Israel's controversial NGO bill passes first vote

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, sponsor of the Knesset's NGO bill. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Israel's Knesset on Monday approved Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's NGO transparency bill, which aims to force Israeli NGOs receiving more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments to disclose their funding sources. The bill was approved after a long debate, and will now go to a committee for final drafting. It will then need to pass two more votes to become law.

More than 30,000 NGOs are registered in Israel, according to Israel Hayom. Among those about 70 deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and receive funding from the entire EU or from individual EU governments. One such group is the left-wing, pro-Palestinian group B’Tselem, which is funded by the governments of Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, in addition to the European Union and the New Israel Fund.

B'Tselem, along with a second group called Ta’ayush, came to the forefront in Israel last month when despite their supposed commitment to Palestinian human rights, the groups' senior leaders were exposed on Israeli Channel 2’s investigative television program, “Uvda,” for helping the Palestinian Authority (PA) detain, torture, and potentially kill Palestinians who are selling land to Israeli Jews. 

Uvda’s investigative program focused on Ezra Nawi of Ta’ayush and Nasser Nawaja of B’Tselem. On the program, Nawi is filmed saying that he gives the photos and phone numbers of Palestinian landowners wanting to sell to Jews to the PA, which "catches them and kills them." Nawaja also appears on the video discussing the exposure of such Palestinian landowners.

“The [foreign] government officials that provide [the Israeli NGOs] with millions of shekels, as well as the New Israel Fund, whose leaders created and continue to guide them, are their enablers. Either they deliberately turned a blind eye to the illegalities, or they failed [to conduct] due diligence,”  Gerald Steinberg, founder and president of the Jerusalem-based watchdog group NGO Monitor, told last month.

Shaked's bill has been controversial in Israel, with opponents calling it discriminatory to such left-wing or pro-Palestinian groups. The Obama administration has also criticized the bill, expressing concern about a possible “chilling effect” it may have on Israeli society. More recently, 50 members of the European Parliament sent a letter calling on all Knesset members to vote against the bill.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the bill "democratic and necessary," comparing the groups affected by the bill to Basque separatist groups in Spain.

"Try to imagine Israel funding Basque independence organizations," Netanyahu recently said.

In the Knesset committee, the bill will likely undergo some fine-tuning before going for another vote, such as the removal of a clause requiring representatives of foreign government-funded NGOs to wear special identification badges while visiting the Knesset.

In a more recent analysis for The Tower, NGO Monitor's Steinberg explained that although the controversy around the bill was highly publicized amid the Uvda television segment, the report also came against the backdrop of a longer-running controversy "over the role of Israeli NGOs in the worldwide campaign to demonize Israel through the use of terms such as 'apartheid,' the rise of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the use of 'lawfare' to charge Israeli officials with war crimes and other supposed transgressions of international law."

Steinberg compares the foreign funding of these NGOs to a world in which Europe would seek to "similarly influence American policies, politics, and society, it would involve the annual transfer of billions of dollars to American NGOs focusing on controversial issues, such as abortion, gun control, race, or immigration." 

"Even a small-scale campaign on such issues funded by foreign governments would draw immediate and widespread American opposition," he wrote.

Read more of Steinberg's article here: "How Non-Governmental Organizations Became a Weapon in the War on Israel."

Posted on February 9, 2016 .