Measures Threaten Israel's Civil Society
July 25, 2010
These kinds of proposals could put Israel in a league with so many of its neighboring governments, who strive to silence their critics rather than protect their right to speech. Israel is well able to defend itself from unjust accusations, but the harm to its own democracy from such laws could be irreparable.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(Jerusalem) - Israel's Knesset should reject proposed legislation that would weaken the country's vibrant civil society, Human Rights Watch said today. Recent proposed bills would penalize human rights groups for critical reporting and advocacy, including publicizing information on war crimes, expressing support for boycotts, or helping refugees and asylum seekers.

These developments take place against a backdrop of other official statements and actions that have created an increasingly threatening atmosphere for human rights defenders in Israel. There are numerous signs that the government considers the nongovernmental organizations themselves, rather than the human rights problems they expose, to be the problem.

Four bills and amendments are pending that would seriously restrict the rights of Israelis to criticize the policies and actions of their government, Human Rights Watch said. One would shut down groups that communicate information that could be used in charges filed in other countries against members of the Israeli government or army for violations of international law. A second would penalize organizations and individuals who express support for, or participate in, boycotts against Israel. A third would impose onerous and immediate reporting requirements on any group that accepts any amount of funding from a foreign government for any purpose, and the fourth would punish anyone who assists refugees after they illegally cross into Israel.

"These kinds of proposals could put Israel in a league with so many of its neighboring governments, who strive to silence their critics rather than protect their right to speech," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Israel is well able to defend itself from unjust accusations, but the harm to its own democracy from such laws could be irreparable."

On April 28, 19 members of the Knesset proposed the "Universal Jurisdiction" bill, which would, under the current draft, "prevent preemptively the registration" of any nongovernmental organization that puts in the public domain information "regarding legal prosecutions abroad for war crimes against senior Israeli politicians and/or Israel Defense Force (IDF) officers." Organizations that are already registered could be shut down if they engaged in such activity.

A slightly revised version of the bill was submitted by 25 members of the Knesset on June 14 and awaits the chairman's decision on whether to submit it for a first round of consideration by the full Knesset, where bills must pass three readings before becoming law.

The proposed bill was introduced shortly after a private group, Im Tirzu, issued a report and began a media campaign on April 16 accusing 12 Israeli human rights organizations of supporting or providing information leading to legal action in foreign courts against Israeli officials alleged to be responsible for grave violations of international humanitarian law, under t he principle of universal jurisdiction. The campaign singled out Adalah, the Arab-Israeli minority rights group, and the New Israel Fund (NIF), a major funder of civil rights and social welfare initiatives and advocacy groups in Israel. In a joint statement issued after the submission of the Universal Jurisdiction bill, 10 Israeli human rights groups declared, "Instead of defending democracy, the sponsors of this bill prefer to reduce it to ashes."

"Closing down Israeli organizations that document Israeli violations of the laws of war will not make these abuses disappear from view," said Whitson.

Another legislative measure designed to stifle criticism of Israel is the "Boycott Prohibition" bill, submitted to the Knesset Law Committee for approval on June 15 by 24 Knesset members from both the governing coalition and the opposition. The bill, which passed a preliminary vote on July 14, applies to citizens of Israel and of other nations - including Palestinians from the Occupied Territories - and to "foreign political entities," including the Palestinian Authority. It would impose fines, economic sanctions, and entry bans on "initiators or promoters" of boycotts directed against Israel, Israeli citizens, and Israeli products, or foreigners who have "relations with the state of Israel or with areas under the control of the state of Israel," including boycotts limited to products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Under the proposed law, any "injured party" could sue, for damages of up to NIS 30,000 (US$7,750), any organization or person who initiated or incited a boycott against them, without having to prove that they incurred any damage. In addition, the "injured parties" would be able to make further claims for actual damage they sustained as the result of a boycott. Israeli nongovernmental organizations that support boycott initiatives, such as the Alternative Information Center, the Coalition of Women for Peace, or the Israel Committee against House Demolitions, could thus be penalized, whether they are run by Jewish or Palestinian citizens of Israel.

"Whether or not you agree that boycotts are a good tool to addresses human rights violations, everyone should agree that in a democracy, peacefully advocating for or against boycotts should not be punished," said Whitson.

Two more proposed laws further threaten the strength of the Israeli nongovernmental groups. The "NGO Funding Bill," which passed its preliminary vote in the Knesset on February 17, was recently modified in response to strenuous protests from many non-profit groups and foundations. It appears to be on an accelerated track, now scheduled for both discussion and first reading on August 16, during the summer recess. Although it no longer would strip organizations of tax-exempt status, the version published on July 16 now imposes onerous reporting requirements on any group that receives any amount of funding from a "foreign political entity" such as the EU or the US Agency for International Development, assistance most Israeli civil rights and human rights organizations rely on.

On top of existing annual reporting requirements, groups would have 30 days to report these grants to the Registrar of Associations, including all "undertakings" made to the grantor, whether oral or written, to be published on the Justice Ministry website. Any grant from a foreign government aid agency for a "specific publicity campaign" must be publicized by the organization as part of the campaign. The effect of these requirements would be to subject many human rights, environmental, and cultural groups to detailing their planned actions at the moment they receive funding or risk criminal penalties. Many right-wing and settlers groups, however, would be unaffected as their money derives exclusively from private donors.

"It's pretty obvious that these bills are politically motivated to stifle groups considered critical of the government," said Whitson. "The Israeli government is underestimating the harm it is causing all Israelis in its efforts to bureaucratically squelch critical groups."

Finally, the "Infiltration Prevention" bill would punish all foreigners who enter Israel illegally -including refugees and asylum seekers - as well as those who provide them any assistance, including once they are in Israel. The bill defines as an "infiltrator" any "person entering Israel not through a border station... and without authorization," without defining or exempting refugees and asylum-seekers, thousands of whom have entered Israel via the southern Sinai border with Egypt since 2005. It is thus in direct contravention of Israel's obligations as a state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

Penalties under the bill, which passed a first reading in the Israeli parliament in May 2008 and was discussed again in February 2010 in the Knesset committee on Interior Affairs, would include imprisonment of up to seven years for unarmed "infiltrators." But groups that attempt to help asylum-seekers and refugees would also be subject to harsh punishment. Those individuals who provide assistance such as medical care, food, water, shelter, or legal assistance could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and fined 10,000 shekels (US$2,600). On August 4, 2009, Tziki Sela, then head of the immigration police Oz unit, described organizations assisting asylum seekers and migrant workers as "aiming to destroy Israel." The next day, Interior Minister Eli Yishai stated, "These organizations are undermining the Zionist enterprise." An estimated 20,000 asylum seekers are currently in Israel, 85 percent of them from Sudan and Eritrea.

Israeli groups and their members who protest government actions also seem increasingly to be the targets of police actions. The ongoing weekly protests over the Jewish takeover of houses in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah are a case in point. On, May 14, 2010, 14 Israeli protesters were arrested, brought to court for "disturbing public order" and "disturbing an officer in the line of duty" and released after being detained for 32 hours. Four received hospital care for broken bones resulting from clashes with the police forces.

These arrests continue a trend of several months in which dozens of activists have been arrested, despite repeated rulings by Israeli courts that the protest vigils in the neighborhood are legal. Among those arrested in recent months were prominent human rights defenders such as Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Two days before the arrests, on May 12, the police allowed hundreds of settlers and settler-supporters to demonstrate in the same spot, and none were arrested. On July 4 more than 40 Israeli jurists, academics, authors, and politicians wrote a letter to the attorney general calling for an investigation of alleged discriminatory police enforcement in Sheikh Jarrah. On July 9, another 9 Israeli activists were arrested for protesting in the neighborhood and released later that day.