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On foreign agents, NGOs and Israeli politics

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Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron, West Bank FACEBOOK PHOTO
Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron, West Bank FACEBOOK PHOTO

For almost 20 years, the European Union and individual states have together pumped more than one billion euros ($1.3 billion Cdn) into a small group of Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, with a few million more from the United States, Canada (before Stephen Harper became prime minister) and elsewhere.

The nature and scale of this outside interference is unique, and the impact is magnified by the use of this money primarily to oppose government policies and promote boycotts of Israel. Instead of representing “civil society” in the democratic process, these organizations are waging a dangerous war of demonization, using terms such as “war crimes” and “apartheid” under the façade of human rights.   

The issue has recently dominated headlines in the Israeli media and urgent Knesset sessions, including the introduction of legislation that, if passed, would require NGO recipients to register as foreign agents. In response, the NGO officials and their allies at the New Israel Fund, Ha’aretz and among left-wing politicians attacked the critics as McCarthyite fascists intent on destroying democracy.

This battle has been simmering since the publication of the discredited UN Goldstone report on Gaza in 2009, which was based on hundreds of NGO allegations, many of which were false or unverifiable. Their claims fed boycott campaigns and attempts in Britain and elsewhere to arrest Israelis as alleged “war criminals,” including former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and military officers. In response, Israeli criticism of these groups and their funders increased significantly. A number of politicians on the right introduced legislation to punish the NGOs, but these proposals were designed primarily to gain votes and did not get far.

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In late 2015, the NGO issue resurfaced after Breaking the Silence (BTS), an NGO run by 10 activists but with a $1-million budget, attacked the IDF in a number of venues around the world. Their events in churches, universities and national parliaments featured “anonymous testimony” alleging systematic immorality by soldiers, but with no confirmation. BTS appearances in Ireland, Scotland and South Africa, partnered with vicious anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic groups, were heavily criticized in the Israeli media.

In response, hundreds of IDF reserve officers petitioned the minister of defence, demanding that these radical activists be barred from speaking on military bases. In parallel, relatives of soldiers killed in war and of terror victims demanded that Education Minister Naftali Bennett prohibit BTS members from speaking to high-school students. These developments fuelled support to the NGO “foreign agent” registration legislation proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Another layer was added in two television broadcasts on Israel’s Channel 2 in a program that is generally considered to be sympathetic to the left. The hidden cameras focused on a far-left anti-occupation group known as Ta’ayush, run by Ezra Nawi. He is shown discussing how to turn over an Arab involved in selling land to Jews to Palestinian counter-intelligence forces, viewed as equivalent to a death sentence. In this plot, Nawi (who was later caught at the airport trying to flee) is joined by a Palestinian employee of B’tselem, a prominent human rights NGO.

In a second segment, Nawi receives cash from BTS in what seems to be a plan to pay Palestinians involved in violent riots against IDF troops. In addition, the video showed a check to Nawi issued by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), ostensibly for transportation services.  B’tselem, BTS and RHR are all funded in large part by the European Union and individual governments, adding to demands for legislation to limit these transfers. 

Europe’s money, and the contrast between high moral rhetoric and less-than-moral behaviour, ensures that this issue will remain high on Israel’s agenda. The fight will be long and bitter, but after 20 years of unlimited access to money and influence, the central role of unelected and radical NGOs inside Israeli politics, and in waging war outside the country, is likely to fade.