Rights groups under fire for scrutiny of Israel's conduct of Gaza war

A parliamentary investigation could lead to the dismantling of some rights groups accused of undermining the legitimacy of Israel's government by documenting alleged misconduct by Israeli forces during last year's Gaza war.

Hatem Moussa / AP
A Palestinian boy looks out of a tent during a visit by 60 European parliamentarians traveling with British Labour Party lawmaker Gerald Kaufman, not pictured, in an area that was destroyed during last year's Gaza war in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Jan. 16.

As the United Nations prepares to decide what action to take on the Goldstone report, which alleges Israeli misconduct in last year's Gaza war, local human rights groups and their backers are facing a rising tide of domestic criticism for fomenting international scrutiny of Israel and its military.

A center-right group, "Im Tirtzu," issued a report last week charging that the Goldstone report relies on documentation from 16 local rights organizations that were vocal critics of Israeli conduct during the war. The report singled out a common financial thread, the multimillion-dollar New Israel Fund, which raises money among American Jews and foundations for progressive causes.

That sparked a drive in the Israeli parliament to approve an investigation to determine whether the work of those nonprofits undermines Israel's legitimacy. The investigation could lead to the outlawing of some groups.

The sponsor of the inquiry proposal, Knesset Member Otniel Schneller from the centrist Kadima party, accused the groups of "the worst incitement possible" against Israel. "Most of the quotes in the [Goldstone] report against Israel come from Israeli organizations,'' he said. "They are accusing Israel of terrorizing [Palestinian] civilians."

The Goldstone report assigns blame to both Israel and Hamas for committing possible war crimes during the war, but accuses Israel of intentionally killing Palestinian civilians and of destroying civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.

Israel says the report reflects political bias, anti-Semitism, and an effort to rob the Jewish state of the right to self-defense against attacks on its citizens. In the coming weeks and months, the United Nations Security Council will decide whether to refer the findings to the International Criminal Court.

How much can you criticize government?

The campaign against the rights groups is sparking a debate over the limits of legitimate criticism of the government.

"We believe there are valid concerns with regard to Israel's conduct during [the war]. We believe the Israeli public has the right to know what was done in our name in Gaza,'' says Haggai Elad, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a beneficiary of the New Israel Fund. "If the [parliament] is intent on holding hearings in the 21st century that are reminiscent of the anti-Communist hysteria in the United States of the 1950s, then that is a sad moment for Israeli democracy.''

Im Tirtzu, which has received donations in the past from John Hagee Ministries, a US evangelical organization founded by Pastor John Hagee, said the New Israel Fund affiliates had a "significant influence'' on the crafting of the Goldstone report, and that most of its accusations against Israel were sourced to the rights groups.

"These organizations are trying to help Hamas in [its] fight against Israel,'' argues Im Tirtzu chairman Ronen Shoval. "They are slandering the State of Israel and the Israeli soldiers around the world.''

Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the funding relationship between Im Tirtzu and John Hagee Ministries.

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