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(New York)The growing harshness of attacks by Israeli government officials on nongovernmental organizations poses a real threat to civil society in Israel, Human Rights Watch said today.

The most recent attacks center on the New Israel Fund (NIF), which supports a wide range of Israeli civil rights and social welfare organizations, including some that provided information to the United Nations fact-finding mission under Justice Richard Goldstone that investigated abuses by both sides in last year's Gaza conflict.  

"What we're seeing in Israel is a greater official intolerance of dissent," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.  "One of Israel's outstanding strengths has been its vibrant civil society and its flourishing public debate, so these developments are particularly worrying."

In response to a private report accusing NIF of supporting groups that gave Justice Goldstone information relating to abuses in the Gaza conflict, Member of Knesset Otniel Schneller proposed a parliamentary commission to specifically examine the conduct of NIF and its grantees in "transferring false, exaggerated, and non-credible information, to Justice Goldstone, thus harming the national interest of the State of Israel."  The debate and vote on this commission is slated to take place the week of February 8, 2010.  A parliamentary subcommission has already been established to examine foreign funding of Israeli organizations in the wake of similar allegations that local groups provided information to Goldstone's inquiry.

The Israeli Government Press Office has several times singled out articles detailing private allegations against NIF and other nongovernmental groups for translation and circulation.   

Minister of Information and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein is reported by The Forward to have said on February 2 that the support of NIF to critical groups "has reached an absurd level" and that "it is worth looking into."

In 2009, the Israeli government approached European governments to end their support of groups such as Breaking the Silence, which published accounts of Israeli soldiers that pointed to possible abuses during the Gaza conflict.   

"The government's encouragement of attacks on NIF and Breaking the Silence should not be seen as aberrant or in isolation," said Whitson. "A clear pattern of official efforts to suppress voices critical of government policy is emerging."  

Other developments that reflect increasing official hostility to critical NGOs include the arrest on January 15 of 16 activists in Jerusalem protesting the take-over by settlers of Arab homes in East Jerusalem; the arrest and harassment last year of hundreds of Arab Israeli demonstrators protesting the Gaza operation; the barring of human rights organizations from Gaza; a new 2009 policy denying work permits to foreign nationals working for scores of humanitarian organizations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; and many statements by top Israeli officials characterizing critical NGOs as threats to national security.  

On January 31, 16 Israeli human rights groups sent a public letter to the prime minister and president of Israel requesting a meeting to discuss the worsening attacks on human rights and social change organizations.

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