Draft Israeli laws target human rights while Israeli protestors focus on cottage cheese

By: Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

At a time when democracy appears to be on the march across the Middle East, it seems to be in retreat in Israel. While across the Arab world people are protesting and risking their lives to bring down oppressive regimes, in Israel the right-wing government is currently manoeuvring to further inhibit the work of local human rights organisations. Two new laws that directly target organisations working to improve human rights among Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory were recently proposed by members of Likud and Israel Beitenu, the right-wing party of Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The draft laws would impose restrictions on these organisations in receiving funding from foreign donors. As this is the most important source of funding for such organisations, these laws would, if passed, severely restrict their operations and could even lead to their closure.

Under pressure from European countries, the US and the EU, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to shelve or freeze the bills on 20 November this year. In response to this, the initiators of the bills drafted new versions. These versions are bluntly political and target organisations that are considered to: ‘negate the existence of the State of Israel; incite racism; support armed struggle against the State of Israel; support indictment of elected officials and IDF soldiers in international courts; call for refusal to serve the IDF and support a boycott of the State of Israel or its citizens’. The politicians behind these laws argue that foreign states, including Norway, are ‘interfering in the internal political discourse in the State of Israel, in order to create de-legitimisation of the actions of the IDF and its soldiers. Foreign money funds the activities of organisations which call themselves “Israeli” but act against the IDF.’

According to the Alternative Information Centre, the organisations that are being targeted cooperated with the UN-sponsored Goldstone report on Israel’s December 2008 – January 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip. If the new bills become law, organisations that would likely be rendered completely unable to receive foreign funding include Adalah – the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; Yesh Gvul, an Israeli peace group campaigning against the occupation by backing soldiers who refuse duties of a repressive or aggressive nature; and Coalition of Women for Peace, a feminist peace organization which opposes the occupation of Palestinian territory. Other organisations that would be adversely affected are B’tselem – the Israeli information centre for human rights in the occupied territories, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. Thus, the proposed laws target both organisations working directly with the concerns of Palestinians citizens of Israel, left-wing Jewish Israelis, as well as organisations working in the occupied Palestinian territory. These latter organisations are of direct and indirect relevance for Palestinians in Israel who are active in the organisations targeted, in addition to generally being concerned with the human rights situation of their families, friends and co-nationalists in the occupied territory.

According to Adalah, ‘The bills are part of an ongoing, calculated policy to silence voices of dissent and criticism and go hand in hand with attempts to restrict Israel’s Supreme Court, the media, and human rights activists.’ NGO spokespersons and politicians from the centre and leftwing parties called the proposed laws an attack on Israeli democracy. For example, Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla from the centrist Kadima party said: ‘The coalition is leading us to a fascist regime… They are trying to silence opponents and defy every democratic value’. Even the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, condemned the proposed laws, saying that they make him ashamed.

Perversely, the targeting of organisations representing the interests of the weakest members of Israeli society (and those suffering under the yoke of its 44-year-old occupation) is taking place shortly after Israel saw the largest social protests in the history of the state. This summer and autumn saw unprecedented numbers of Israelis out on the streets, taking over public spaces with tents in scenes reminiscent of other mass protests occurring around the globe this year. While the original spark in Israel appears to have been the exceptionally high cost of cottage cheese, the protests addressed an array of issues, including high living costs, low-quality and expensive education, insufficient welfare, and inequality among Israel’s citizens.

Of all the social groups that comprise Israeli citizenry, Israel’s Palestinian citizens suffer the greatest discrimination and thus it might be thought that they would have more reason than most to protest for social justice. Yet that was not the case.  Judging by their make-up and their agenda, the recent protests were mobilised almost exclusively by and for the Jewish majority. Palestinian citizens of Israel did not participate in significant numbers and several expressed feelings of alienation by the Jewish nationalistic discourse and by the lack of any reference to the Israeli occupation or the Israeli-Arab conflict in the protests. To illustrate, a common slogan at the protests was ‘We are all Jews!’ The protestors included settlers, as well as left-wing activists, and the protests often culminated in the singing of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva (‘The Hope’).

Thus, it appears that although its leaders were partially inspired by the protests carried out in neighbouring states, Israel’s protest movement was not enlightened enough to include Israel’s own discriminated national minority. According to a poll conducted by the Abraham Fund, which works for equality and coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, 60% of Israel’s Palestinian citizens viewed the protests positively, and are interested in cooperation with the Jewish majority. Some also participated in the protests by erecting tents in their own localities where they highlighted issues of concern for their community. However, its seems symptomatic that at a recent conference about the protests, also organized by the Abraham Fund, one (Arab) speaker commented that during the protests he was pleasantly surprised to experience dialogue with Jewish activists from beyond the peace camp and that they ‘even talked about the occupation’. As the Abraham Fund concluded from the poll, the protests represent a missed opportunity by its Jewish leadership to invite and engage with the issues of concern for Palestinian citizens of Israel. One of the protest leaders responded that ‘We understood immediately that as long we only talk about the conflict, we are perpetuating the degenerated economic system’. In other words, it appears that a clear decision was made by at the protest movement’s leadership level to put the concerns of the Palestinians (including Palestinian citizens of Israel) aside in order to focus on the supposedly ‘non-political’ social issues.

Perhaps the leaders of the recent social protests in Israel were not brave enough to invite Israel’s indigenous Arab minority to participate in the protests for fear that doing so would create a rift in the movement. Or perhaps the movement’s leaders were simply uninterested in the affairs and concerns of their Palestinian co-citizens. As pointed out by Amira Hass, these bills are dangerous even if they are not passed (at this stage), first of all because they may pass in a slightly different version later; and secondly because they change the public discourse and slowly but surely makes mutilation of basic rights legitimate. This attitude, furthermore, travels down to the street and influences people behaviour towards the Palestinian minority in Israel and in the occupied Palestinians territory: ‘Every bill of this kind touches the red line and the line continues to become blurred. Another few bills and the red line will be completely obliterated.’

In any event, by failing to integrate Palestinian citizens of Israel into their movement, the protests’ leaders not only missed an opportunity to bridge the ethnic divide, they also missed the bigger picture. Perhaps most strikingly, it appears that the movement’s leadership failed to link the worsening economic conditions faced by all Israeli citizens to the costs associated with Israel continuing a belligerent foreign policy towards its neighbours and especially the resources required to maintain its occupation of Palestinian territory. According to Shir Hever, the occupation costs Israel 9 billion dollars yearly, which is 9% of the total budget of the Israeli government. This is perhaps one aspect of what Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi means when he refers to the ‘settlement-industrial complex’.

Now the same (Palestinian) citizens of Israel who were pointedly neglected by the protest movement are in danger of losing invaluable organisations like Adalah that fight against the odds to protect and advance their human rights and support them in their struggles to retain their land, oppose state-sponsored demolition of their homes, and gain equal access to education among other basic rights. However, these dangerous legislative developments do not seem to be a pressing concern to the Jewish majority, who have now retreated back into their homes. It is therefore left to the international community – and particularly to those donor countries whose financial support breathes life into NGOs in Israel – to build its own protest movement against the latest Orwellian assaults on democracy in the Middle East.