Israel Declares War on Peace NGOs

JERUSALEM – One year after the devastating attack on Hamas in Gaza a new wave of reports castigating Israel for war crimes has emerged.

Now, Israel is fighting back with a report on the reports, picking on international NGOs such as Amnesty, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Trocaire , Finn Church Aid, Diakonia, and Cordaid.

The immediate target of Israeli ire is a collective report entitled "Failing Gaza: No rebuilding, no recovery, no more excuses," issued by these NGO, based in Europe.

"These organizations continue to exploit moral, legal, and humanitarian principles in order to promote political warfare against Israel. Many of the claims in this report are not supported by credible evidence, and reflect double standards," says Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, the right-wing Israeli NGO.

"Through this systematic bias regarding Israel, these NGOs have lost respectability, and the European governments that fund such attacks share responsibility for this abuse," says Steinberg.

Part of what inspires pro-peace NGOs operating in the troubled climate of the Middle East is the conviction that they can step into the breach that divides Israelis and Palestinians in order to prod them to prod their governments to revive peace prospects.

As Israel feels increasingly isolated in the wake of the Goldstone Report, about alleged war crimes during its Gaza war, the hard-line right-wing Israeli government is choosing to wage war by proxy on all Israeli pro-peace NGOs.

The Goldstone Report, presented by Justice Richard Goldstone, head of the U.N. fact finding mission to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sep. 29, 2009, accuses both Israel and Hamas of war crimes, but has been the subject of trenchant criticism from pro-Israeli groups.

For years Israeli peace organizations and human rights groups have enjoyed financial and moral support from many western governments in Europe and, to a lesser extent, from Washington. Many reports by international groups were compiled with the support of Israeli peace activists.

The attempt to discredit peace groups has intensified as human rights violations have increased and settlement activity expanded, contrary to the peace credo of many western states.

It was into this heated atmosphere that the NGO Monitor entered to spearhead the Israeli counter-offensive with its report titled, "Trojan Horse: The Impact of European Government Funding for Israeli NGOs."

NGO Monitor was established by Steinberg, a political scientist and security affairs analyst, together with a prominent Israeli settler leader and columnist, Yisrael Harel.

In "Trojan Horse," NGO Monitor provides what it calls "a detailed analysis of funding provided by foreign governments for highly politicized Israeli NGOs." The report formed the basis of a conference held earlier this month in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

"NGOs wield very significant political and legal power in Israel, particularly through their use of the language and frameworks of human rights and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. These NGOs are also a major and often hidden channel for external influence in Israeli foreign and security policies," charges the NGO Monitor report.

"By using the generous resources made available by the external donors, the Israel-based NGO network is able to promote particular political ideologies, and to oppose the policies of the democratically elected government on many issues," it goes on.

"This hidden foreign intervention infringes on the sovereignty and independence of Israel by unbalancing the political process, and interfering with the policies of the elected government and the mainstream Zionist majority."

The "Trojan Horse" report focuses its ire on more than 20 Israeli NGOs; it lambastes "the lack of transparency and accountability" and what it calls the "democracy deficit" of these groups.

Among the groups targeted by NGO Monitor are B’Tselem, which just marked 20 years of activity in highlighting Israeli human rights abuses under the occupation, and Ir Amim which keeps tabs on developments in occupied East Jerusalem.

In the Knesset conference, the government was exhorted to clamp down on foreign funding which NGO Monitor says "both manipulates domestic politics and undermines Israel’s international legitimacy."

The monitored NGOs are not taking things lying down.

Didi Remez, formerly a spokesman for the Peace Now group, says campaigners against the peace organizations "would have us believe that they are acting in the interest of national security" …against "fifth columnists."

He points out that top government officials – "a notable example is Ron Dermer, chief of policy planning in the prime minister’s office" – play an increasingly active role in "this aggressive campaign to suppress internal dissent."

Remez continues: "NGO Monitor is not an objective watchdog: It is a partisan operation that suppresses its perceived ideological adversaries through the sophisticated use of McCarthyite techniques – blacklisting, guilt by association and selective filtering of facts."

He suggests hoisting the critics of the peace groups on their own petard: "If Israeli neoconservatives really want ‘transparency’, why not take them at their word?" He thus goes on to call for the proper scrutiny of funding of organizations that further settlement activity in the occupied territories.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars in Israeli taxpayer money and U.S. tax exemptions, mostly hidden from public view, are the driving force of the settlement enterprise. Auditing their funding would undercut organizations which depend on financial opacity for their covert operations that fuel the settlement enterprise," he says.

Beyond official Israeli government action in promoting settlements, such donations independently enhance a greater Jewish presence in Palestinian East Jerusalem and in development projects in many West Bank settlements.

"How long will the U.S. taxpayer put up with the tax-exempt status of Shuva Israel, a Christian Zionist fund, if they were aware that it supports the expansion of settlement outposts, even those illegal under Israeli law?" questions Remez sarcastically.

The war on pro-peace NGOS could backfire, however.

It comes just when the U.S. State Department, inspired by President Barack Obama’s re-engagement policy, is moving to re-energize NGOs whose activities dovetail with Washington’s overall Middle East peace policies

It seems especially ill-conceived when, in the U.S., there is new-found faith in civil society. Obama was elected in no small measure because of his championing of civil society, which provided him with a grand platform to get his message across.

Moreover, NGO Monitor’s assault on foreign governments for their meddling in what it considers Israel’s domestic affairs through its support of peace groups risks antagonizing governments that are regarded as traditional friends of Israel.

For the peace NGOs what is perhaps more disturbing is the knocking they have taken from the global economic downturn. The volume of donations they are receiving is reportedly down by more than a third.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.