Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Israel Approves Contentious Law, Puts Pressure on NGOs

Demonstrators protesting in solidarity with ‘Breaking the Silence’ and other left-wing NGOs, after the Israeli government proposed a new law governing the financial disclosure of NGOs, in Tel Aviv, Israel, 19 December 2015. Photo activesills/Flickr

It would be an understatement to say that the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine has known better days. In June 2017, the military occupation of Palestine will be half a century old. Within Israeli society, it is becoming ever harder to speak out against it.

On 11 July 2016, the Israeli Knesset passed a law requiring non-governmental organizations that receive more than half of their funding from ‘foreign political entities’ to disclose this in all official publications. The so-called NGO bill affects 27 organizations, of which 25 are human rights NGOs that identify with the Israeli left. As the Israel/Palestine director of Human Rights Watch, Sari Bashi, pointed out, under the new law, a human rights NGO that sends an email to a government bureaucrat without noting its funding sources, risks a $7,500 fine.

Officially, the law, which was sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, intends to enhance the transparency of organizations that are funded by foreign agents. In an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Shaked wrote: ‘We have discovered in recent years the danger posed by the existence of forces financed by foreign money.’ One of her concerns is that these ‘forces’ are in favour of boycotting Israel.

It would seem her concern lies in the influence on Israeli politics foreign agents might be buying. However, critics said the bill was specifically designed to hurt leftist organizations. Many right-wing NGOs receive foreign donations too, but these come from private sources, which are not covered by the law. Moreover, as Dr Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, wrote on the organization’s website: ‘The most prominent example of foreign funding in Israel is the country’s highest circulation newspaper, the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson and distributed for free to the tune of millions of dollars lost annually.’

Israel is hardly unique in its wish to restrict foreign-funded NGOs. According to The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, a wide array of measures is being implemented by countries as varied as Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Moldova, Algeria, Russia, Ethiopia and Venezuela. ‘Because NGOs often engage in activities that threaten the ruling regime’s grasp on power, such as human rights and equality, limiting the organizations’ ability to function lowers the risk of the government weakening,’ the Journal wrote.

Of course, the Israeli measures were not as severe as, say, their counterparts in Eritrea, where foreign funding of NGOs is prohibited outright. Still, the concerns about the influence of foreign money echoes the situation in countries like Egypt, where a similar debate on foreign funding of NGOs is underway. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he wants to prevent “an absurd situation, in which foreign states meddle in Israel’s internal affairs by funding NGOs, without the Israeli public being aware of it”. Compare this to Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe has denounced NGOs for their “foreign interference in our national affairs”.

The sentence ‘limiting the organizations’ ability to function’ could even have been specifically modelled on the Israeli situation. The NGO bill is far from the only hardship Israeli human rights NGOs have to endure. They already have to report every three months about their activities, a requirement that involves a lot of manpower that cannot be used for their core activities.

In the case of Breaking the Silence, an NGO that consists of Israel Defense Forces veterans who oppose the occupation, the organization faces an orchestrated campaign of delegitimization. Breaking the Silence regularly criticizes the Israeli army, the most beloved institution in the country. This, by default, makes it widely hated by the Israeli people. ‘Traitor’ is one of the milder terms members hear on a daily basis. Moreover, the NGO is targeted by hackers on an ongoing basis.

The campaign against Breaking the Silence – and other human rights organizations, for that matter – is being encouraged by, among others, Netanyahu, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and opposition MK Yair Lapid. Despite the obstruction, the veterans have announced they will continue their work. The NGO bill was approved ‘cos they don’t want you to know’, the organization said on Twitter. ‘We’ll continue to break the silence till the occupation ends.’

One of the harshest critics of the bill is the European Union. The new law risks ‘undermining democracy and free speech’, the European Commission said in a statement. ‘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 organizations.’

However, not everyone uses such grand words to describe the effects of the law. In an analysis in the right-wing newspaper The Jerusalem Post, legal affairs correspondent and international affairs commentator Yonah Jeremy Bob wrote: ‘The law neither seriously infringes on NGO activities, nor does it greatly increase their transparency. (…) So what was the purpose of the law? In essence, to publicly shame the NGOs – and massively anger the EU.’

As Bob rightly stated, Israel and the EU have been on a collision course for years. The NGO bill is said to be a response to the EU requirement that produce from illegal settlements in the West Bank be labelled as distinct from Israel. Bob: ‘This move was viewed by the Israeli government as joining hands with the global forces trying to promote boycotts of Israel. The law was effectively supposed to label them back.’

For Breaking the Silence, there is one obvious way to escape the requirements of the new law. At the moment, the NGO receives almost $600,000 annually from foreign governments, or 60% of its total revenue of about $1,000,000. Since the new law applies only if foreign funding exceeds 50% of the total revenue, if Breaking the Silence succeeded in attracting more domestic funding, it would be off the hook. For now.

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