Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian
January 5, 2011 - 1:00am

The funding of Israeli human and civil rights groups is to be investigated amid claims they are acting against the country's interests, members of the Israeli parliament decided today – a move described by opponents as "McCarthyite".

A bill brought by members of the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose leader is the controversial foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, proposed a parliamentary commission of inquiry into groups monitoring the activities of the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank.

The supporters of the bill claimed the groups' work was "delegitimising" Israel and was funded by anti-Israeli international bodies.

The bill was approved by 47 votes to 16 following a heated debate in the Knesset, during which security guards were present.

The vote was immediately condemned by rights organisations expecting to be investigated. They claimed the bill was part of a larger campaign to intimidate groups and individuals who speak out against the actions of the Israeli state.

"Israeli democracy took a severe blow today," Hagai el-Ad, the director of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), said.

"The goal is to eventually weaken human rights groups and make them less effective in exposing, questioning and affecting government policies.

"Time and again, members of the current Knesset have shown, that instead of dealing with the content of the criticism voiced, they prefer to silence and vilify those who voice such opinions."

The commission of inquiry – which ACRI and two members of the Knesset compared to the 1950s McCarthyite witchhunts in the US – is of symbolic importance rather than a body with real power. It has no authority to compel individuals to give evidence or documents to be submitted.

Its supporters claimed the targeted groups are backed by "international groups ... with the goal of damaging the legitimacy of the activities of IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] soldiers, encouraging draft-dodging and branding IDF soldiers and commanders as war criminals".

They said the purpose of the commission was to investigate the funding of the groups, rather than their activities. The panel will examine suggestions that some rights organisations are funded by bodies with links to terrorist activities.

However, more than a dozen Israeli organisations expecting to be targeted issued a joint statement saying they had nothing to hide and that comprehensive lists of donors were available on their websites and in annual reports.

ACRI, B'tselem, Physicians for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel are among the groups expected to be investigated.

B'Tselem said the move was an attempt "to hinder our work through smears and incitement".

Its work, it added, was "conducted legally and with complete transparency. Persecution and attempts at silencing will not stop us. In a democracy, criticism of the government is not only legitimate – it is essential".

Fania Kirshenbaum, who proposed the bill, told the Knesset the groups were "behind the indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world ... these organisations are responsible for branding IDF soldiers as war criminals and encourage defamations".

Before the debate, Nitzan Horowitz, of the leftwing Meretz party, described the proposal as a "shame on the Knesset". "All to whom Israeli democracy is dear must oppose this committee of persecution," he said.

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) described the move as "an affront to democratic values".

"No human rights organisation has succeeded in harming Israel in the way those Israeli politicians who introduce and support such despotic initiatives damage Israeli society," Ishai Menuchin, PCATI's executive director, said.

"If [Kirshenbaum] is worried about what the world will think about Israel, then she should introduce legislation that would end impunity and force all complaints of human rights violations to be independently and impartially investigated."

The bill will be considered by a parliamentary committee before being returned to the full Knesset for a further vote.

Civil and human rights organisations in Israel are concerned about other bills that have been presented to MPs, including moves to impose heavy fines on Israeli citizens backing boycotts of the country, a call for greater transparency on the foreign funding of rights groups and the demand that new non-Jewish citizens must pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Israeli police are to investigate two Facebook groups calling for "death to Arabs" and urging acts of violence.


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