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Punishing the Messenger: Israel’s War on NGOs Takes a Worrying Turn

“You deserve to see your loved ones suffer and die. But, maybe, you would be hurt before them,” was part of a threatening message received by a staff member at ‘Al-Mezan’, a Gaza-based human rights group. The photo attached to the email was of the exterior of the activist’s home. The gist of the message: ‘we are coming for you.’

‘Al-Mezan’, along with three other Palestinian rights groups – ‘Al-Haq’, ‘Al Mezan’, ‘Aldameer’ and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – are actively pushing a case against Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing it of war crimes in Palestine, particularly during the war on Gaza in 2014.

In April 2015, the Palestinian Authority (PA) had officially signed the Rome Statute and, a few months later in November, the groups presented a substantial amount of evidence of Israel’s suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But even before these dates, the war on independent rights groups was already heating up. Restrictions on Israeli NGOs, especially those that challenge the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, are fairly recent. However, pressure, violence, restriction on movement, raiding of offices and arrests, have been a fixture of Israeli policy against Palestinian rights groups. The most recent episode is only one example.

“Since September 2015, several of the organizations have faced ruthless smear and intimidation campaigns seeking to discredit them and stoke insecurity among their staff,” Amjad Iraqi wrote in Israel’s +972Mag. “The harassment culminated in death threats made against two individuals: A senior Palestinian advocate with ‘Al-Mezan’ and Nada Kiswanson, a Palestinian-Swedish lawyer who is Al-Haq’s representative in The Hague.”

Israel is, no doubt, feeling embattled. Its carefully carved brand – that it is an oasis of democracy in an arid authoritarian desert – is now full of holes. Its occupation, wars and siege in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and the dissemination of images and information about such conduct throughout the internet and social media platforms is making it impossible for Israel to sustain its official hasbara. Thus, the angry backlash.

The Israeli Knesset has been busy passing laws and proposing bills aimed at restricting the work of its own rights groups, or any independent civil society organization that seems, in any way, critical of the government and sympathetic towards the Palestinians.

The ‘NGO Law’ is now in effect. It forces NGOs to declare their sources of funding and punishes those who refrain from doing so. It also levies heavy taxes on such funds, even when declared. The European Union, along with the United States Government warned Israel against such laws, but to no avail. The bill is written in too broad a terminology, thus making it possible for the government to target such organizations without appearing vindictive or politically-motivated.

“What is happening in Israel now is fascism,” said David Tartakover, who was quoted in the British Guardian newspaper. Tartakover, the artist who designed the logo for the Israeli ‘Peace Now’ campaign in the late 1970’s described ‘a slow creep of limitations’ that began in 1995 (following the assassination of Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, at the hands of a Jewish extremist), but one that accelerated in the last year.

One example includes the “Loyalty in Culture Bill”, which sounds like, according to Michael Griffiths, “something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.” But it is no fiction. This bill targets artists and authors, and withholds funding from organizations that promote any material deemed objectionable by Israel’s political establishment.

This led to the banning of “Borderlife”, an Israeli novel by Dorit Rabinyan, depicting a love story between a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman. Israel’s Minister of Education, the hardliner, Naftali Bannett, banned the novel on the pretext that it promotes ‘assimilation’ between the races.

With the ‘most rightwing government’ in Israeli’s history now in charge, and an equally hawkish parliament, the foray of contentious bills are likely to continue.

However, while Israel’s own organizations, rights groups and dissenting artists are targeted by bans, fines and withholding of funds, Palestinians are threatened with much more severe consequences.

To appreciate this more, one ought to look at the language used by a recent conference organized by Israeli newspaper, ‘Yediot Aharonot’.

According to investigative journalist, Richard Silverstein, the conference, which mainly attacked the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) “has become a veritable carnival of hate.”

“Everyone from delusional Hollywood celebrities to cabinet ministers, to the leader of the Opposition have pledged fealty to the cause,” he wrote.

Top officials included Intelligence Minister, Israel Katz, who called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. According to Silverstein, the phrase Katz used is “sikul ezrahi memukad” which “derives from the euphemistic Hebrew phrase for the targeted killing of a terrorist, which literally means ‘targeted thwarting’.”

Working hand in hand with various western governments, Israel’s official perception of the non-violent BDS movement is reaching the point of treating the civil society movement as if a criminal organization. BDS merely demands moral and legal accountably from western governments and corporations that contribute in any way to Israel’s violations of human rights and international law.

The recent death threats against rights activists who are pressing for respect of international law and for justice for thousands of Gazan civilians killed during recent wars is a natural progression of Israel’s relentless efforts.

While restricting the work of independent rights groups is quite common by Middle Eastern governments, Israel’s campaign is most dangerous for it receives little media coverage and, at times, outright support from the US and other western governments.

The latest of these was the recently passed legislation at the Democratic-led Legislature in the State of New Jersey, which was signed by Governor, Chris Christie. New Jersey is now the latest of US states that outlawed BDS and vowed to punish any company that joins the boycott of Israel campaign.

With little or no accountability, Israel will continue with its fight targeting NGOs, threatening activists and restricting the work of anyone that dares to be critical.

“What is happening in Israel now is fascism,” said Tartakover, and he is, of course, right.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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