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Israeli HR Groups Position Paper 2010 ENG [Knesset Legislation Proposal on Disclosure Requirements for Recipients of Support From a Foreign Political Entity]

Israeli HR Groups Position Paper 2010 ENG [Knesset Legislation Proposal on Disclosure Requirements for Recipients of Support From a Foreign Political Entity]

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Published by Didi Remez
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Published by: Didi Remez on May 30, 2010
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10/24/2012

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Position Paper
 
Government-Backed Legislation Curtailing ForeignFunding Seeks to Undermine Civil Society in Israel
 
1. Background: Governmental Attempts to Narrow the Space in which HumanRights Groups Operate
 While the Israeli government's attitude toward human rights groups that provideassistance to Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territory has always been ambivalent,until recently, human rights groups in Israel could operate with relative freedom.Freedom of speech and association were relatively protected, and we interacted on aprofessional level with military and government authorities through limited proceduresfor administrative appeal. In recent months, however, and especially since the Israelimilitary operation in Gaza (December 27, 2008-January 18, 2009), the Israeli governmenthas sought to undermine the legitimacy of human rights groups, especially those whodefend human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). The Israeli Security  Agency (Shin Bet or Shabac) interrogated a Palestinian citizen of Israel working at ahuman rights organization, warning him not to engage in "political activities" concerning Gaza; the police opened a criminal investigation and arrested staff members of an Israeligroup supporting conscientious objection from military service; the governmentlaunched a public attack against a group that published testimonies of soldiers whoserved in the Gaza offensive, including asking European governments to stop funding the organization through their human rights programs; and police arrested and detainedmore than 830 protesters, especially Palestinian citizens of Israel, while protesting againstthe military attack on Gaza. From September to November 2009, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories office in Gaza shunned Israeli human rightsgroups, refusing to respond to appeals on behalf of Gaza residents seeking exit permits,even in dire humanitarian circumstances, until heavy pressure was exerted by theinternational community and the State Attorney's office. Sporadic refusal to respond tohuman rights groups representing Palestinian residents continues. In February 2010,Israeli lawmakers voted to establish a parliamentary sub-committee to "investigate"human rights groups in Israel which are supported by the New Israel Fund. Although nosuch committee has been formed, the pretext for this investigation is that the groupsprovided information to the Goldstone Fact-Finding Mission, which inquired into theIsraeli military operation in Gaza. Government spokespersons have given interviews inthe media calling human rights groups "a strategic threat", casting them as traitors andspreading misinformation about their activities.
 
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 We are witnessing an unprecedented attempt to interfere with the activities of Israelihuman rights groups.
 These governmental attempts to narrow the space in whichhuman rights groups in Israel operate form the context for a proposed law torestrict the ability of Israeli human rights groups – and a host of additional civilsociety organizations – to receive funding from foreign governmental sources.2. The Proposed Law 
Status of the Bill 
On February 14, 2010, the Israeli government voted (by a vote of 8-3 of the MinisterialCommittee on Legislation) to support a legislative bill entitled the "Bill on disclosurerequirements for recipients of support from a foreign political entity – 2010". Civil
 
society groups have expressed their grave concern over this bill, which passed apreliminary vote (58-11) in the Knesset plenum on February 17, 2010 and is scheduled tobe brought for a full vote in the next Knesset session, after the Passover holiday. The proposed legislation, steps away from being approved as law, would restrict theactivities of a host of organizations working on a broad spectrum of issues in Israel andthe oPt – from environmental groups to peace organizations to organizations thatpromote human rights. While the legislation purports to increase transparency concerning foreign funding of NGOs, in reality it will infringe on the ability of a wide variety of social changeorganizations to conduct their work by undermining public legitimacy and limiting funding opportunities.
The Bill in a Nutshell 
  The bill would define civil society groups that work to influence public opinion orgovernmental policy as engaging in "political activity" and require them to register withthe "Political Parties Registrar". Should they fail to do so, principal activists within thesegroups would face fines and imprisonment of up to one year.Moreover, the bill would force representatives of civil society groups – including lawyers,doctors, and other professionals – to state in every private and public platform related totheir advocacy work, including public meetings, events, and media interviews, that theirorganizations receive funding from "foreign political entities".Finally, according to the bill, the tax-exempt charity status of NGOs promoting policy change would be revoked, threatening the ability of donors to support their work.
Treating Civil Society Groups as Political Parties 
 The bill would characterize nonaffiliated civil society organizations as "political parties",effectively creating a duplicative regime of regulation. Currently the Law of Associationsof 1980 regulates the registration, organization, and financial reporting of Israeli NGOs
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 ). NGOs working for social change are not affiliated with political parties butrather seek to promote issues or ideas – human rights, environmental protection, women's rights, peace, religious pluralism, tolerance – and to promote policy changesthat serve the public interest. In fact, the NGO community in Israel plays a key role in
 
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providing information and professional expertise on issues such as civil rights, healthcare, education, environment, housing, employment, immigration, minority rights, and women's rights, among others, and appealing to decision-makers across the politicalspectrum to promote these issues. The bill, however, characterizes civil society groups that work on these issues asconducting "political activity", a term it defines as activity seeking to influence "publicopinion… or any actor within any governmental authority". Given this extremely broadand vague definition, the bill mandates that civil society groups register with theRegistrar for Political Parties (a government agency) and report to the Registrar on any funding they receive from "foreign political entities". It is not clear what status the billintends to impose on human rights organizations, as it is unlikely they would be treatedas political parties for purposes of receiving the Israeli government funding that politicalparties receive, and they would also continue to be regulated by the Registrar of  Associations. The practical meaning of this definition is that all groups promoting human rights andsocial change will now be subject to far-reaching government regulations on registrationand reporting. Should they fail to comply, principal activists within these groups will forthe first time face severe penalties, including one year in prison or fines. In addition, formember-based organizations, the bill will make registration of members' identity numbers and addresses compulsory. This information can also be disclosed to thepublic, potentially allowing for harassment and discouraging participation. The bill thusundermines the ability of various constituencies in Israel to engage in a vigorousdemocratic debate for fear of being portrayed as political activists or being exposed andundermined for their involvement with social change organizations.
Imposing Speech Burdens that Undermine Critical Voices 
 The unrealistic and unnecessary requirements of the law would force any spokespersonfor an organization to announce, in any written material, electronic communication,meeting, interview, or public appearance related to advocacy, public or private, that herorganization receives funding from "foreign political entities". This provision not only places an unreasonable burden on the shoulders of public speakers but, moreimportantly, its ultimate goal is to taint these speakers and their message as illegitimate orserving foreign interests. To give an example: The executive director of a women's rights organization is invited tobe interviewed on the radio to promote a change in government policy regarding domestic violence. In the 30 seconds allotted for her comments, she would also need toannounce that foreign government donors support the work of her organization. Thesame "disclosure" requirement would apply to a private conversation with a member of the public, an e-mail response to a question from an ordinary citizen, or a writtenadvertisement against domestic violence, so long as those communications are aimed atinfluencing public opinion or public policy. Volunteers and experts representing NGOs will also be required to announce themselves as recipients of foreign government sourcesof funding at every opportunity, a burden that would potentially deter them frombecoming involved in social change activities.

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