Established in 1948 as a socialist state, Israel was created as a home for the diasporic Jewish community following WWII. Today, it functions parliamentary democracy. Although Israel does not have an official constitution, a series of Basic Laws were passed, many of which function to protect "human dignity and liberty".
In addition to the universal Basic Laws, The State of Israel grants personal status jurisdiction to the laws of the established Jewish, Muslim, and Christian (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) religious authorities. Many of the social norms that influence religious individuals in Israel stem from religious law, and not necessarily from secular laws or trends.
Unlike in the United States, there is no clear distinction between Israel's legislative and executive branches. Due to Israel's small population (8.7 million), geographic size (area of 8,500 square miles) and political structure, politics are conducted at the national level by default. As a result, non-governmental institutions operating at both the local and national levels are almost inherently political in that majority are formed as political advocates or catalysts, and are supported or opposed by state institutions. State-driven conversations frequently lead to the Arab-Israeli dynamics embedded in the nation's history.
According to CIVICUS country watch, Israel's civic space scores as "obstructed," primarily due to increasing governmental regulation of media and peaceful assembly, along with restrictive policies regarding pro-Palestinian NGOs.
State-civil society relations are shaped and influenced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza. As such, Israel is a security-oriented state, with federal policies that allot civil authority to the army, frequently resulting in legislation that directly and indirectly undermines human rights for both Jews and Arabs.
At the macro level, there is a growing tendency for both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli Government to portray and perceive human rights organizations as a threat to national security. As such, the Israeli government portrays foreign funding for human rights NGOs as a form of sovereignty-breaching, foreign influence on domestic matters and misrepresenting recipient NGOs as foreign entities that employ Israeli democracy for personal use and perpetuate the conflict. This is especially prevalent among Israeli CSO's working to end or spread awareness of Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority also utilizes this tactic with Palestinian NGOs that legitimize the state of Israel or cooperate with Jewish communities and organizations.
The Police Ordinance (1971) and the Penal Law (1977) regulate the right to peaceful assembly, and they require prior permission to hold a demonstration or gathering involving more than 50 and where speeches or a march will be held in public. Gatherings that face the most scrutiny and repression are primarily organized by anti-government, pro-Palestinian, or non-Jewish religious groups.
Israeli CSOs are regulated by the state under the Israeli Law of Associations (1981), which covers non-governmental organizations, corporations, and cooperative associations. Additionally, organizations that want to carry out activities involving resources, are required to be authorized by the Israeli Registrar of Associations, which is under the Ministry of Justice. The period from 2016 to 2017 has witnessed a dramatic spike in repressive actions against sections of Israeli civil society, in particular those with a focus on advocating for Palestinian rights during Palestinian protests, rallies, boycotts, and strikes taking place in the West Bank. Restrictive policies affect the fundamental freedoms necessary for civil society and often lead to self-censorship in Israeli society in fear of government retaliation.
Pro-occupation and pro-settlement policies of the current Likud-led coalition government have created a political environment in which restrictive legal measures to counter local and international calls for diplomatic sanctions and consumer boycotts against Israel and its settlements are codified.
This legislation typically targets human rights groups and other organizations which oppose Israel's presence in the West Bank, and those established by the Arab minority in Israel. These measures include the 2011 Nakba Law, affecting the right to commemorate Palestinian displacement in the 1948 war, and the Boycott Law approved by the High Court in 2015, making it possible to file a civil lawsuit against an individual or an organization which publishes a public call for a boycott of Israel or its settlements.
Israeli civil society procures resources from largely external parties. Politically right-leaning NGOs and projects (such as Israel Ha'Yeom) obtain support primarily from wealthy American Jewry, while left-leaning NGOs and projects (such as B'Tselem) procure funding and support from governments within European Union and the European Commission. Foreign and political funding of NGOs and newspapers have been the subject of widespread civil and political debates in Israel, often as attempts to delegitimize certain organizations.
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Recently, several laws have specifically targeted organizations that are highly dependent on foreign funding, as is the case for almost all Israeli human rights organizations that criticize Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Most recently, the NGO Transparency Law of 2016, singles out CSOs receiving more than 50% of their funding from foreign government sources, branding them as 'foreign state entities' and requiring them to disclose their foreign funding in all publications, meetings, and correspondence. Critics noted that 25 of the 27 CSOs affected are left-leaning, human rights or anti-occupation organizations.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Ministers are systematically approaching foreign governments, calling on them to stop their financial support for specific Israeli and Palestinian human rights and anti-occupation organizations. Prime Minister Netanyahu now also refuses to meet any visiting Foreign Ministers if they are meeting with specific human rights organizations.
This is significant due to both Israeli and Palestinian NGOs' overwhelming reliance on international donors – governmental, non-governmental, and corporate. This dynamic could potentially pose a sustainability risk to organizations stuck on project-based funding, or a transparency issue with the covet (or overt) political agendas of donors.
- CIVICUS Country Report, Israel-Overview https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2016/09/01/israel-overview/
- "Israel," OECD Better Life Index. http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/israel/. Accessed February 7, 2020.
- ACT Alliance – Protection of Space for Civil Society and Humann Rights Defenders – The Case of Israel and Palestine
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