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New Israeli NGO law targets human rights groups critical of government

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 13 July 2016.

Israel's new law regulating nongovernmental organizations targets human rights organizations and other groups that criticize the government with onerous reporting requirements about donations from foreign governments. The law, written in a way to exempt many organizations that support government policies and settlement activities, including those that receive foreign private donations, sets back freedom of association in Israel.

“Israel's new NGO law subjects groups such as human rights organizations and political groups that criticize the current government to expensive, inconvenient, and redundant requirements,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine director.

The Knesset, Israel's parliament, passed the law in the early morning hours of July 12, 2016, after months of parliamentary and diplomatic wrangling. The law requires Israeli nonprofit groups that receive more than half their funding, directly or indirectly, from foreign governments to note that fact in communications with the public and with government officials, and to refer readers of their reports to donor lists posted on the Israeli nonprofit registrar's website. The requirement applies to the groups' Internet communications; TV, newspaper, and other advertisements; letters and e-mails to government officials; reports and other publications; and participation in parliamentary committee hearings. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to approximately US$7,500.

According to Israel's Justice Ministry, the law would apply to 25 groups, most of them human rights organizations, organizations run by Palestinian citizens of Israel, or advocacy or research groups associated with the political left – that is, opponents of the current government. Most of them are critical of the Israeli government's policies regarding Palestinians, asylum-seekers and other non-Jews. The law does not apply to groups that receive funding from nongovernmental foreign donors, as many groups supporting Israeli settlement activities do.

The reporting requirements would take effect in June 2018, based on funding received in 2017.

The law's stated purpose is to “increase the transparency regarding funding for nonprofit organizations in Israel.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supported the law, said that it would end an “absurd situation in which foreign countries interfere in Israel's internal matters by funding NGOs without the Israeli public being aware of it.”

European and American diplomats, as well as Israeli legal scholars and human rights groups, have criticized the law for stigmatizing human rights organizations and certain political groups and for creating an unreasonable burden on their ability to communicate freely.

Existing legislation already required Israeli nongovernmental groups to list their donors and to publicly and prominently report donations received from foreign governmental – but not private – sources four times each year. Under the new law's provisions, a human rights organization or other group under the law's ambit that sends an email to a government agency without noting its funding status risks being fined $7,500.

Human Rights Watch noted the importance of transparency but said that requirements should be applied in a nondiscriminatory and proportionate manner and should not appear to target groups that are critical of the government.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association has warned against “frequent, onerous and bureaucratic reporting requirements, which can eventually unduly obstruct the legitimate work carried out by associations.” He concluded that “controls need therefore to be fair, objective and non-discriminatory, and not be used as a pretext to silence critics.”

“If the Israeli government were truly concerned about transparency, it would treat all groups the same – not appear to target those that criticize the government's policies,” Bashi said.

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