NGO funding base exposed

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 23, 2009

Israeli and international human rights organisations are coming under increasing scrutiny as to the identity of their donors.

In many cases, Israeli NGOs which have been critical of the government’s policy have been financed by EU governments, including Britain.

Most of the NGOs have a similar agenda. They are dedicated to monitoring human rights in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, preventing torture in Israeli prisons, advancing the demands of Israeli Arabs for equal civil rights and exposing Jewish settlement activity.

The advocacy group NGO Monitor has assembled a list of more than 25 such organisations that receive a significant part of their funding from the EU and member governments.

One recent example is the “Breaking the Silence” organisation, which last week published a report containing soldiers’ testimony from Operation Cast Lead in Gaza six months ago.

They have received funding from the EU, and the governments of Holland and Britain. British funding has also gone to human rights organisations like Yesh Din and Machsom Watch, which operate in the West Bank, and Peace Now.

“On what basis are these governments supporting groups with an anti-Israel agenda?” asked Prof Gerald Steinberg, executive director of NGO Monitor. “We are not saying that these groups shouldn’t exist but I don’t know of any similar case in which democratic governments fund organisations that are campaigning against the policies of other democratic governments.”

NGO financing has raised even more controversy on the international stage following the recent fundraising trip by senior officials of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to Saudi Arabia.

A report in a Saudi newspaper claiming that the director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, Sarah Leah Whitson, had highlighted the organisation’s scrutiny of Israel at a dinner party during the trip, attracted a barrage of criticism.

Executive Director Ken Roth responded that the main objective of the trip was to cooperate with Saudi figures over the monitoring of the human rights situation in the kingdom.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry says it will highlight the role played by NGOs in the near future.

Karen Kaufman, the spokeswoman of the British Embassy in Israel, explained that the “Foreign Office’s projects board checks whether projects that are proposed for our funding support the government’s strategic objectives, like achieving a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, before authorising funding.

“We are not interfering in Israeli politics and we think that the activities of NGOs are a sign of a healthy democracy. All of these projects are open to scrutiny and criticism.”

Raz Goldstein, a spokesman for a number of Israeli human-rights organisations that receive foreign funding rejects the criticism. “In all the cases, these are friendly governments with which Israel has warm relations. All the donations are legal and ethical and to portray this as something dark and devious is sheer demagoguery.”

Last updated: 4:23pm, July 23 2009