goal: preventing criticism on the occupation.
These smears can contain accusations like ‘ties with terrorists’, ‘demonizing Israel’ and ‘anti-Semitic statements’. Among the international organizations being targeted are Pax and Oxfam.
According to a Policy Working Group report, one of NGO Monitor’s favourite tactics is mixing whole and half-truths, omitting crucial information that would clarify a complex situation and ‘guilt by association’. If one is to believe NGO Monitor, giving a lecture at a venue with a pro-Palestinian speaker is tantamount to hating Israel, as the Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard came to discover. NGO Monitor is successfully framing NGOs as sponsors of terrorists, shifting Israeli policy to the right and making sure NGO staff are tied up filing reports and refuting accusations instead of campaigning for human rights.
Meanwhile, Palestinian NGOs are being threatened by closure, following the decision by President Donald Trump to ‘redirect’ existing American funding away from them. This decision amounts to a cut of $200 million in economic assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For example, the American aid organization USAID sponsored Gaza Envision 2020, which works to enhance socio-economic conditions in the blockaded coastal strip. In 2016, Donald Blome, the American consul general in Jerusalem, announced that USAID would contribute $50 million to the Palestinian NGO until 2021. With Trump’s funding withdrawal, the NGO is unlikely to survive beyond the end of 2018.
Palestinian NGOs are targeted by their own authorities as well. According to Human Rights Watch, the 2017 Law on Electronic Crimes allows disproportionate and arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and protection of data. Within a few weeks of the law going into effect, five journalists were arrested for writing Facebook posts critical of the Palestinian Authority. Issa Amro, a human rights activist, was charged for the same ‘crime’. After complaints by several NGOs, amendments were proposed that sought to remove sentences for criticizing the authorities. Human Rights Watch said the Palestinian Authority is obliged under international law to allow peaceful criticism of its policies.