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28 Feb. '10: Knesset takes steps to silence human rights organizations

Human rights organizations in Israel are facing a dangerous trend of restriction of their activity, which has even gone so far as to challenge the very legitimacy of their work. Along with a slanderous campaign against the New Israel Fund, and following a series of outrageous statements made by Israeli officials against the activity of human rights organizations, an attempt is now under way to restrict their activity by legislation. Knesset members from the Right and Center are presently seeking enactment of the Proposed “Requirement of Disclosure Relating to Anyone Supported by a Foreign Political Entity” Law. Prior to submission of the bill, the media reported that the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset had decided to establish a special subcommittee to investigate the transfer of donations from foreign organizations and governments to Israeli non-profit organizations. The decision was cancelled following intensive lobbying by organizations in Israel and by the international community.

The declared objective of the proposed law is to “promote transparency.” However, this fundamental principle is already protected in the statute books, and B'Tselem and other organizations take care to uphold it. Study of the bill shows that, in effect, it is intended to delegitimize human rights organizations, label their workers and volunteers as traitors, and impede their freedom of action.

The bill applies to any organization that engages in political activity, which is defined as any activity whose purpose is to affect public opinion or bring about change in policy. According to the proposal, every such organization wishing to receive donations from foreign countries will be required, as a pre-condition, to register with the Registrar of Political Parties, to file reports on the donations it receives, to publish on the Internet all information regarding the donations, and to mention on every document and at the beginning of every meeting or hearing and so forth that it receives donations from foreign entities.

The bill also imposes personal responsibility on office holders in the organizations, including board members, directors, and accountants, among others, and prescribes a prison sentence and fine for persons who contravene certain articles of the statute. In addition, organizations engaging in political activity, as defined by the law, will lose their status as a public institution as defined in the Income Tax Ordinance, and with it the exemptions currently given them.

Should the bill be enacted, the consequences will be grave. It will severely impede freedom of association in Israel; place Israel among the dubious states that deny civil-society organizations freedom of action; render registration of civil-society organizations as non-profit organizations meaningless; confuse the functions of the Registrar of Political Parties and the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations; and revoke the status of public institution (within its meaning in the Income Tax Ordinance) from hundreds of civil-society bodies in Israel that work in a wide variety of areas, such as environment, culture, health, human rights, and social change.

As a civil-society organization in Israel, B'Tselem condemns the attempt to question the legitimacy of these organizations and denounces the political actions seeking to enshrine this attitude in statute. One of the fundamental principles of democratic society is the freedom to criticize the government, and the action by Knesset members to silence these voices endangers civil society's ability to carry out its function.

The strength of a society is measured by its ability to maintain open debate on controversial matters, and the role of civil-society organizations is to ensure that such a debate can take place among persons from across the political and social board. B'Tselem welcomes substantive criticism of claims that the organization makes, inasmuch as such criticism centers on essence and not on the persons expressing them, which is nothing more than killing the messenger.