• Thursday, September 3, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund


    By Jody Williams and Rachel Giora (*)

    Jody Williams

    Jody Williams

    Rachel Giora

    Rachel Giora

    WASHINGTON AND TEL  AVIV, Jul (IPS)  As the world watches the “Arab Spring” unfold in the Middle East -a reaction against decades of oppression and suppression of civil society- there are disturbing signs that Israel is stealthily moving to dismantle some key civil rights and quiet the voices calling for justice and equality for the Palestinians.

    One case is Israel’s recent attempt to silence voices in the international press seeking coverage on the Gaza Flotilla, a convoy of ships attempting to bring aid to the blockaded Gaza.  Recently, Israel’s Government Press Office issued a warning to International media organizations participating in the Flotilla that they would confiscate their equipment and threatened them with deportation and a ten-year entry ban to Israel.

    Israel later dropped this threat due to pressure from the Foreign Press Association (FPA), who sharply condemned the decision. The FPA stated that the effort to punish journalists raised serious questions regarding Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.

    The threat to freedom of expression extends to Israeli society where peace organizations -including Peace Now and the Coalition of Women for Peace- are voicing strong objections to a series of laws before the Knesset.

    One of the flashpoints is a new bill approved by the Knesset on July 11.  The “boycott prohibition law” criminalizes citizens and residents of Israel or organizations who call for a boycott of Israel or the settlements. The law also threatens the organizations with revoking their non-profit status. This jeopardizes the organizations’ ability do receive donor funds, including those from the European Union.

    Over fifty Israeli civil society organizations have signed a statement against the bill, including many grassroots peace organizations.  Along with an impressive list of Israeli intellectuals and artists, these organizations are raising the concern that the law targets Israelis using legitimate means to protest government policies. Since 2005, many civil organizations in the occupied Palestinian territory and in Israel have called for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel “until it complies with international law and the universal principles of human rights”. But even many of those who don’t agree with using these economic measures are not behind this new law.

    Indeed, the opposition to the law goes beyond peaceniks, Palestinians, and intellectuals. Before the vote, the Knesset’s legal advisor, attorney Eyal Yanon, published a legal assessment saying that parts of the law border on “illegality and perhaps beyond.”

    Government officials -including from the Justice, Trade and Industry Ministries and the Foreign Ministry- are also among those who have expressed strong opposition to the law.  In testimony before the Knesset, government officials have raised concerns that the legislation is an attack on freedom of expression and will do more harm than good for Israel’s reputation with the rest of the world.

    These government bureaucrats may be realizing what many politicians do not:  that cracking down on the vibrant civil society within Israel is not going to silence those who are using nonviolent means to express core democratic rights. Repression, as we see in other parts of the Middle East, will not keep the genie in the bottle and those seeking change will find ways of expressing their dissent and defy the law.

    The Association of Civil Rights in Israel notes that the various pieces of legislation are having a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech and democratic discourse, and they go further to say these new laws are just “another step in a broader ongoing anti-democratic campaign attempting to delegitimize and intimidate civil society and to curtail the work of human rights organizations.”

    In an editorial for the Ha’aretz newspaper a few months ago, Avirama Golan warned that the boycott law and other such legislation targeting civil society in Israel will have destructive results:  “And these results -which are collapsing the foundations of Israeli democracy- will harm everyone in the end, without distinction.”

    Israel will ultimately be a stronger country by upholding the rights of its civil society. After all, the true partners for peace will ultimately not be governments -but the bold individuals and organizations that are willing to challenge the status quo and live the dream for a society that recognizes everyone as equal. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE, JULY 2011 COPYRIGHT IPS)

    (*)  Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban landmines. She chairs the Nobel Women’s Initiative, an organization created by six women Nobel Peace Laureates. Professor Rachel Giora is with the Coalition of Women for Peace, based in Tel Aviv.

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