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The latest attack on NGO freedoms in Israel

Human rights groups and non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) have expressed concern over a new bill that imposes several requirements and restrictions on Israeli NGOs that receive international funding. Proposed on Sunday by Israel’s right-wing Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, the “Transparency Bill” includes a requirement that representatives of these NGOs wear a special tag displaying the name of their organisation when visiting the Knesset. A previous version of the bill aimed to tax NGOs up to 45 per cent on all international donations.

Shaked has said the bill will stop “the blatant intervention of foreign countries in the state of Israel’s affairs”, which she’s says “undermine [the state’s] sovereignty and identity.” However, for many rights groups, this is yet another attack against the work of the country’s left-wing organisations, many of whom oppose Israel’s ongoing occupation. While there are over 30,000 NGOs registered in Israel, about half of them active, the focus of frustration for Shaked and her supporters are around 70 whose work focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and which receive funds either from the European Union as a whole, or individual governments, including Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Norway.

Many of these organisations have strongly criticised the bill – Israeli rights group B’Tselem has called the use of the word “transparency” a camouflage for Shaked’s objective of “maligning and defaming organisations critical of the occupation and opposed to government policy.” Meanwhile, Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, said in a statement: “Minister Shaked’s proposal is really intended to harass and incite against human rights organisations, a practice, which is characteristic of dark regimes historically as well as in the present.”

Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna, a youth organisation for Palestinian citizens of Israel, says the bill is part of a pattern of Israeli harassment of NGO’s, calling it “an ongoing effort to basically push them away.” Nashif notes that NGO’s in Israel are already required to report any funding from foreign governments every three months and are also expected to submit annual reports which detail the above. “It takes me a week to write these reports. The information is there.”

Dr Ishai Menuchin, executive director of Israeli NGO Public Committee against Torture in Israel (PCATI), agrees. Human rights organisations have to report four times a year on their grants from “political entities”, and the list of PCATI’s supporters is published on its website, he says. Menuchin added: “This bill is another nail in the coffin of Israel’s democracy.”

Laws passed in recent years such as the “Nakba Law” and the “Anti-Boycott Law” have increased state control of 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 violates the symbols of the state.

Speaking to Memo last year on the issue of NGO freedom, Steven Beck, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s (ACRI) International Relations Department, said that the Anti-Boycott Law and the Nakba Law are just two laws in a tide of anti-democratic legislative proposals that have been introduced in the Knesset, many of which have a direct impact on NGO’s and civil society organisations. He 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.”

For many, this latest bill is yet another attempt to curtail NGO freedom by an increasingly right-wing government. Is the situation likely to worsen for organisations operating in Israel? “This [the ‘Transparency Bill’] is a very clear sign for the future,” says Nashif. “Groups like Baladna will continue to face obstacles to their work,” he says.

“This is the aim of the politicians,” adds Nashif.

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

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