50 European MPs slam NGO bill as ‘inherently discriminatory’

Legislation passes first reading; raked over coals by EU lawmakers, Human Rights Watch

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on February 2, 2016. (AFP/Frederick Florin)
Illustrative: Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on February 2, 2016. (AFP/Frederick Florin)

A group of 50 European lawmakers on Monday called on their Israeli colleagues to reject the so-called NGO bill, arguing that it is “inherently discriminatory” and could hurt efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The controversial legislation, which has been criticized by European and American officials, passed in its first reading Monday night.

“We write to you as Members of the European Parliament, who are committed to values of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression, to convey our deep concern at the proposed ‘NGO Bill’,” the 50 members of the European Parliament wrote in an open letters addressed to Israeli MKs.

“We support transparency in the conduct of public affairs in any democracy. However, we are concerned that this law is inherently discriminatory. It is framed in a manner that delegitimises and demonises NGOs who promote and defend human rights, as well as the European states and institutions that fund them.”

If passed into law, the bill would obligate Israeli nonprofits who receive most of their funding from foreign governments — which is true for many left-wing groups but not for NGOs from the right side of the political spectrum — to disclose their income in every meeting and in in all public communications.

“We see this as part of a worrying trend, promoted and condoned by the current Israeli government, to restrict, delegitimise, and stifle the work of NGOs, organisations, artists, writers, and thinkers who may be critical of current Israeli government policy,” the European lawmakers lamented.

The MPs hailed from nearly all the 28-nation bloc’s members, including Germany, France and the UK.

NGOs advancing human rights and are “watchdogs of democracy, not enemies of the state,” the EU legislators wrote. “Legislation which limits, narrows, and hampers civil society action only serves to weaken Israel, and damage the potential for a political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.”

The lawmakers also warned passing the bill could damage Israel’s reputation, the very thing the bill tentatively seeks to protect.

“If anything, Israel’s reputation risks being damaged by dubious government attempts to silence its critics,” the group stated.

On Friday, four German members of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with similar concerns.

“We fear that this new law – if adopted by the Knesset – would fundamentally restrict the work of Israeli NGOs and the activities of Israel’s civil society overall. In particular, we are concerned that the law in its current form would restrict Israel’s pluralistic civil society in its ability to unfold freely and complicate, if not obstruct, the work of various NGOs within Israel,” they wrote, according to Haaretz.

After the law was approved in its first reading with a 50-43 majority early Tuesday, the local branch of Human Rights Watch criticized the Israeli government for “promoting legislation that targets and burdens human rights organizations fighting for a more just and democratic society.”

In a statement, Sari Bashi, the group’s Israel and Palestine director, said it was unfortunate that Jerusalem “seeks to treat human rights activists – who help marginalized communities in Israel overlooked or abused by government authorities – as if they were foreign agents.”

In recent weeks, the so-called Transparency Law, advanced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) has aroused much international criticism, notably including the US government and the EU’s ambassador to Israel.

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