x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Time for Israel to stop politicising Palestinian cash

An Israeli plan to choke off foreign funding for human rights groups sends exactly the wrong signal.

As Israel continues to tighten the screws on Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, it also continues to earn itself unpleasant headlines around the world. That may be one reason why the latest such move, to limit and tax certain foreign grants to civil-society groups within Israel, has now been deferred. But the measures still have strong support in Israel's conservative cabinet and are far from dead.

This week a cabinet committee approved measures to limit and tax donations by foreign governments and groups, even the United Nations, to Israeli non-governmental organisations considered to be "political" - that is, working to alter government policy. The limit would be just 20,000 shekels (Dh19,750) per year, and the tax would be 45 per cent.

Though opposed by ministers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, the bills passed the committee anyway, demonstrating the cabinet strength of hardliners. The Likud ministers did manage to stall a parliamentary vote; the full cabinet will now study the measures.

To their credit, many in Israel object to the way their government treats Palestinians. Human rights groups such as B'Tselem, Gisha and Yesh Din say these bills were designed to muzzle rights activists. (Right-wing political groups get foreign funding too, but mainly from individuals; that kind of gift would not be limited by these bills.)

To be sure, any country has a legitimate interest in monitoring foreign government influence. But in the current Israeli political climate, these one-sided bills can be seen only as mean-spirited - or worse.

Anyone in doubt about the tone of official thinking in Israel needs only consider that while these bills are under study, the cabinet is also considering releasing $100 million (Dh 367mn) it owes the Palestinian government in the West Bank - to help the Palestinians pay for security measures. In other words, this is about Israeli security, not Palestinians' well-being.

The $100 million is tax revenue Israel normally collects in the West Bank and remits to the government there; payments were stopped to punish the Palestinians for trying to join the UN.

The message behind both measures is evident: anti-terrorism spending yes, Palestinian human rights no.

The planned restriction on support for human rights groups is not only unjust, it is also a mistake. As Palestinians pursue recognition at the UN the temptation to hold funds hostage as punishment will increase. But Israel, like the US on these matters, can ill afford any more blows to its image.