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Concern over Israel's attacks on NGOs betrays anti-Palestinian racism

Two weeks ago, the Israeli cabinet gave its approval to proposed legislation that would “impose new regulations on Israeli non-profit groups that receive funds from foreign governments.”

The ‘Transparency Bill’ will compel NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments to state so in all official publications, and to “provide details about that funding in any communication with elected officials.”

Representatives of the groups “would also be required to wear a special tag at Knesset sessions.” An NGO violating the law’s provisions can be fined.

The move came at the end of a year when deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely – currently Israel’s de facto senior diplomat – had urged her European counterparts to “freeze funding to left-wing organisations.” Meanwhile, there is support within the Knesset for even stronger measures against groups “involved in activity deemed hostile toward the state.”

Coverage of this new law in the West has demonstrated, once again, the continued potency of the myth of Israel’s ‘democracy’ and, in parallel, just how little weight is given, intentionally or otherwise, to what Israel’s settler colonialism has meant for Palestinians. An editorial in The Washington Post on January 2 provides an instructive example.

The paper wrapped its criticism of the proposed new law in a paean to what it called Israel’s “stubbornly free society” and “core values as a democratic state.” It is Israel’s “bedrock commitment” to freedom, said the Post, which is now threatened by the legislation.

This framing is typical of reports on the escalating popular and political hostility towards human rights-focused NGOs in Israel. Last June, for example, a Reuters correspondent described Israel as “a country that has traditionally taken dissent on the chin”, adding that “in the past”, Israel had been able to “hold itself up as a beacon of openness”, and was noted for its “pluralism.”

That such viewpoints are written as fact, in the reporter’s voice as opposed to a clearly flagged opinion of a pundit or politician, is indicative of the ongoing, critical blind spot on the part of both conservatives and liberals in the West – the experience of Palestinians.

Today, some 4.75 million Palestinians live under Israeli military rule; protected by the same military, around 600,000 Israelis live in segregated settlements built on expropriated land.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank have now voted in 14 Knesset elections, something the Palestinians they live amongst cannot do. Palestinian protesters are killed and maimed by Israeli forces with impunity. Palestinians, including children, are jailed by Israeli military, not civilian, courts.

Does this state of affairs, maintained by the Israeli state for almost half a century, not tarnish Israel’s claims to ‘democracy’ or ‘pluralism’?

Palestinians with citizenship, meanwhile, are subjected to institutionalised discrimination across the board – in land, housing, education, welfare, family life, and the criminal justice system. Indeed, Israel used martial law against its Palestinian citizens for the first 18 years of the state’s existence (ceasing the year before the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began).

The only way, therefore, that a new law stigmatising liberal Israeli NGOs can be seen as an almost unparalleled ‘threat’ to Israeli ‘democracy’ is if you are either ignorant of the above crimes visited upon the Palestinian people – or if you think that their lives do not matter.

Consequently, attacks on the civil liberties and free expression of Israelis – and Jewish Israelis in particular – are liable to do Israel’s image in the West more damage than jailed Palestinian children, drone strikes in Gaza, and settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Some of Israel’s friends know this. The German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group in the Bundestag has warned Benjamin Netanyahu that a bill restricting the activities of human rights NGOs would “make it difficult…to help Israel fend off boycotts and attempts at delegitimization.”

A senior official at the New Israel Fund has similarly expressed her concern that “the signals sent by the government’s arrogant defiance of supposedly shared democratic values” only “further damages Israel’s international standing” – and at a time “when Israel’s relationships with its most important partners, the United States and the European Union, are already shaky.”

Many of those seeking to undermine the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign point to Israel’s NGOs as proof of the country’s supposed robust democracy and capacity for internal change. But, as one pro-Israel activist put it, “if there is no NGO community, or those that support that free press are vilified, what democracy will these allies defend?”

In 1968, the late scholar and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote what became a famous essay, in which he urged Israel to immediately relinquish control of the newly-conquered West Bank and Gaza Strip. Why? Because “a state ruling a hostile population…would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions.”

For Palestinians, Israel has always meant ethnic cleansing, military rule, segregation, and discrimination. As Ahmed Tibi once said, Israel is “Jewish and democratic: Democratic towards Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs” – and for many in the West, that has been just fine.

Thus in what is yet another reflection of anti-Palestinian racism, it could well be the shrinking of democratic space for Israelis that finally persuades the country’s political allies in the West to say enough is enough, for private disquiet to become public, and for opposition to boycotts to wither.

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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