The struggle of human rights NGOs and the “Funding Transparency” Law in Israel

Jul 12th, 2018 | By | Category: News

by Noam Cohen

In conflict times, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can and should be the voice of the oppressed side of the conflict and try to balance the situation. Currently, NGOs and activists in Israel are facing many difficulties by the Israeli government, the new “Transparency Law”, monitoring and harassment.

In July 2016, the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) passed the “NGOs Funding Transparency Law” (official name: “Transparency Requirements for Parties Supported by Foreign State Entities Bill”) [1]. The new law requires from those NGOs to inform and declare their funding in each publication to the media, press, internet and television if they receive more than 50% of their donations from abroad. The law was passed with 57 Members of the Knesset (MK) voting in favor of the controversial bill and 47 MKs opposing it.

27 organizations in Israel are affected by new law, any violation of the law will result in fines of up to 29,200 New Israeli Sheqel (around 6,800, – €). Out of these 27 NGOs, 25 are human rights organizations, most of them working within the Palestinian society or other discriminated groups in Israel. A large part of the NGOs list are organizations that work against the occupation, the siege and various human rights violations in the Gaza strip and the occupied territories. Therefore, those NGOs are facing even more harassment than the others do. “Breaking the Silence” (BTS) is the NGO that is maybe suffering the most from harassment by the Israeli government. BTS was founded by former soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and collects testimonies from soldiers (BTS has interviewed more than 1,000 soldiers so far) who witnessed or committed human rights violations during their military service.

This advertisement which was published by 21 NGOs in the “Haaretz” newspaper in response to the passing of the NGOs law says: “We didn’t stop the NGO Law, but the NGO Law will not stop us”. Credit to the forum organizations for using the picture

 The law was also supposed to oblige the NGOs’ representatives in the Knesset debates to wear a badge saying that they are from an organization receiving funding from abroad. This request was approved first but following negotiations and protest it was canceled.

Quote from the bill: “[the law tries] to deal with the phenomenon of NGOs who represent in Israel, in a non-transparent manner, the outside interests of foreign states, while pretending to be a domestic organization concerned with the interests of the Israeli public.” [2].

Former UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, said about the funding transparency law: “I am deeply troubled by shrinking space for civil society in the region (Israel) and around the world. I am concerned by Israel’s passage of the so-called ‘NGO Transparency Law,’ which contributes to a climate in which the activities of human rights organizations are increasingly delegitimized. 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 working in Israel.” [3]. The former ambassador of the European Union in Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen,  also reacted to the new funding transparency law: “Israel has to be very careful to not oppress its democratic society in which this law is reminiscent of tyrannical regimes” [4]. Israel and Palestine advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, Sari Bashi said: “Israel’s new NGO law subjects groups such as human rights organizations and political groups that criticize the current government to expensive, inconvenient, and redundant requirements” [5]. It can be understood from the reactions that the Israeli NGOs New Transparency Law was an unexpected step against left-wing and human rights organizations by the Israeli government.

A similar law can also be found in Hungary – the government of Viktor Orbán passed its own NGO law in June 2017. The law requires organizations that receive more than 24,000€ annually from foreign institutes or countries to register as “organizations supported from abroad” and if they do not do so, they are facing the shutdown of the organization [6].
Another example of government repression of NGOs: in 2012, the Russian Parliament passed the Russian “foreign agent” law that requires from non-profit and non-governmental organizations that receive foreign donations and take part in “political activities” to register and declare themselves as foreign agents. The law became effective in February 2013 after the Russian president Vladimir Putin had approved the law and said: ”Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable.” In 2016, Amnesty International published a report about the effects of the law and said that 148 organizations had been included on the list of “foreign agents”, of which 27 had been closed down already [7].

In June 2018, an Israeli right-wing coalition party proposed a bill that will prohibit  the documentation and photography of the IDF in action in the occupied territories by NGOs, activists, and any unofficial Israeli organizations [8]. Still, there is a number of NGOs, especially “B’Tselem” and “Breaking the silence”, which aim to document human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories and tell the story about the occupation. According to that draft law that has not passed yet, anyone who takes photos or records actions by the IDF in the occupied territories and publishes it in the social networks to “harm the spirit of the soldiers” will risk up to five years in prison. If it is proved in court that the IDF soldiers were photographed with intent to harm the state security, the publisher will face up to ten years in prison.

In the last years, Israeli human rights NGOs and activists have been suffering from extreme monitoring and harassment by the Israeli government much more than in the past. In May 2018, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy made an official request to expel Omar Shakir (U.S citizen), Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch. Omar was accused of supporting the boycott of the Israeli movement BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). The only countries that expelled a Human Rights Watch representative before Israel tried to do it, were North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan and Uzbekistan [9]. Also, in May 2018, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) stopped an Israeli left-wing activist in the entrance back to Israel at the Ben-Gurion Airport in an extraordinary operation. The Shin Bet security detained Tanya Rubinstein, a member of the left-wing NGO Coalition of Women for Peace for half an hour after she came back to Israel from a conference of the Swedish foreign ministry [10]. Well known activists said to the “Haaretz” newspaper that they were not aware of similar incidents involving Israeli citizens, only foreign citizens have been detained at the airport for political reasons in the past. There is no doubt that these acts are a significant step against human rights organizations and that they deligitimize activists in Israel. Consequently, there are serious concerns both for the activists’ welfare and also for a free democracy in Israel and the rights of activists to act against any kind of oppression and discrimination.

 

here you can read more about the topic of shrinking space for civil society

 

[1] – Article by the Guardian about the passage of the NGOs Funding Transparency Law: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/12/israel-passes-law-to-force-ngos-to-reveal-foreign-funding

[2] – The news about the passage of the law from the Israeli parliament website: https://knesset.gov.il/spokesman/eng/PR_eng.asp?PRID=12164

[3] – The quote of Mr. Ban Ki-moon: https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/EU-slams-law-increasing-transparency-for-its-donations-to-Israeli-NGOs-460179

[4] – The quote of the ambassador of the European Union: https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4744692,00.html

[5] – Human Rights Watch article about the new NGOs law: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/13/israel-law-targets-human-rights-groups

[6] – Article about the Hungarian NGOs law: https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/06/hungarys-anti-foreign-ngo-law/530121/

[7] – Amnesty International report ‘Agents of the people’: Four years of “foreign agents”: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/11/russia-four-years-of-putins-foreign-agents-law-to-shackle-and-silence-ngos/

[8] – About the bill that aim to ban photographing of IDF soldiers: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israeli-knesset-ban-photographing-filming-idf-soldiers-recording-journalists-robert-ilatov-a8371426.html

[9] – At the moment the Israeli court decided to suspend the decision in the case of Omar Shakir. Link to the official news about Omar Shakir, by HRW website: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/08/israel-orders-human-rights-watch-official-deported

[1]) – “Haaretz” Article about the shin bet detains of Tanya Rubenstein: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/shin-bet-detains-israeli-peace-activist-at-ben-gurion-airport-1.6137299

 

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