Tel Aviv — In the context of Israeli politics, it is the most incendiary charge made thus far against human rights groups and other left-wing nongovernmental organizations: that some of the money that funds their work comes from Arabs — or even from terrorists.
As the Knesset steams ahead with plans to probe the country’s human rights groups, critics of the NGOs are now seeking to advance this charge with a study that purports to supply supporting data.
Im Tirtzu, a right-wing group that says domestic human rights groups are undermining Israel’s legitimacy, released a report January 11 claiming to prove that money from Arab countries, organizations and funds is channeled to Israel through Palestinian charities “in order to influence internal Israeli state policies.”
The study seemed timed to add heft to the allegation of Arab funding that Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing party in the government coalition, first made against the NGO’s to persuade the Knesset to investigate them. David Rotem, a Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, told the Forward that his party is convinced that funding for the human rights groups comes from Saudi Arabia, and that he suspects it has terrorist origins. “If [an NGO] is being backed by terrorists or Al Qaeda, we ought to know,” he said.
But the emotive allegation has split the ranks of the NGOs’ critics even as it has fueled the call for hearings. NGO Monitor, Israel’s most prominent watchdog of human rights groups and a longtime critic of many of them, publicly rejects the turn that criticism against those groups is taking.
Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, said that he finds Yisrael Beiteinu’s claim to be based on “very flimsy evidence.” Steinberg criticized the shift in the debate from research-based claims, like those of his group, to what he considers the populist and alarmist claims of Yisrael Beiteinu.
Steinberg said that NGO Monitor has looked into the question of whether Jewish-run Israeli NGOs receive money from Arab governments and terrorist organizations, and has concluded that this is not the case. “My fear is that they will raise the issue of Arab money, it will be shown to be a red herring and people will say all the concern about NGOs was without basis,” he said. The real question, he asserted, was how, why and to what value European governments are funding NGOs, issues that he fears will now go unexplored.
Nevertheless, in its study, Im Tirtzu insists that some Israeli NGOs are close to the very bastion of the Arab establishment that saw the Palestinians through the second intifada.
The study cites the Geneva-headquartered Welfare Association, an NGO funding group that receives money from Arab sources, including Arab governments. One such source, the study states, is the Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank, an institution that, it points out, also operates two funds whose declared mission is to “assert the comprehensive Arab support for the Palestinian people in face of continuous Israeli aggression.” Welfare Association’s other Arab funders include the Arab Gulf Program for United Nations Development, which is run by representatives of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Though heavily dependent on Arab money, public and private, the Welfare Association receives significant sums from the West and elsewhere, too, with donors including the Ford Foundation; the French Development Agency; the World Bank, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Its declared mission is to make a “distinguished contribution toward furthering the progress of the Palestinians, preserving their heritage and identity, supporting their living culture and building civil society.” The group gives almost all of its grants, with Israel’s assent, to Palestinian programs in the occupied territories.
But in 2009, Im Tirtzu notes, Welfare Association also made grants to groups within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Though not specified by Im Tirtzu, calculations from public records show that 3% of the association’s $24.6 million in grants — about $738,000 — went to such programs based in Israel proper. The grantees included Israeli-Arab NGOs such as Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and Mada al-Carmel — Arab Center for Applied Social Research. While it did not give to any Jewish-run Israeli NGOs, it gave money to the Ramallah-based NGO Development Center (NDC), which contributes to Jewish-run as well as Arab-run Israeli NGOs.
NDC is supported by many groups, but the vast majority of its budget comes from European NGO’s and governments. But the group’s tie to Welfare Association is Im Tirtzu’s supposed smoking gun. It has never been doubted that Arab organizations in Israel receive money from the Arab world — and this is legally acceptable in most cases — but Im Tirtzu’s contention is that as recipients of the NDC, even Jewish-run NGOs are accomplices to Israel’s enemies. In an interview with the Forward, Im Tirtzu’s chairman Ronen Shoval, said, “Imagine that during the Cold War, you had an organization in the States supported by the USSR, or that during the Second World War, you had an organization in the U.K. sponsored by Italy or Germany.”
In 2009, Jewish-run NDC recipients were Physicians for Human Rights — Israel, which received $37,500; the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, $144,000; Hamoked: Center for Defense of the Individual, $300,000; Bimkom — Planners for Planning Rights, $7,470; B’Tselem — The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, $405,000; the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, $48,000; Yesh Din — Volunteers for Human Rights, $23,000; the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, $25,000; Kav LaOved (Worker’s Hotline), $45,000; Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, $25,000, and Breaking the Silence, $20,625.
NDC did not respond to requests by the Forward for comment. But the Jewish-run Israeli organizations implicated in Im Tirtzu’s report have poured scorn on the suggestion of guilt by association with the body. Several of them, contacted by the Forward, said that all money transferred to them by NDC was channeled through NDC by European countries, and none came from Arab countries. Israeli-Arab NDC recipients approached by the Forward, including Adalah, said they believe their funding originates from Europe, as well. Steinberg said that previous NGO Monitor research has concluded that NDC funding directed to Israeli NGOs from both sectors originates from Europe.
Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, which currently receives NDC funding, told the Forward: “The money is for the purpose of using Israel’s legal system to challenge takeovers of Palestinian land. Rather than saying that this is undermining Israel’s democracy, it is actually strengthening it by making sure people have access to the legal system.”
The Welfare Association declined to respond to questions from the Forward regarding the origins of money it transfers to Israel-Arab NGOs, providing instead a statement that it is “a transparent and accountable foundation which complies with international standards.” It continued: “Our work is undertaken in full compliance with the domestic laws of the countries we operate in, including Israel. Without exception, we are proud of our work and record, and its impact on enhancing the lives of the people in the communities we support.”
As the right-wing activists of Im Tirtzu spent the days following the Knesset’s decision to probe NGOs working on their report, left-wing activists associated with the groups they writing mobilized an action of their own. On January 14, some 10,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the probe and what they consider the growing attack on democracy in Israel.
This polarization on the NGO issue concerns Steinberg. “It has been turned into a narrow wedge political issue. What we have is the far right and the far left competing about who is more democratic and more Zionist,” he said, adding that he is concerned that “partisan debate” has eclipsed “transparency” and the “public right to know.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org