Israeli Peace Now activists protesting in Jerusalem
Israeli Peace Now activists protesting in Jerusalem on May 15, 2010. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Israeli left-wing organizations decried Wednesday a Knesset plenum decision to support a panel of inquiry to investigate certain groups suspected of "delegitimizing" the Israel Defense Forces.

The plenum's approval means that the initiative will now be taken to the Knesset House Committee for debate. The initiative proposes investigating the sources of funding for these left-wing groups, and to determine whether money is being funneled from foreign states or organizations linked to terror activities.

Peace Now Director-General Yariv Oppenheimer deemed the move "another step on the path toward wiping out democracy in Israel" and as a blatant attempt to persecute critics of Israeli policy.

The New Israel Fund said the Knesset's approval "proves how much the stature of Israeli democracy has deteriorated– even in the house of legislators."

"Democracy cannot function properly without freedom of expression, freedom to sound criticism of the system, and active human rights groups," said the NIF.

"The political persecution of human rights group causes great damage to Israel across the world, and that is precisely what will lead to the delegitimization [of Israel] and the representation of it as a McCarthyite state in which a witch hunt is taking place," added the NIF.

"Such behavior, particularly within the walls of Israel's parliament, will harm our stance in the world and distance us precisely from the democracies that still support us and want in our favor."

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel called the legislation "authoritarian, immoral and illegitimate", adding that it mourns the "slow but sure death" of democratic values in Israel.

Forty-one legislators voted in favor of the motion on Wednesday while 15 voted against.

Knesset approval of the initiative, brought forth by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu faction, comes just months after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein ruled in August that no investigation should be launched against such groups.

The discussion at the Knesset on Wednesday was charged, filled with heckling and interruptions. A significant number of security guards were on hand to prevent physical altercations between the opposing members of Knesset.

MK Fania Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu ), who submitted the proposal, alleged during the debate that the groups targeted for investigation were to blame for foreign actions aimed at delegitimizing Israel and its officials.

"These groups provide material to the Goldstone commission [which investigated the Gaza war] and are behind the indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world," Kirshenbaum said, referring to a series of arrest warrants issued over the last few years.

"They are trying to silence the very people who administrate the State of Israel's foreign relations," she declared. "These organizations are responsible for branding IDF soldiers as war criminals and encourage defamations."

In her presentations, Kirshenbaum singled out one group which she claimed went into local Israeli schools to convince pupils that "joining the IDF is immoral" and to advise them how to dodge conscription. A panel of inquiry, said Kirshenbaum, would investigate just who was in charge of the bodies providing these Israeli groups with financial assistance.

While Yisrael Beiteinu had garnered a majority in favor of the proposal before it was brought to vote, the matter raised the ire of human rights groups and left-wing politicians alike.

Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz called the initiative "a shame on the Knesset", declaring Tuesday that: "The persecution campaign against human rights and citizens rights groups has reached a new low."

The purpose of such a committee was essentially to silence criticism, Horowitz said, a move that should be seen as, "a brutal act of political persecution using a coalition majority and Knesset funding, under the legal guise of an investigation committee."

"Human rights and citizens rights group save the honor of Israel in the world and maintain its character as a democratic state," Horowitz said. "It is moves like that being led by Yisrael Beiteinu that lead to Israel's delegitimization in the world and present Israeli democracy as fake. All to whom Israeli democracy is dear must oppose this committee of persecution."

Sixteen human rights groups signed an open letter protesting the initiative, including ACRI, B'Tselem, Yesh Din, Machsom Watch, Adalah, Mossawa Center, Ir Amim and Hotline for Migrant Workers.

"Investigate us all, we have nothing to hide. You are invited to read our reports and our publications. We will be happy if for a change you relate in a germane way to our questions instead of trying to besmirch us. It did not work in the past and it will not work this time," the letter said.