Many months before Im Tirtzu launched its campaign against the New Israel Fund and the left-wing non-governmental organizations, and many days before lawmakers were overcome with a legislative fever designed to limit the activities of these organizations, researchers from the Institute for Zionist Strategies “delved into” the hundreds of petitions that were submitted by leftist organizations to the High Court of Justice between 2000 and 2009. Now, after two years of laborious work, Israel This Week reveals the latest chapter in this saga, one which will surely impact the fierce public debate over left-wing NGOs.
Ninety pages of footnoted material expose the manner in which foreign government are involved behind the scenes in High Court petitions against the Israeli government on matters of defense and foreign affairs. It also shows how foreign governments pave bypass routes instead of acting through the customary diplomatic channels by generously funding organizations like Bimkom, B’Tselem, Peace Now and Gisha, groups who in turn petition the High Court.
The petitioners do not always win. In fact, in many instances their arguments are rejected. Still, in every instance, the state of Israel finds itself in the position of the accused and always on the defensive. Most of these High Court petitions foster a debate that is waged in the public domain as well as the press. In this debate, the state is invariably portrayed as a merciless enemy of human rights and individual liberties.
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The study’s two key researchers, Adi Arbel and Joel Golovensky, stumbled upon a rare quote uttered by Alistair Burt, the British parliament’s undersecretary of state. “Ever since we began supporting these programs, changes have taken place in the Israeli legal system, most civilian and military, and in the decisions that they have made,” Burt satisfactorily proclaimed on one occasion. “These programs have also elicited a lively public debate on these issues.”
Burt certainly has reason to be pleased, given that 80 percent of the British government’s budgetary allotments to human rights organizations between 2005-2009 have been funneled to Israeli (3.66 million pounds) and Palestinian (2.2 million pounds) NGOs. The other 20 percent (1.4 million pounds) was divided between countries in North Africa and Arab countries.
How does this method work? Arbel, who is the institute’s project manager and a former IDF intelligence officer, and Golovensky, a lawyer by trade who has gained a reputation for the work that he has done for the Jewish Agency and on behalf of Jewish causes, examined hundreds of petitions that were submitted to the High Court by nine organizations with known left-leaning tendencies.
With the aid of their team of assistants, they reached two main conclusions, one dealing with the result and the other dealing with the intent. In this story, the cow – in this case the European donor states – wants to nurse while the calf – the leftist NGOs - wants to suckle. Along the way, the High Court, unwittingly or not, is rendered a tool to be used by both sides.
Petition begets a petition
One of the more well-known petitions that was filed with the court was done so by the Public Committee Against Torture against the policy of targeted assassinations. The committee is funded by Britain and the European Union. In 2007 alone, the EU contributed NIS 650,000 to the organization. The circumstances which led to the committee’s petition also prompted Europeans to file similar claims against Israel in the court systems which operate in EU member states.
For all intents and purposes, an Israeli organization – in this case, the Public Committee Against Torture – was aided by European money in their efforts to compel the Israeli government to adopt a policy that dovetails with the interests of the NGO’s supporters in Europe, not to mention the interests of the NGO itself.
It is worth recalling that targeted killings are intended to harm those responsible for acts of terrorism with the intention of foiling them. This policy was aggressively pursued during a time when suicide bombers were detonating themselves on the streets of Israeli cities, killing hundreds and maiming thousands more. “The liquidation of individuals carried out at a time when they do not pose an immediate threat to anyone else is tantamount to execution without trial,” the committee claimed.
The High Court ruled that there was no place for determining wholesale that all targeted killings were forbidden, just as it could not determine with certainty that all targeted killings were permissible. Then-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak opined that each instance needed to be examined on an individual basis in accordance with international law.
In practical terms, the petition, which was submitted by an Israeli organization operating with financial assistance from Europe, bore upon Israel’s political and military policies. The High Court ruling left an opening for additional petitions which were not long in coming. In the wake of Yesh Gvul’s petition against the decision not to open a criminal investigation into the targeted killing of Hamas operative Salah Shehade, the government formed its own investigative committee.
“The disproportionate results of the operation stemmed from inadequate intelligence and was not intended to harm civilians,” the committee ruled. The petition and the High Court ruling spawned a political debate in the Knesset and the media, which led to a criminal complaint filed in Spanish courts against Israelis involved in the Shehade affair. The case was thrown out six months later.
Oxford University’s prestigious publication, the Journal of International Criminal Justice, devoted one of its editions to a High Court ruling on targeted killings. The journal included pieces written by some of the world’s leading authority figures on international law. “It is not far-fetched to suggest that the very debate about the petition against targeted killings created a sense of fear among IDF soldiers and commanders over possible legal action against them, which in turn prevented the implementation of targeted killings,” Arbel and Golovensky wrote in their report. “The petition created an opening for criminal complaints and petitions against Israel and its soldiers, both in the country and abroad. Even if every petition was individually rejected by courts in Israel and abroad, the threat of these petitions being submitted implies that the very act of targeted killing is one that naturally evokes suspicion and suggests the commission of a crime that needs to be investigated, and that Israeli defense operations contain elements that are characterized as war crimes.” It goes without saying that this accusation reverberates in the media and in public discussions both in Israel and abroad.
A strategy within the Green Line
Most petitions that are submitted to the High Court by the various organizations dealt with events and policy as they pertained to what was taking place beyond the Green Line. Yet there are some petitions that illustrate the degree to which NGOs who solicit funding from foreign governments seek to exert their influence on Jewish settlement policy within the Green Line. According to the study’s authors, the goal of these petitions is to “hamper the state of Israel’s ability to advance the cause of Jewish Zionist settlement across wide swaths of territory in Israel.”
In order to buttress their argument, the researchers cited remarks by Professor Neta Ziv, who is known for her extensive work with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and who handled the court cases of Adel and Ayman Kaadan, an Arab couple that sought to move into the town of Katzir. “In the various committees of the ACRI which considered the case, it was clear that within the legal system as well as among the wider public this case could be perceived as ‘problematic,’ or ‘sensitive,’ because it forces us to fundamentally re-examine the policy of Judaizing select areas within Israel,” Ziv wrote. “In order to deal with this difficult and increase the chances of winning our case, the following strategy was adopted: ‘The Kaadan case will be presented in a way that will be as little “threatening” as possible to the values of Zionism that enjoy consensus support.”
Is it possible that this same strategy was adopted in the petition filed by an Arab couple which sought to buy a plot of land for their home in Karmiel - land which was situated in a neighborhood that was built on property owned by the Jewish National Fund? This petition was submitted in concert with the Mossawa Center (an NGO that does not receive funding from foreign governments), and similar petitions were subsequently filed by The Arab Center for Alternative Planning in conjunction with the ACRI.
An Arab couple relied upon the services of NGOs Adalah and Bimkom to file a petition against the town of Rakefet. These two NGOs were also involved in the petition against the Israel Lands Administration’s so-called “wine road” plan, which called for the establishment of 20 individual farms in the Ramat Hanegev area. The petitioners argued that the real goal of the plan was to ensure that Jewish elements would consolidate control over areas of the Negev for the purposes of Judaization.
Pulling the media
Bimkom, which declares on its website that it does not receive any government or partisan funding save for donations from private individuals so as to ensure its independence, received money that amounted to 47 percent of its total budget from foreign governments. The list of donors includes the EU, Britain, Holland, and Denmark. Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – received between 20 and 25 percent of its donations from Switzerland and the EU.
One of the more memorable instances in which a few NGOs that received considerable foreign funding managed to overtake the political and media agenda by turning to the courts – even though they lost time after time in the High Court of Justice – involved the issue of fuel supply and product imports to Gaza. This case also involved groups who received a large chunk of their funding from European governments, and once again the right to petition the High Court was utilized to enable the case to gain prominence.
Let us briefly recap: Shortly after the Gaza disengagement and following the barrages of Qassam rockets against Israel, Hamas was marked as “the responsible party.” The government resolved to limit freedom of movement within the Gaza Strip and to reduce the volume of supplies, electricity, and fuel that are imported into the Strip while at the same time providing for the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population.
After Gilad Shalit was abducted, the border crossings between Gaza and Israel were periodically sealed. In July 2006, the first petition was submitted by members of the “dream team” of NGOs that would regularly file subsequent petitions. The list includes Bimkom, B’Tselem, ACRI (which receives a small amount of foreign funding), the Public Committee Against Torture, Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Yesh Din, Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Palestinian organizations like the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
The first petition was rejected. The High Court accepted the state’s position that it was doing all it could to allow the passage of humanitarian goods. Nonetheless, the justices left an opening for further petitions to be filed in accordance with changing circumstances on the ground.
The next two petitions – both similar in nature - were submitted in October 2007 and May 2008. They were aimed at the restrictions and limitations which Israel imposed on the fuel supply to Gaza. Both petitions were rejected. In 2009, two more petitions were filed. One of them claimed that the IDF fired at Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances while preventing them from evacuating wounded Palestinians to hospitals. In this instance, the High Court once again laid the responsibility for Palestinian suffering at the foot of Hamas.
Even though the NGOs were dealt numerous setbacks in the legal realm, they succeeded in rendering the Supreme Court a tool that they utilized in their political campaign. The news media provided extensive coverage of their petitions to the High Court. The IDF was forced to rely on a legal advisor when it set about planning Operation Cast Lead. In the public campaign which the NGOs waged against the siege on Gaza, Israel found itself accused of collective punishment against the civilian population in the strip, intentionally harming civilians, and disproportionate military responses.
Even the Red Cross called on Israel to balance its security needs with the needs of the Palestinian civilian population. Foreign governments and other international actors adopted the same terminology which was employed by NGOs in their campaign against Israel. In the spring of 2010, the perception of Israel as responsible for the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip was further amplified by the infamous flotilla incident.
One organization which had a hand in the frequent petitions is Gisha. According to the group’s internal documents, the EU, along with “a few individual European states,” subsidized fuel purchases for the power station in Gaza between 2006 and 2009. According to the IZS report, the EU as well as other European governments provided financial support to Gisha and other NGOs. “This was how the unusual situation - whereby organizations that are supported financially by the EU attack the policies of the elected government of Israel by inundating the courts with petitions – was created.”
Arbel and Golovensky are convinced that a large number of NGOs would not have come into existence were it not for the support they receive from foreign governments “who use the High Court channel as a road which bypasses diplomacy by means of funding Israeli organizations.”
Yariv Oppenheimer, the secretary-general of Peace Now: “This is yet another attempt to avoid dealing with the High Court petitions themselves and with the shocking facts that are uncovered in the courts. If the activities of these groups are welcome and well-intentioned, it does not matter who funds it. If these activities are damaging, then Israeli funding is also bad.”
The Public Committee Against Torture: “We will continue to act in accordance with the law and with transparency as it pertains to the sources of our current funding. He who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones. It is simply remarkable that right-wing groups who themselves are funded by foreign entities who seek to advance their interests dare to criticize us.”
Physicians for Human Rights: “We didn’t see the report, so we will not respond.”
Rabbis for Human Rights: "Petitioning the High Court always represents our independent agenda. Petitions are expensive, and sometimes we find partners in friendly democratic governments who also help Israel is putting out fires in the Carmel. Our petitions always take into consideration the security needs as well as the rights of all those who are affected, thus one should not view this as intervention by a foreign entity.”
Bimkom: “The preoccupation with our sources of funding diverts attention from the crux of the matter: defending human rights in the area of planning. The petitions always focus on the violation of human rights of weakened segments of the population.”
Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual: “As long as the violation of human rights persists, we will defend those rights by turning to the courts.”
Gisha: “We do not understand why the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which also receives most of its donations from abroad, is so afraid of judicial oversight of state decisions. In a democratic society, judges are assigned the responsibility of ruling as to whether the petition is a just one.”
Haim Erlich, general manager of Yesh Din: “Grave damage to the state’s foreign relations has been caused not by human rights organizations, but as a result of the adoption of recommendations included in previous reports commissioned by the Institute for Zionist Strategies. These recommendations infringed on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. We reject the claims against the legitimacy of soliciting donations from foreign foundations or governments that are friendly toward Israel. It seems that this whole, recycled preoccupation with funding is aimed at silencing a matter-of-fact debate over important criticism which human rights organizations at times level against the government’s policy.”
B’Tselem: “The donations to B’Tselem are given with full transparency and in accordance with the law and agreements to which the Israeli government is a signatory and in which it declares its obligation to preserving human rights.”
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