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Israel's controversial 'NGO bill' passes into law amid international criticism

July 12, 2016 9:56 A.M. (Updated: July 13, 2016 9:46 A.M.)
An Israeli flag, displayed on a roof of a settlement in East Jerusalem, is seen in front of the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Sept. 17, 2015 (AFP/Thomas Coex, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, passed the controversial “NGO bill” into law late Monday with 57 votes in favor and 48 against, following a contentious six-hour plenary debate, as human rights groups and opposition Knesset members condemned the legislation for seeking to “silence criticism” of Israel and delegitimize left-wing groups.

The legislation -- also referred to as the "transparency bill" -- compels organizations to reveal their sources of funding if more than 50 percent came from public foreign entities.

Organizations in Israel that rely on public foreign funding also tend to oppose the government’s right-wing policies and human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Meanwhile, the law would not affect right-wing organizations who rely largely on private funding from overseas.

“The very existence of this law aims to harm and prevent a specific type of organization from acting proudly for the sake of Israeli society,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The law is but one of a series of bills and initiatives that oppose legitimate social and political action. Instead of facilitating debate, there are individuals who wish to silence criticism.”

The Israeli human rights watchdog Peace Now also condemned the bill’s passage, saying that the law was “a blatant violation of freedom of expression.”

“While the law will delegitimize left-wing organizations, pro-settler NGOs who receive millions of dollars in foreign donations without any transparency will remain unaffected,” the group said.

Peace Now also announced that they would be challenging the new legislation in Israel’s Supreme Court.

The bill was first introduced by Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, who claimed that the law would crack down on groups who receive foreign funds in order to criticize Israel.

Shaked argued during Monday night’s debate that Israeli human rights organizations receiving funding from foreign entities was comparable to if the state of Israel funded extra-parliamentary organizations in Britain that supported the UK’s exit from the European Union.

“Until now, we accepted [ such foreign intervention] with bowed heads. Our heads are bowed no longer. This law is about nothing more than transparency.”

Gilad Grossman, spokesman for rights group Yesh Din -- one of the groups singled out in the bill -- told Ma'an last month that the bill was an attempt to "paint human rights organizations as foreign agents."

Earlier this month, the list of NGOs singled out in the bill was released by The Jerusalem Post, revealing that 23 out of the 25 organizations were left-wing groups, with the two other groups reportedly being centrist or non-affiliated.

No right-wing organizations were listed, confirming fears among Israel’s left that the bill was proposed as an attempt to disrupt the activities of left-wing organizations in Israel.

The modified version of the bill that passed in the Knesset last month required relevant NGOs to make their funding public on all written publications or correspondences with public officials if more than half their funding came from foreign bodies.

Failure to do so would result in fines of up to 29,200 shekels ($7,500).

The current law no longer forces representatives of the NGOs to wear name tags with the name of their organizations displayed during Knesset meetings, and does not require representatives to announce their funding sources before speaking during Knesset meetings, as had initially been proposed.

The relevant organizations are instead required to declare their funding sources to the Knesset committee in order to attend a government hearing.

During the Knesset debate over the bill on Monday night, MK Ayman Odeh of the Joint List addressed the bill’s supporters, arguing that being listed as one of the affected NGOs was “a badge of honor,” saying the groups were “only strengthened by your campaign of delegitimization.”

“You chose to persecute two kinds of organizations: those working for equality and those battling against the occupation. With that, you’ve clearly marked your enemies -- peace and equality,” Odeh said.

Opposition leader in the Knesset Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Camp party slammed the law for “symbolizing the budding fascism that is rising and flourishing in Israeli society” and making a “mockery” of the “right to organize, which is a sacred founding principle of a democratic society.”

He argued that some of the groups targeted by the law “advance noble goals of women’s equality, equality for the gay community, for minorities, for the weak, the needy, the destitute, the poor.”

Many organizations turn to foreign governments “because this government has failed” to advance those issues, Herzog said.

MK Michal Rozin of the left-wing Meretz party addressed the plenum saying: “Let us not be confused: the purpose of this law is the targeted killing of a precise list of organizations that are identified with the left in Israel.”

Yael German of the centrist Yesh Atid party argued the legislation “also hurts the right” through its shaming of leftist groups.

“We have to decide whether we want to support a discriminatory, unequal law which seeks to impose fear and limit freedom of expression, or whether we are loyal to the principles of our leaders from the right and left, while safeguarding our democracy.”

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