Balancing NGOs democratically

Our lawmakers must remain vigilant not to compromise basic democratic principles.

BTselem Logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
BTselem Logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had the presence of mind to backtrack this week on support for an anti-democratic Knesset motion advanced by Israel Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman.
The foreign minister had hoped to create a Knesset inquiry committee that could single out and scrutinize the foreign funding of NGOs critical of Israel, particularly those that focused on purported Israeli “war crimes.” But as the prime minister noted, the creation of a committee with such a blatantly politicized agenda “would further worsen the delegitimization of Israel worldwide.” Another opponent of the Lieberman motion, AJC Executive Director David Harris, disliked the apparent attempt to stifle freedom of expression. “Israel’s vibrant democracy not only can survive criticism, but it also thrives and is improved by it,” he said.
One good thing did come out of the controversy surrounding Lieberman’s proposal: It built momentum for the passage of a much fairer bill sponsored by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and framed after the US’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. Elkin’s bill, which passed a final reading in a 40-34 vote on Monday, will require all NGOs, regardless of their political leaning, to issue quarterly reports on their foreign government funding, and to make clear in advertisements and on their websites if they receive funding from other countries. Those who refrain from disclosure will be subject to a fine of nearly NIS 30,000. NGO Monitor, another opponent of the Lieberman bill, was instrumental in promoting the Elkin bill.
Inexplicably, a law with an eminently reasonable selfstated goal to “carefully balance the right of organizations in a democracy to operate freely with the right of the Israeli public to know who funds the organizations’ activities” was reportedly denounced by several MKs. Meretz chairman Haim Oron criticized the government for becoming “increasingly McCarthyist,” while MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) said the law was reminiscent of “regimes of darkness that persecute human rights organizations.”
ORON AND Zahalka seem unable or unwilling to appreciate the tremendous challenge NGOs can pose to Israel in its struggle to protect its right to defend itself.
A case in point is the infamous Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead, partly a near-copy-and-paste job from material produced by various NGOs. Unfortunately some information, such as the estimate of the ratio of combatants to noncombatants killed during the operation, is deeply contentious, and its incorporation indicates a tainted approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad acknowledged in a November 2010 interview with Al-Hayat that between 600 and 700 Hamas members were killed in the Gaza fighting. This corresponds to the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate estimate that 709 Palestinians killed during fighting were combatants, but is about double the number of combatants estimated by the NGOs and the Goldstone Report.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that NGOs such as B’Tselem and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights have adopted narrow definitions of what constitutes a “combatant.” B’Tselem, for instance, follows a highly controversial International Committee of the Red Cross approach in defining when a civilian is deemed to be taking part in hostilities. This means that even people “who are closely involved in Hamas’s offensive infrastructure are exempted,” according to the watchdog group NGO Monitor.
And to be considered a combatant by PCHR, you have to have been holding a gun at the time you were killed.
Casualties such as Hamas terrorist Nizar Rayan and the 286 “traffic policemen” who were members of Hamas’s military wing, Izzadin Kassam, or other terror organizations were consequently labeled noncombatants.
Such tendentious methodology undermines Israel’s ability to defend itself from acts of terror such as Wednesday’s Grad-model Katyusha attack on Beersheba, launched from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
THE ISRAELI public and the entire world have the right to know that NGOs operating in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza receive tens of millions of euros per year from foreign governments. They have the right to know the specifics of such support. The legislation passed this week provides the appropriate framework.
At the same time, with all the understandable desire to protect Israel from the damage caused by some NGOs, our lawmakers must remain vigilant not to compromise basic democratic principles. The NGO law passed Monday maintains the necessary balance.