Israeli Rights Groups Under Siege
By Isabel Kershner
NY Times: April 5, 2010
JERUSALEM - Leaders of some of Israel's most prominent human rights
organizations say they are working in an increasingly hostile environment
and coming under attack for actions that their critics say endanger the
The pressure on these groups has tightened as the country's leaders have
battled to defend Israel against accusations of war crimes, the rights
advocates say, raising questions about the limits of free speech and dissent
in Israel's much vaunted democracy.
"Over the years, in a variety of international arenas," said Hagai El-Ad,
executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, "it was
key for Israeli officials to say, 'Yes, there are many problems, perhaps
even abuses; however, we have a strong, vibrant civil society with a
plethora of voices and we are very proud of that.'
"It is inconsistent to make those statements and at the same time create a
situation that colors us as traitors in the public eye."
Governments and the watchdog organizations that monitor them have rarely
seen eye to eye. But rights advocates say that to many conservatives and
leaders of Israel's right-leaning government, the allegations of war crimes
against the Israeli military that followed the Gaza war in the winter of
2008-9 have turned human rights criticism into an existential threat that is
chipping away at the country's legitimacy. And officials have been blunt in
The chief catalyst was the United Nations report last fall on the war in
Gaza, by a fact-finding mission led by the South African jurist Richard
Goldstone. The report accused Israel and Hamas of possible war crimes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since identified what he calls the
"Goldstone effect," meaning the delegitimization of Israel abroad, as a
major strategic threat.
Last summer, he attacked a leftist organization, Breaking the Silence, that
published allegations by unnamed Israeli soldiers about human rights
violations during the war, as selectively anti-Israel.
Some international rights groups that have been critical of Israel, like
Human Rights Watch, have said Israel's government was "waging a propaganda
war" to discredit them. A senior Netanyahu aide affirmed in an interview
last year that Israel was "going to dedicate time and manpower to combating
Israeli rights advocates say that such comments by officials have fostered
an atmosphere of harassment. While they do not accuse the government of
orchestrating a campaign against them, they point to a number of seemingly
unconnected dots that they say add up to a growing climate of repression.
In Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where several Palestinian
families have been evicted from their homes and replaced by Jewish settlers,
the police have arrested dozens of Israelis attending peaceful protests in
recent months. Mr. El-Ad was detained for 36 hours in January, along with 16
other activists, after he explained to the police that their decision to
break up a rally had no legal grounds. One organizer of the protests was
arrested at his parents' Jerusalem home on a night in late March, and
released three days later.
Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, an advocacy group that focuses on freedom
of movement for Palestinians, said her organization was harassed last year
by the Israeli tax authorities. She said they questioned why Gisha should be
tax exempt when that status was meant for organizations that promoted the
public good. Eventually, she said, the authorities backed down.
Then an ultra-Zionist nongovernmental organization called Im Tirtzu (Hebrew
for 'If you will it' - the first part of Theodor Herzl's famous maxim)
attacked a major organization, the New Israel Fund, which channeled about
$29 million to Israeli groups in 2009, including some Arab-run, non-Zionist
groups. The fund describes itself as pro-Israel and says it does not agree
with all the positions of the groups it helps, but it supports their right
to be heard.
Im Tirtzu published a report in January asserting that 92 percent of the
quotes from unofficial Israeli bodies supporting claims against Israel in
the Goldstone report were provided by 16 nongovernmental organizations
financed by the New Israel Fund.
The New Israel Fund dismissed Im Tirtzu's findings as a fabrication, saying
most of the references it cited had nothing to do with Gaza during the
Still, for three weeks, Im Tirtzu plastered billboards across the country
with posters featuring a crude caricature of the New Israel Fund president,
Naomi Chazan. The posters depicted her with a horn attached to her forehead
(in Hebrew, the word for fund also means horn) and bore the legend "Naomi
Perhaps the most alarming sign to rights advocates was a preliminary vote in
Parliament supporting a bill that called for groups that received support
from foreign governments to register with Israel's political parties'
registrar, which could change their tax status and hamper their ability to
raise money abroad. It swept a preliminary vote in the 120-seat Parliament
in February with 58 in favor and 11 against.
Proponents say the bill is needed to improve transparency. "Up until now
they have enjoyed a halo effect as highly regarded human rights watchdogs,"
said Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli political scientist and president of NGO
Monitor, a conservative watchdog group financed by American Jewish
philanthropists. "They were not seen as political organizations with biases
and prone to false claims. Now, they are coming under some kind of
But rights organizations say that they are already required to list publicly
the sources of their funding, and that the bill is actually intended to
Right-wing organizations like those encouraging Jewish settlement in Arab
areas of East Jerusalem receive the overwhelming share of their financing
from individuals and philanthropies whose identities are often not
For now, the bill has effectively been blocked until its proponents reach
agreement with the Labor ministers in the governing coalition, who are
trying to water it down.
But Ms. Chazan said the bill could not be finessed.
"This law has to disappear," she said. "It is the single most dangerous
threat to Israeli civil society since its inception."
For Ms. Chazan, a vibrant and diverse civil society is the bedrock of
Israeli democracy, and what being Israeli is all about. "We love this
country and we want it to be decent," she said. "We believe the more decent
Israel is, the better chance it has of surviving."
But Mr. Steinberg says that organizations like the New Israel Fund, with
their deep pockets and multiple petitions to Israel's Supreme Court, have
"distorted the marketplace of ideas."
"Part of what is going on now," he said, "is a sense that this is getting
out of control."
A version of this article appeared in print on April 6, 2010, on page A6 of
the New York edition.
By Gideon Levy
Haaretz.com: Fri., April 02, 2010 Nisan 18, 5770
The Palestinians do not want peace. Indeed, they do not even agree to
speak with us. While the leaders of the only country in the Middle East
(well, not the only country) whose universal greeting is the word "shalom"
take every opportunity to shout "let's talk," it is the Palestinians who are
refusing the outstretched hand of peace and proving themselves stubborn in
negotiations. They're not coming. As such, let us use this space to sound a
desperate call to their leaders: Let's talk.
Let's talk with an Israeli government that boasts of at least six ministers
in its "forum of seven" of top decision-makers who say they do not believe
in an agreement with you. Ehud Barak, who represents the "leftist" wing in
the group, is the father of the "no partner" doctrine that crushed to
smithereens the remnants of the Israeli peace camp. To his right sit Moshe
Ya'alon and Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai and Benny Begin, all of whom are
led by Benjamin Netanyahu. None of these figures believes in an agreement
with you, non-partners that you are. It is only America they wish to
So come and talk to them. Sit down and talk, without preconditions, with a
government that views a temporary cessation of construction in the
settlements as an insufferable "edict." Sit down and talk with those who
have long ago decided that Jerusalem and the endless settlement blocs will
remain under Israeli sovereignty. Come and talk just like you did with
previous governments, those who appeared in photo-ops with you and then
settled on your lands, proposed "far-reaching" solutions that fall short of
the fair minimum from your standpoint and then kill 1,400 people in
Operation Cast Lead.
Come and talk with those who have imposed a brutal siege on your Gaza Strip.
Speak with those who are not ready to talk with a movement that captured a
majority of votes in a democratic election. Talk with those who imprisoned
your founding father in the Muqata, claiming that he is an obstacle to
peace, and, after he left the scene, said his successor was "too weak" to
make peace. Come and talk with those who claimed that the absence of peace
is due to terrorism, and that when there is no terrorism, there is also no
Speak with a society that wants not peace but "separation" from you. Come
and talk with those who have jailed 11,000 of your compatriots, some of them
without a trial, others of whom are political prisoners, including members
of parliament. Talk with those who just recently passed the Nakba Law, the
law that denies your tragedy, and the Citizenship Law, which prevents your
people, and only your people, the basic right to wed. Come and talk with
those who do not recognize your refugee problem and are not ready to even
discuss the refugees' return. Speak to them. Much will come of it for you.
Come and talk with leaders who declared war on the few remaining peace
activists left in their society. Talk with those who shoot demonstrators and
arrest them in their homes. Come and talk with a society whose peace camp
leader, Yitzhak Rabin, was murdered because of his desire for peace with
you. Come and talk with a prime minister who once stood at Zion Square in
Jerusalem while protesters brandished doctored photographs of Rabin wearing
an SS uniform and said nothing. Come and talk with a country that replaces
its government at a dizzying pace, a country in which just two of its prime
ministers, in the twilight of their terms in office, were ready to offer you
semi-reasonable, minimal proposals before their successors disavowed those
offers as if they had never existed. It is with them that you should talk.
Talk with a country that needs to enlist an entire division of soldiers just
to evacuate a caravan built by land usurpers. You should believe that its
leaders will be strong enough to evict tens of thousands of settlers. Talk
with the heads of a society that is mired deep in complacency, one that
seriously believes that its army is the most moral in the world, one that
has been covering its face for years in light of the harm that army causes
to you in its name. Talk with those who have never believed you to be human
beings equal in stature to them. Talk with those who believe that they are
the chosen people and that this land is theirs alone.
Talk with those who pave highways for use by Jews only, who systematically
monitor their Arab citizens and who think that anyone who dares criticize
them is anti-Semitic. Talk with those who think that the United States is
ensconced in their back pocket, which thus far has proven to be accurate.
Talk with them through the "fair" American mediator, the one who always
tended to adopt an unfavorable position against you and even sent Jewish
Zionist emissaries to serve as middlemen in talks. Just keep your fingers
crossed as you hope that America is finally on the verge of an about-face.
Palestinians, opponents of peace that you are, come to the negotiating
table. Come and talk peace, then watch as your presence at the table
suddenly ushers in peace while the occupation is given the kiss of death