Government advancing bill to ban Breaking the Silence — report

New legislation, said to be pushed by Netanyahu, would allow for closure of groups critical of IDF or that advocate Israel boycotts

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset, December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset, December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The government is reportedly advancing a new bill that would allow it to shutter left-wing NGOs critical of the Israel Defense Forces, like Breaking the Silence, which has long been in the government crosshairs.

The bill, which would also target groups that advocate boycotts of Israel, is being backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who instructed Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) to craft the legislation, Channel 2 reported Monday.

While the Knesset passed legislation last July that dramatically ups transparency requirements for Israeli NGOs that get most of their funding from foreign governments, the new bill would go significantly further by allowing for the government to ban these groups.

The report said the bill will soon undergo a legal review before being presented to Netanyahu for approval ahead of voting.

Following the publication of the report, Breaking the Silence, which collects and publicizes anonymous testimony of alleged IDF wrongdoing against Palestinians, said the bill was an effort to distract from the legal woes of the prime minister, who is currently under investigation in a pair of corruption cases.

“Every time the prime minister sinks deeper into the mud of the criminal investigations, he searches for enemies and uses IDF soldiers that broke their silence and oppose the [use of] the occupation as a human shield against the public consequences of his criminal entanglements,” the group’s head Avner Gravyahu said in a statement.

Students protest during a talk by the Breaking the Silence NGO at the Hebrew University, December 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In addition to cracking down on NGOs by way of the new bill, Netanyahu on Sunday said he intends to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate the funding NGOs receive from foreign governments.

Netanyahu told a gathering of Christian journalists at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that the committee will probe “organizations that operate against” Israeli soldiers.

According to a report from the Haaretz daily, the decision to set up the committee was taken earlier in the day at a meeting of coalition party chiefs.

Netanyahu has in the past pressed foreign governments to end funding for left-wing NGOs and refused to meet with visiting dignitaries who meet with these groups. In particular, he has singled out Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects testimonies from former Israel Defense Forces soldiers about alleged human rights violations they witness in the Palestinian territories during their military service.

Breaking the Silence has been a frequent target of ire for right-wing parties in Israel.

Last year, Israeli lawmakers passed into law the controversial Transparency Bill, which dramatically increases transparency requirements for fewer than two dozen Israeli NGOs — Breaking the Silence among them — that get most of their funding from foreign governments.

A Justice Ministry analysis of the legislation showed that nearly all the existing Israeli organizations set to be affected by the law’s new requirements were groups that oppose Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

During the discussion Sunday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly asked Netanyahu if there is a precedent for government involvement in the matter of NGOs and if there is a precedent of an investigative committee into such an issue. Netanyahu responded by giving the example of the ongoing US congressional committee investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Such parliamentary committees in Israel mostly serve as a way to shed light on a pressing public issue and tend not to have much bite.

The NGO law was opposed by the US, and condemned by various European countries.

AP contributed to this report.

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