Rights groups: Gov't stifles free speech

We are not trying to restrict them, only question who funds them, Foreign Ministry spokesman says.

Organizations who devote all or part of their efforts towards protecting Palestinian human and legal rights on Sunday delivered a strong protest to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu against "the aggressive efforts of the government of Israel to hurt Breaking the Silence." On July 15, Breaking the Silence, an organization comprising former IDF soldiers, published a report including testimonies by 30 soldiers who provided alleged examples of the army's illegal use of Palestinian civilians in combat situations, wanton destruction of homes and buildings and careless use of weapons. Meanwhile, the left-wing organization Gush Shalom, in response to a report in Friday's The Jerusalem Post, warned the government that any attempt to muzzle organizations seeking to protect Palestinian human and legal rights would backfire. On Friday, the Post reported that senior Israeli officials are considering outlawing funding by foreign governments for "political" NGOs. In a related development, the attorney for Breaking the Silence, Michael Sfard, sent a letter last week to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, asking him to order IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu to stay out of the civilian debate over the findings of Breaking the Silence and to stop delegitimizing the organization. The public controversy over the Breaking the Silence report flared up again after Foreign Ministry officials protested to the Dutch and British governments for financing the organization. According to reports, the Dutch embassy donated €19,995 in 2009 for the publication of the report on Operation Cast Lead, while the British Embassy contributed £40,000 for the organization's activities in 2008. The rights organizations, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom, B'Tselem, Gisha, Moked in the Defense of the Individual, the Public Association against Torture, Yesh Din, Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights and Rabbis for Human Rights, charged that "the aggressive pressure applied by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and other government institutions aimed at silencing Breaking the Silence is dangerous and worrisome. "The health and proper functioning of a democracy is expressed, in part, by the legitimacy which it accords organizations that criticize the conduct of the authorities. Their activities enrich democracy, strengthen it and are vital for its existence," they wrote. Meanwhile, in a highly sarcastic letter, Gush Shalom wrote to Ron Dermer, chief of planning policy in the Prime Minister's Office, "advising" him not to try to pass legislation prohibiting foreign governments from donating to rights organizations. Gush Shalom spokesman Adam Keller wrote to Dermer that either the Prime Minister's Office was not aware that Israel Beiteinu MK Yuri Stern had tried to pass similar legislation and withdrawn the bill after coming to the conclusion that it would be counterproductive, or he had only meant to frighten the rights organizations. "If the latter option is correct," wrote Keller, "we are shocked that you and the prime minister, both vocal disciples of the neo-conservative democratization approach to geo-politics, would engage in the suppression and intimidation tactics against opposition NGOs so recently used by authoritarian regimes such as Putin's Russia and Ahmadinejad's Iran." According to Keller, Stern agreed to shelve his bill because had it passed, and even though it would only have been aimed at "political" NGOs, all NGOs would have had to undergo intense scrutiny of their funding by the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations. The reason for this was because political NGOs might try to obtain foreign government funding indirectly, using a so-called nonpolitical NGO as an intermediary. This would oblige the registrar to investigate everyone's funding processes more thoroughly. Furthermore, since the definition of what constitutes a "political" NGO is vague, many NGOs that the government did not intend to block would also come under scrutiny. "When this became apparent to the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, they turned into fierce opponents of the bill," wrote Keller. "We do not presume to speculate as to their reason, but recent events in New Jersey may provide useful clues." A legal opinion was also presented arguing that if foreign governments could not contribute to rights organizations, the US would be obliged to withdraw tax exemptions "involving hundreds of millions of dollars channeled annually to a large number of Israeli NGOs associated with right-wing political causes, through Jewish American and Christian Zionist philanthropies." Furthermore, the governments might retaliate by halting funding for Israeli educational, research and other projects. Meanwhile, Breaking the Silence accused IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu of "subverting Israeli democracy and harming the ability of the civilian society to conduct a serious and deep discussion on the central issues of our lives in this area. "Brig.-Gen. Benayahu was apparently absent from school for the civics lesson in which his classmates were taught the principle of freedom of speech, and must have missed the study day at Officers' Training School where the officers were taught the principle that the IDF and its officers are prohibited from intervening in a public debate by civilian society." Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that the NGOs were missing the point, and that no one was trying to silence Breaking the Silence or any of the other NGOs. "No one is trying to silence them or curtail their activities," Palmor said. "The only question is whether their activities should be funded by foreign governments. "Remember, these are NGOs, nongovernmental organizations. What part of nongovernmental organizations do they not understand?" Palmor said the NGOs were diverting the debate from a legitimate one over who funds these organizations, to one of "cowboys vs. Indians, the good against the evil, with them claiming to be the good." Palmor said that the NGOs were ignoring the problem of foreign governments funding political activities, and the fact that the funding for these groups is often not transparent. Palmor said that despite their claims to the contrary, these organizations - who he said often issue extremely critical reports without giving the government time to respond - are not interested in true dialogue, but rather in grabbing headlines which then help them in their fundraising efforts. Herb Keinon contributed to this report.