When I first introduced the concept of “lawfare” against Israel in 2008, focusing on attempts by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to have Israeli officials arrested abroad for alleged war crimes, people would frequently ask why I did not include the myriad of litigation brought by NGOs in Israeli courts. My typical response was that it was legitimate for NGOs to challenge government policy in domestic courts, and this did not constitute anti-Israel lawfare.
However, I am rethinking this position.
NGO Monitor has discovered massive funding provided by the UK, the EU and Norway to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which in turn is funneled to local NGOs in order to flood Israeli courts with hundreds of lawsuits.
Since 2011, these governments have provided the NRC with a staggering $20 million in taxpayer funds to wage legal warfare on Israel. This funding is directed toward the NRC’s “Information Counselling and Legal Assistance” (ICLA) project. According to documents examined by NGO Monitor from the British government, the aim of the project is to manipulate Israeli democracy to achieve “changes in Israeli policy and practice” and to provide “evidence and analysis to form the basis for international pressure on Israel.”
In practice, NRC has used its millions to finance a flood of lawsuits before Israeli courts and administrative bodies. The scope of NRC’s interference in the Israeli legal system is unprecedented. With its EU and European government financing, the NRC has funded at least 700 cases in Israeli courts. Documents show that NRC is responsible for 51 percent of all “house demolition” cases in Area C and 35% of all legal cases dealing with housing, land and property claims in east Jerusalem and Area C.
These cases have included some of the most controversial and contentious issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including Sheikh Jarrah, and deny pre-1948 Jewish property claims in east Jerusalem, the Cliff Hotel case, the route of the security barrier in the Cremisan Valley (near Bethlehem), and the validity of military orders.
The full list of lawsuits, and the NGO partners and lawyers bringing them, has been kept secret by both the NRC and its government funders, but NGO Monitor research has uncovered the involvement of some of the most active political advocacy NGOs involved in lawfare, including Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), Yesh Din, St. Yves Society, as well as NGO attorney Michael Sfard.
Moreover, statements made by those associated with the program suggest another, more nefarious goal of the NRC lawfare project – one that is consistent with the campaign to delegitimize Israel, particularly in legal frameworks. In a public presentation, an NRC-affiliated lawyer commented that the strategy behind the project is to undertake “every possible legal measure to disrupt the Israeli judicial system... to increase the workload of the courts and the Supreme Court to such an extent that there will be a blockage.”
In other words, the objective is to sabotage the Israeli justice system. (It is notable that this very strategy was laid out in a 2010 report issued by leading lawfare NGO Al Haq).
Since such objectives would not be considered legitimate, internal documents describe NRC as engaging in a “low visibility policy,” deliberately obscuring its involvement in legal advocacy and political activities “to ensure that their legal status to carry out their work is not threatened.”
The NRC has also used this funding to attack the Canadian justice system. In 2008, the Village of Bil’in, with the assistance of Al Haq and Michael Sfard, filed a lawsuit in Quebec seeking to hold two Canadian companies guilty of aiding and abetting alleged “Israeli war crimes.” The courts fined the plaintiffs and threw their frivolous case out of court, mainly because they had already extensively litigated their suit in Israel and were simply engaged in inappropriate “forum shopping.”
Refusing to accept Canadian rule of law, the NRC then filed a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee ridiculously claiming that Canada had violated human rights by dismissing the lawsuit.
These findings suggest that a massive and unprecedented abuse of the Israeli judicial system, funded by the UK, the EU, Norway and others is currently underway.
NGO Monitor has presented its report to the UK Parliament in advance of hearings on development aid to the Palestinians, and we plan to share our findings with Israeli and other European officials.
The scope of the activity and statements that the program is aimed at crippling Israeli courts suggest the UK, EU and Norway should immediately freeze all funding for this program and conduct a public inquiry. Israeli officials should begin their own investigation.
It is inconceivable that the UK, the EU, Norway, or any other European country would countenance mass foreign state funding for hundreds of lawsuits in their courts on the most contentious policy and security issues. The appropriate and ethical way for officials to address their concerns to the Israeli government is via direct diplomacy.
It does not require much imagination to depict the reaction of the British government, for instance, if it learned that Germany or France was providing tens of millions of euros to the IRA to finance hundreds of lawsuits in British courts challenging its policies in Northern Ireland.
The British government would see this as an outrageous form of legal warfare against the UK. But, it is precisely this form of lawfare that the UK – as well as the EU and Norway – is funding in Israel.
For these reasons, it has become necessary to rethink the role of foreign-funded NGOs in the Israeli legal system. While I continue to believe in the legitimacy of NGOs in challenging government policy in domestic courts, when this process becomes a deliberate campaign of sabotage, this becomes anti-Israel lawfare, and needs to be treated as such.
The author is the legal advisor of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem- based research institute. She is the author of NGO ‘Lawfare’: Exploitation of Courts in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.