In a bid to staunch the flow of damaging evidence of war crimes committed during Israel’s winter assault on Gaza, the Israeli government has launched a campaign to clamp down on human rights groups, both in Israel and abroad.
It has begun by targeting one of the world’s leading rights organisations, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), as well as a local group of dissident army veterans, Breaking the Silence, which last month published the testimonies of 26 combat soldiers who served in Gaza.
Additionally, according to the Israeli media, the government is planning a “much more aggressive stance” towards human rights groups working to help the Palestinians.
Officials have questioned the sources of funding received by the organisations and threatened legislation to ban support from foreign governments, particularly in Europe.
Breaking the Silence and other Israeli activists have responded by accusing the government of a “witch hunt” designed to intimidate them and starve them of the funds needed to pursue their investigations.
“This is a very dangerous step,” said Mikhael Mannekin, one of the directors of Breaking the Silence. “Israel is moving in a very anti-democratic direction.”
The campaign is reported to be the brainchild of the far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, currently facing corruption charges, but has the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Early last month, Mr Lieberman used a press conference to accuse non-government organisations, or NGOs, of replacing diplomats in setting the international community’s agenda in relation to Israel. He also threatened reforms to curb the groups’ influence.
A week later, Mr Netanyahu’s office weighed in against Human Rights Watch, heavily criticising the organisation for its recent fund-raising activities in Saudi Arabia.
HRW has pointed out that it only accepts private donations, and has not accepted Saudi government funds, but Israeli officials say all Saudi money is tainted and will compromise HRW’s impartiality as a human rights watchdog in its treatment of Israel.
“A human rights organisation raising money in Saudi Arabia is like a women’s rights group asking the Taliban for a donation,” Mark Regev, a government spokesman, told the right-wing Israeli daily newspaper the Jerusalem Post.
HRW recently published reports arguing that the Israeli army had committed war crimes in Gaza, including the use of white phosphorus and attacking civilian targets.
HRW is now facing concerted pressure from Jewish lobby groups and from leading Jewish journalists in the US to sever its ties with Saudi donors. According to the Israeli media, some Jewish donors in the US have also specified that their money be used for human rights investigations that do not include Israel.
Meanwhile, Israel’s foreign ministry is putting pressure on European governments to stop funding many of Israel’s human rights groups. As a prelude to a clampdown, it has issued instructions to all its embassies abroad to question their host governments about whether they fund such activities.
Last week the foreign ministry complained to British, Dutch and Spanish diplomats about their support for Breaking the Silence.
The testimonies collected from soldiers suggested the Israeli army had committed many war crimes in Gaza, including using Palestinians as human shields and firing white phosphorus shells over civilian areas. One soldier called the army’s use of firepower “insane”.
The Dutch government paid nearly 20,000 euros to the group to compile its Gaza report, while Britain funded its work last year to the tune of £40,000.
Israeli officials are reported to be discussing ways either to make it illegal for foreign governments to fund “political” organisations in Israel or to force such groups to declare themselves as “agents of a foreign government”.
“Just as it would be unacceptable for European governments to support anti-war NGOs in the US, it is unacceptable for the Europeans to support local NGOs opposed to the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government,” said Ron Dermer, a senior official in Mr Netanyahu’s office.
He added that many of the groups were “working to delegitimise the Jewish state”.
Jeff Halper, the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, said the government’s position was opposed to decades-old developments in human rights monitoring.
“Every dictator, from Hitler to Milosevic, has said that there must be no interference in their sovereign affairs, and that everyone else should butt out. But international law says human rights are universal and cannot be left to individual governments to interpret. The idea behind the Geneva Conventions is that the international community has a duty to be the watchdog on human rights abuses wherever they occur.”
Mr Halper, whose organisation last year received 80,000 euros from Spain to rebuild demolished Palestinian homes, was arrested last year for sailing to Gaza with peace activists to break the siege of Gaza.
Other groups reported to be in the foreign ministry’s sights are: B’Tselem, whose activities include providing Palestinians with cameras to record abuses by settlers and the army; Peace Now, which monitors settlement building; Machsom Watch, whose activists observe soldiers at the checkpoints; and Physicians for Human Rights, which has recently examined doctors’ complicity in torture.
The government’s new approach mirrors a long-running campaign against leftwing and Arab human rights groups inside Israel conducted by NGO Monitor, a rightwing lobby group led by Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv.
NGO Monitor has also targeted international organisations such as Oxfam and Amnesty, but has shown a particular obsession with HRW. Mr Steinberg recently boasted that HRW’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May reflected the loss of major Jewish sponsors in the US following the publication of its Gaza reports.
In an article in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Mr Steinberg claimed that European governments treated their funding of Israeli human rights organisations “as ‘top secret’, reflecting the realization that such activities lack legitimacy”.
Mr Mannekin said the Breaking the Silence report listed donors on the first page. “We are far more transparent than NGO Monitor. We don’t know who funds them.”
NGO Monitor, which according to its website is chiefly funded by the shadowy Wechsler Family Foundation in the US, is closely linked to Dore Gold, a hawkish former adviser to Ariel Sharon.
Mr Mannekin added: “The government cannot suppress information about what happened in Gaza by shutting us down. You can’t send 10,000 soldiers into battle and not expect that some of the details will come out. If it’s not us doing it, it’ll be someone else.”
The government’s current campaign follows a police raid on the homes of six Israeli women peace activists in April.
The women, all members of New Profile, a feminist organisation that opposes the militarisation of Israeli society, were arrested and accused of helping Israeli youngsters to evade the draft. The women are still waiting to learn whether they will be prosecuted.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.