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Israel advances bill to curb rights groups funding

By Amy Teibel
Associated Press / November 13, 2011

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JERUSALEM—Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers took a significant step Sunday toward curbing foreign funding for political not-for-profit organizations, a measure that opponents see as trying to muzzle dovish groups critical of the government.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill that would limit donations by foreign governments or international bodies such as the United Nations or European Union to 20,000 shekels, or about $5,200, annually. The bill now must past a parliamentary vote, where there appears to be a majority.

The funding comes from countries considered friendly to Israel, not enemy nations, and goes to groups such as Peace Now. But critics of the funding see it as meddling in Israel's internal affairs.

"Cutting off the funding of the organizations is a first step in removing the marginal affliction of the extreme left wing from Israeli society," said hawkish lawmaker Danny Danon.

The largest NGO affected, the New Israel Fund, said it will continue to battle the legislation as it makes its way through parliament. The fund raises money for dovish causes.

"If this legislation passes, Israel will become the only Western democracy to outlaw outside funding for NGOs it designates as 'political,'" the group said in a statement. "We call on all Israelis and lovers of Israel worldwide to reject this latest assault on the values and freedoms maintained by every real democracy."

Israeli media reported that the EU has been pressuring Israel to scrap the new legislation.

The bill was drafted after Israel-based groups funded by foreign sources gave critical testimony about Israeli military conduct during the 2009 war in the Gaza Strip to a U.N.-appointed commission. The panel concluded there was evidence Israel committed war crimes there, but the author of the report later toned down the criticism.

The bill is the latest of several pieces of legislation that human rights groups say are aimed at stifling dissent in Israel.

Earlier Sunday, the Cabinet postponed debate on a bill that would make the approval of Supreme Court justices conditional on a public hearing by a parliament panel -- a move that would blur the separation between judicial and legislative authorities in Israel.

"These two bills are a severe affront to Israel's democratic character," the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in a statement.

It called the bills part of an effort by some members of parliament "to curtail the work of human rights and social change organizations whose agenda and/or activities differ from their political views."

Haifa University law professor Emanuel Gross said the two bills were aimed at dovish groups, because hawkish organizations generally draw funding from private donors, not government sources.

"By limiting the possibility of people to express themselves, by limiting the kind of money they are entitled to, I think it's a grave infringement on our constitutional concept of the meaning of freedom of speech," he said.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has expressed similar reservations about the impact of the bills on Israeli freedom of speech.

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Associated Press writer Daniella Cheslow contributed to this report.

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