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The curtailing of NGO freedom in Israel

September 24, 2014 at 10:32 am

It wasn’t a shock when Ayman Nasser, the coordinator of the legal unit of the prisoner rights group Addameer was arrested by Israeli forces in the early hours of Thursday. This was his third arrest, the second that has occurred during his time with the organisation. For those working for a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) or a Civil Society Organisation (CSO) based in the West Bank, arrest is an occupational hazard.

NGO’s and CSO’s operating from Israel are also facing difficulties. Laws passed in recent years such as the “Nakba Law” and the “Anti-Boycott Law” signal a creeping policy of state control over certain organisations. Under the “Anti-Boycott Law” an NGO joining the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions call could be stripped of its non-profit status, and compelled to pay taxes as if it was a commercial firm. Meanwhile the “Nakba Law” cuts governmental support if a body or institution commemorates Nakba Day, undermines the “existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and/or violate the symbols of the State.

According to Israeli human rights group, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), these are just two laws in a tide of anti-democratic legislative proposals that have been introduced in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), many of which have a direct impact on NGO’s and CSO’s. These bills target NGO’s who campaign for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Steven Beck, Director of ACRI’S International Relations Department said: “There have been different waves of laws, some which we can support because they promote transparency but many are directed at certain funders, infringe on democracy and target the Arab minority in Israel.”

Dr. Ishai Menuchin, Executive Director of Israeli NGO Public Committee against Torture in Israel, believes that these laws have had an effect on the decision making of some organizations. Although Menuchin states his organisation is not one of these, he noted: “I saw that many Human Rights organizations are more hesitant in signing international calls or taking part in coalitions, such as the coalition for the International Criminal Court (the coalition calling for Israel to be tried for committing war crimes by the ICC).”

ACRI posted on their twitter account shortly after the end of “Operation Protective Edge” that this latest military offensive on Gaza was the first time in Israel that human rights organisations had been delegitimized and threatened to such an extent. Beck noted that many government members expressed a belief that protesting should not take place during times of war which is, in his words, “as anti-democratic as you can get.” He was also alarmed by the connection of NGOs and treachery: “I wouldn’t say for definite it is the worst, but it is the most I have seen of NGO’s viewed as opposing military intervention or questioning things being equated with traitors.”

On August 13th, a month after Israel’s military operation began, Israeli human rights group BT’selem received a letter from the Director General of the National Civilian Service program, announcing that young Israelis will no longer be able to choose B’Tselem as a place to do national civilian service instead of army service. The letter noted that B’Tselem “acts against the state and its soldiers” and that it “provides support to a defamation campaign of lies and incitement against Israeli soldiers, the purpose of which is to delegitimize the state of Israel.”

ACRI condemned the move in a strongly worded letter, stating: “Unfortunately, over the last few years, we have borne witness to a de-legitimization campaign against Israeli human rights organizations.”

Is the situation likely to worsen for NGO’s operating in Israel? According to Menuchin, yes, it is certainly possible- if the international community tries to push Israel to leave the occupied territories’ NGO’s may see an increased curtailing of their freedoms.

Beck believes the battle against anti-democratic legislation is likely to get worse in the aftermath of the Gaza offensive. He said: “As the fog begins to clears from the Gaza war, I wouldn’t be surprised if a really strong round of anti-democratic bills comes up in the Knesset.”

“But we are ready,” he added.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.