Israel Expected to Pass Controversial NGO Bill After Marathon Knesset Session

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A tour held by the B'tselem human rights group in the West Bank.
A tour held by the B'tselem human rights group in the West Bank in 2012.Credit: Michal Fattal

The Knesset is slated to hold a marathon debate Monday evening over whether to grant final approval to a the so-called "NGO bill." The law mandates special reporting requirements for nongovernmental organizations that get most of their funding from foreign governments, and, according to critics, disproportionately targets human rights organizations.

Despite massive international criticism of the bill, it is expected to pass.

The proposed law, sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked with full backing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, requires NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments to state as much in their reports to the registrar of nonprofit associations and in all their official publications.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The entirety of today’s plenary session will be devoted to the bill, aside from a no-confidence motion that will open the session. The debate will begin in the late afternoon and last about six hours, with the final vote taking place late Monday night or early Tuesday morning.

Opposition MKs have submitted hundreds of amendments to the bill, each of which will have to be debated and voted on.

According to the Justice Ministry, there are only 27 organizations in Israel that get more than half their funding from foreign governments. Of these, 25 are human rights organizations identified with the left.

Left-wing NGOs B'Tselem, Breaking the Silence.Credit: Haaretz

“Human rights organizations are completely transparent,” argued MK Dov Khenin (Joint List), one of the bill’s most vocal opponents. “All their contributions are reported, and therefore, there’s no real reason for the government’s NGO bill except to divert the discussion and incite the public.”

“Where is transparency really needed? In extreme right-wing organizations,” he added, noting that these organizations receive millions of shekels from private overseas donors, “but there, the government has chosen to impose secrecy and obscure the money trail.”

The final version of the bill is considerably milder than the original, due to changes introduced by the Knesset Constitution Committee. For instance, the committee decided that the law won’t apply retroactively to donations made this year, but only to donations made as of January 1, 2017.

Moreover, the first report to the registrar of nonprofits will have to be made only six months thereafter. The registrar will then have to publish a list of these organizations and the source of their donations on its website.

The NGOs will also have to note their foreign funding in all their publications, as well as in letters to elected officials or civil servants. Such publications must also state that a list of the NGO’s donor countries appears on the registrar’s website. NGOs that violate these rules will be fined 29,200 shekels ($7,500).

The committee killed a provision that would have required representatives of the NGOs in question to wear special name tags while attending meetings in the Knesset or government ministries. It also killed a provision requiring them to state their donor countries at the start of such meetings, but they will still have to provide this information when they register to attend the meetings. They will also have to respond if an MK questions them about their foreign donors.

Many European parliamentarians have voiced grave concern about the bill and warned that it could undermine cooperation between Israel and Europe.

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