By Ben Murane, Executive Director
So Many Issues
One of our many issues regularly generates outsized attention – and rightly so. Our work towards ending the occupation and addressing Palestinian human rights is a tough issue, but one of our most important.
First, let’s look at the overall picture. The New Israel Fund in Israel works on so many issues – spanning six thematic issue areas and totalling some two dozen sub-focuses. Our overarching issues are as broad as “Social and Economic Justice” and as specific as “distributive justice in land and taxes.” Each issue and focus has a unique strategy formulated by Israel’s leading social change experts.
In any given year, that work involves nearly 100 directly-funded Israeli NGOs and over 1,000 more supported through capacity-building. Among those, only a dozen are selected and funded by NIFC through Canadian donations. This subset of Canadian-funded projects is merely a slice of the full breadth and depth of what the NIF global family does on the ground in Israel.
Human and Civil Rights
Since our inception, NIFC has been committed to civil and human rights. Over nearly 40 years, we’ve helped achieve some of Israel’s most prized and precedent-setting legal victories: women’s equality across a whole range of issues, minority rights such as they are, recognition for LGBTQ couples, disability rights, and hundreds more.
Since the beginning, we’ve understood that human rights belong to every person under Israel’s authority. That means more than just Israeli citizens; it means non-citizens too, such as migrant workers, asylum seekers, and residents under Israel’s military occupation.
In recent years, we’ve focused on the freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, which has been increasingly undermined by anti-democratic political forces in Israel seeking to silence opposition. This intimidation has often taken the form of police brutality against political protestors, as well as against minorities like Ethiopian Israelis and Arab citizens.
We’ve also put special efforts into protecting asylum seekers, particularly the wave of 60,000 African refugees from genocide in Darfur and nearby conflicts. This was a particularly important issue for us in Canada, given the legacy of refugees among our own community here.
And for many years we’ve been addressing Israel’s military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ending the Occupation
While NIFC has long been on the record as in favour of the two-state solution and opposed to the occupation and settlements, we feel that time has come for a significant investment in defending human rights in the Occupied Territories.
As we’ve seen in the past four elections, the Palestinian territories exist behind a wall, both actual and psychological, that hides its reality from most Israelis. The fate of the West Bank and Gaza has all but disappeared as an item on the public agenda.
Millions of Palestinians live without political rights. In Area C of the West Bank, dominated by Israeli settlement, Palestinians have very little recourse from the military authority that runs their lives. Home demolition and dispossession, checkpoints and settler aggression, unpredictable home invasions and military operations are the daily backgrounds of their lives.
But problems don’t go away if simply ignored.
By funding the Israeli human rights organizations that are the eyes and ears of the world on the West Bank, as well as groups reporting the experiences of Israeli soldiers and checkpoint monitors, the New Israel Fund of Canada works to restore the reality of the occupation to the public agenda.
In this context, Israeli human rights NGOs hold up a mirror to Israeli society. This work helps remind the public – in Israel but to a lesser extent here too – that not only the occupation exists, but that it is a strategic and moral threat to Israel’s democracy and long-term survival.
That is why we are proud to fund and support groups like our current partners B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, as well as many others, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, and Ir Amim.
Fighting back against demonization of human rights NGOs
And we will continue to support and fund them – even when it is hard.
A powerful minority of religious Zionists and pro-settler ideologues has changed Israeli society in every way. The settler lobby and their leaders within governing coalitions have ensured that any criticism of the settlements or occupation is punished politically, socially, and often legally. The demonization of “leftists,” the judiciary, and most egregiously, human rights organizations began more than a decade ago and has now culminated in a perceptible weakening of Israeli democratic institutions.
For example, political leaders have openly called human rights NGOs “traitors,” announced punitive parliamentary investigations, and filed spurious lawsuits alleging falsified human rights data. Israel’s government passed the “Breaking the Silence Law” to prevent human rights NGOs from speaking to public school students (unsuccessfully to date). NGO offices have been subjected to arson attacks and staff to personalized death threats. A piece of legislation that would allow the Knesset to “override” the Supreme Court advances closer to law in the Knesset each time the High Court rules in defence of Palestinians’ human rights.
None of these efforts have prevented the legitimate activity of collecting and disseminating accurate third-party information in the public interest about what happens in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In fact, it is precisely because of their accuracy – and their threat to the settlement enterprise – that opponents have so disproportionately focused on Israeli human rights activists and their funders.
Tough but Necessary
The occupation is now nearly 54 years old and major political forces in power in Israel are not interested in seeing it end. This is a grim reality. But it need not determine the future. We who care about Israel can join together and act in support of Israelis who are taking bold steps to safeguard Israel’s values and the human rights of Palestinians.
As long as there are courageous Israelis willing to stand up and defend human rights for everyone under Israel’s authority, citizens and non-citizens alike, NIFC will be there to support them.