Israel puts pressure on human-rights organisations
TEL AVIV // Just months after Israel ended its invasion of the Gaza Strip more than two years ago, life became more challenging for Sari Bashi and her human-rights group Gisha.
Right-wing government officials, legislators and pressure groups, angered at charges by rights organisations that Israel had committed war crimes during the attack, launched a campaign to discredit groups such as Gisha, which uses legal aid to help loosen Israeli restrictions on Gaza Strip residents.
For Gisha, that campaign included battling a bid by tax authorities to cancel the group's tax exemption on donated money. The authorities, Ms Bashi said, claimed Gisha did not deserve the exemption because helping Palestinians did not benefit the Israeli public.
Gisha has also been under pressure in the court system. In February, a judge made the unusual move of ordering Gisha to cover the state's legal fees after rejecting the organisation's petition to force Israel to allow seven Gaza women to travel to Jerusalem. The judge appeared to aim at deterring Gisha from challenging the military's decisions, Ms Bashi said.
"The government is setting the tone by openly criticizing and attacking the legitimacy of human-rights organisations - and other actors within society are picking up on that," Ms Bashi, 35, a Yale-trained attorney, said in an interview in Gisha's Tel Aviv office.
"These are all examples of the government sending a strong message that dissent is not legitimate in a democracy, and that is very dangerous."
Hardliners in the predominantly right-wing government have been steaming ahead in acting against human-rights groups.
Paliamentary initiatives included calling for official probes against groups accused of "anti-Israeli activities" and into the foreign funding of such organisations. One potentially damaging bill would obligate rights organisations to pay a 45 per cent tax on donations from foreign governments or entities - a major source of their money.
At the same time, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's far-right foreign minister, has branded as "terror organisations" groups such as Adalah, which lobbies for Palestinian legal rights, and Breaking The Silence, which encourages Israeli soldiers to report army violations against Palestinians.
But activists are fighting back, hoping to gather public support. Ms Bashi said that Gisha and another group, Physicians for Human Rights, last year raised US$40,000 (Dh146,926) from US investor George Soros's Open Society Institute to pay for holding a conference with Israeli journalists, politicians, government officials and academics - including critics of rights advocates - to discuss their work. Ms Bashi and other leading Israeli rights activists have also initiated a monthly forum to debate how to respond to the hostility.
Gisha has also sought creative ways to gain Israelis' understanding of its efforts to help Gazans. It posted a two-and-a-half-minute animated video on YouTube at the end of May, which has already been viewed more than 11,100 times, showing how Israel still controls Gaza despite its 2005 pullout from the territory. It also distributed via social networking websites a computer game conveying the hardships of Gazans trying to travel to the West Bank.
Some other groups have pursued a more aggressive approach. Adalah in July joined two other organisations that have also been blasted by Mr Lieberman as "terrorist" entities to publicly demand the foreign minister withdraw his parliamentary immunity so that they could sue him for libel.
Adalah this year also hired an advocacy expert to lobby European Union governments to continue their financial backing of the group amid Israeli efforts to persuade EU officials to curb their funding of Israeli human-rights organisations.
Adalah has become a frequent target of the Israeli Right. Two of its donors, Geneva-based Welfare Association and Ramallah-based NGO Development Centre, have been attacked by the right-wing group Im Tirtzu, which claimed they were funded by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Like Gisha, Adalah's legal activities have also been affected by Israel's right-wing shift. Rina Rosenberg, the group's international advocacy director, said Israeli courts have become more reluctant to issue decisions that were favourable towards Palestinians or less willing to force the state to comply with its rulings.
For example, there has still been no ruling on Adalah's 2007 petition against an Israeli law that prevents Palestinians, as well as citizens from states regarded as enemies by Israel, who marry Israeli Arabs from obtaining residency permits in Israel.
Ms Bashi said she is optimistic that the hostility would eventually subside because in recent months the attacks have also faced condemnation from some important officials in the ruling Likud party.
Benny Begin, a respected rightwing minister and son of Menachem Begin, said in January that parliamentary moves to probe into human-rights groups are dangerous and that such organisations contribute to Israeli democracy.
"The government is trying to narrow the space in which human rights groups operate, and that is scary for a lot of people," said Ms Bashi. "But as things get worse, we are actually finding more allies who may not support our work but who are concerned about Israeli democracy."
Published: August 7, 2011 04:00 AM