Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post
July 31, 2009 - 12:00am

Recent revelations about foreign government funding for local NGOs involved in political activity have triggered discussions by senior Israeli officials about the possibility of making such aid illegal, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The senior officials are looking into whether it might be possible to ban donations from foreign governments to political NGOs, just as it is forbidden for foreign residents, let alone governments, to contribute to Israeli political parties.

One of the questions that will have to be addressed, according to an official involved in the discussions, is what constitutes a political NGO. While it seems that there is an obvious distinction between an organization like Hadassah, which funds hospitals, and one like Breaking the Silence, which has a perceived political agenda, the distinctions would have to be spelled out in legislation.

The discussion follows Post revelations that foreign governments are funding of Breaking the Silence, which last week added its voice to a number of NGOs that have issued scathing reports of the IDF's activities in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

Israel has already contacted the Dutch and British governments about their funding of the organization, and is expected to soon take up the matter with the Spanish government as well.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry's agency for international development cooperation budgeted 80,000 for Breaking the Silence in 2009. It allocated 100,000 for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and another 80,000 for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a group led by far-left activist Jeff Halper.

Halper was arrested last year for setting sail from Cyprus for the Gaza Strip in a symbolic effort to break Israel's blockade of the Strip.

The Post has learned that the Spanish Foreign Ministry agency has also committed itself to giving 70,000 this year to Rabbis for Human Rights.

Ron Dermer, chief of policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office, decried the funding of political NGOs by foreign governments as a "blatant and unacceptable" intervention into Israel's internal affairs.

"Just as it would be unacceptable for European governments to support anti-war NGOs in the US, it is unacceptable for the Europeans to support local NGOs opposed to the policies of Israel's democratically-elected government," he said.

Moreover, Dermer said, what makes it worse is that some of the NGOs are not merely opposed to specific policies, but "are working to delegitimize the Jewish state."

Juan Gonzales, the No. 2 at the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv, said money his government gave the NGOs was based on the principles of "Spanish cooperation" and that it was not always easy to judge and decide which groups should get funds. He said he did not know on what grounds it was decided to support the various NGOs in Israel.

Also among the left-wing groups known to receive foreign funding are Peace Now, B'Tselem and Machsom Watch, which focus on Israel's treatment of Palestinians and settlements.

Gonzales said there might be some instances where such donations might raise concern from one of the countries where the NGOs operate, and in that case Madrid would be open to a dialogue. The Spanish government had not received any complaint from Israel on the matter, he said.

Israel's embassy in Madrid had no comment.

Breaking the Silence issued a statement earlier this week accusing the Foreign Ministry of a "witch hunt" in raising the issue with foreign governments, saying this testified to the erosion of the "democratic culture" in Israel.

"Attempts to silence voices in Israeli society are dangerous," the group said. "It appears that the Foreign Ministry is getting ideas from the darkest regimes where anyone who points to failures is considered a traitor."

Shortly after it was revealed last week that the British, Dutch and Spanish governments had funded Breaking the Silence, the Foreign Ministry sent directives to all its representatives abroad to begin to raise the problematic nature of funding political NGOs with their local governments.

This is part of new government policy, first reported by the Post three weeks ago, to take a more proactive stance against NGOs very critical of Israel. Officials articulated this policy after receiving reports that Human Rights Watch, a consistently harsh critic of Israel, had engaged in fund-raising in Saudi Arabia, using its criticism of Israel as a sales pitch.

Another manifestation of the government's new policy toward the NGOs was the release by the government on Thursday of a 164-page report on Operation Cast Lead, meant to counter the numerous reports released over the last few weeks by various NGOs. The government paper is titled "The Operation in Gaza - Legal and Factual Aspects."

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that this report was the "definitive Israeli version" of the events in Gaza, and addressed a wide range of factual and international legal issues.

The report was prepared by officials in the Foreign, Justice and Defense ministries, as well as with the IDF. An indication of its target audience is the fact that the report was written in English, and not translated into Hebrew.

Foreign Ministry officials said the report aimed to do something that Israel has accused the various NGOs of omitting, namely describing in detail the context of the Gaza operation - documenting the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians prior to the offensive, as well as Israel's efforts to prevent the attacks and avoid the conflict.

According to a statement put out by the Foreign Ministry, the paper contains "an extensive legal analysis of the legal principles and of state practice regarding the use of force and examines in detail the application of the principles of necessity, distinction and proportionality. In particular, with photographic and video evidence, it documents the tactics adopted by Hamas in launching attacks from within civilian populations and describes the IDF precautions and efforts to limit civilian harm in such situations."

The paper also gives details of the IDF investigations into allegations made by various groups of violations of the law.

Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, said the NGOs have for years "mixed false claims, pure speculation, and bias in their 'research reports,' without responses from the Israeli government. This detailed report represents a fundamental change, presenting a point-by-point refutation of NGO allegations, including white phosphorous use and denial of use of human shields by Hamas."

The report shifts the burden of proof to the NGOs, which "must now provide evidence for their claims that is more credible than testimony from Palestinians and a handful of anonymous Israeli soldiers," Steinberg said.


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