Israel’s new anti-NGO legislation: An Effort to Eradicate Opponents of Illiberalism


Three days from now — on Sunday, May 28th — the Israeli government’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation (a body of ministers in the government which decides whether or not to give government-backing to proposed legislation in the Knesset) is scheduled to vote on an extremely dangerous bill targeting civil society organizations and, in particular, the human rights sector. The legislation would in effect remove the tax-exempt status of these groups and replace it with an onerous, and quite openly punitive, vindictive tax rate of 65% applied to the groups’ income and/or endowments.

In this episode of FMEP’s Occupied Thoughts podcast, FMEP President Lara Friedman speaks with two formidable experts on human rights and civil society about this legislation: Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories occupied since 1967; and Jessica Montell, Executive Director of the Israeli human rights organization HaMoked and formerly executive director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

Occupied Thoughts by FMEP · Israel’s new anti-NGO legislation: An Effort to Eradicate Opponents of Illiberalism

Recorded May 25, 2023

You can also watch this conversation on YouTube

Participant Biographies

Francesca Albanese is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories. She is also an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, and a Senior Advisor on Migration and Forced Displacement for the think tank Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), where she co-founded the Global Network on the Question of Palestine (GNQP), a coalition of renowned professional and scholars engaged in/on Israel/Palestine. She has published widely on the legal situation in Israel/Palestine; her latest book, Palestinian Refugees in International Law (Oxford University Press, 2020), offers a comprehensive legal analysis of the situation of Palestinian refugees from its origins to modern-day reality. She regularly teaches and lectures on International Law and Forced Displacement in European and Arab universities, and speaks frequently at conferences and public events on the legal situation of Palestine. She worked for a decade as a human rights expert for the United Nations, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees. In these capacities, she advised the UN, governments, and civil society across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Asia Pacific, on the enforcement of human rights norms. @FranceskAlbs

Jessica Montell is executive director of HaMoked, the Center for Defence of the Individual.  She has been a leading figure in Israeli civil society for two decades. For thirteen years she headed the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. She left B’Tselem in 2014 and was founding director of SISO: Save Israel, Stop the Occupation, an Israel-Diaspora partnership to build collective action for the 50th year of the Israeli occupation. In 2011, Ms. Montell was selected by Ha’aretz as one of “the year’s 10 most influential Anglo immigrants.” In 2013, the UK-based Action on Armed Violence selected Jessica as one of the 100 most influential people working to make the world a safer place. Ms. Montell is a frequent speaker and commentator on human rights, international humanitarian law and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. @JessicaMontell.

Resources related to this podcast

  • Human Rights Defenders Fund 5/24/23: Urgent Update on this bill
  • Human Rights Defenders Fund: English translation of this bill
  • Times of Israel 5/25/23: US sounds alarm over Likud bill targeting rights groups backed by foreign governments
  • Haaretz 5/25/23 (editorial): McCarthyism in Israel
  • December 2022 Haaretz article: “​​Israel’s New Government Set to Tax Foreign Government Donations to Civil Society Groups
  • Netherlands Helsinki Commission 2/16/23: The NHC urges the Georgian Government not to adopt proposed “Foreign Agents” law
  • Twitter analyses worth reading:
    • Francesca Albanese 5/24/23: “Israel has no legal authority to prevent offers of assistance to Palestinians in the occupied territory, which this bill will do. A 65% tax on foreign aid to Israeli & Palestinian human rights and humanitarian groups will hamper HR work & relief & infringe on self-determination.”
    • Itay Epshtain 5/24/23: “BREAKING: On Sunday 28 May, the #Israeli Ministerial Committee on Legislation chaired by Yariv Levin (MoJ, Likud) and Itamar Ben Gvir (Jewish Power) will consider – for endorsement – the draft bill tabled by Ariel Kallner (Likud) imposing a 65% tax on foreign aid to Israeli and Palestinian humanitarian and human rights groups. Full details here. In February, Kallner tabled a draft bill to amend the income tax ordinance to impose a tax of 65 percent on financial support from third-states and intergovernmental organizations (@EUCouncil @EU_Commission to #Israeli and #Palestinian humanitarians and human rights defenders. (pic) Read in conjunction with the draft bill tabled by Strook and Rothman (Religious Zionism Jewish Power) to automate the transposition of Israeli civil law to occupied Palestinian territory, the bill imposing a tax would apply to Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza, obstructing aid to their critical humanitarian and human rights mission. (pic) Globally since the 1940s, official humanitarian and development assistance has generally been exempted from taxation. A 2018 @ODI_Global survey in 47 developing countries showed that all afforded exemptions to providers of aid assistance from a range of different taxes, including income,property, and indirect taxes. Implementing agencies, including international and national NGOs, were similarly exempted. Introduction of taxation of this sort by Israel would therefore stand apart from state practice and act as a disincentive for donors to support Israeli and Palestinian civil society. Should this come to pass, the resources of organisations critical to the provision of humanitarian relief and human rights protection would be depleted beyond recovery.
    • Raoul Wootliff 5/24/23: “Thread on how the bill to limit funding for NGOs is a direct attack on Israeli democracy and civil society, mirroring legislation used in illiberal democracies to suppress dissent, consolidate power, and weaken democratic institutions. The bill, drafted by Likud MK @ArielKallner, strikes at the heart of civil society. It seeks to cripple nonprofit groups’ ability to accept donations from abroad, effectively stripping them of their public institution status and imposing a crushing 65% income tax on them. This bill is not simply about funding; it’s about stifling dissent and muzzling voices that challenge those in power. By targeting civil society groups, it seeks to silence opposition and restrict the space for open dialogue & debate. This threatens the fabric of democracy. If this bill becomes law, Israel will take a dangerous step towards becoming an illiberal democracy. We have seen similar laws used in Russia, Hungary, and Poland to suppress dissent, muzzle civil society, and weaken democratic institutions. That is where we are heading.History has shown us the perils of such laws. In Russia, legislation has labeled NGOs as “foreign agents,” subjecting them to onerous regulations and stifling their work. Hungary and Poland also enacted laws targeting NGOs, severely limiting their ability to operate freely. This bill is not an isolated incident; it’s part of the broader agenda to undermine democratic checks and balances, consolidate power, and stifle the diversity of voices in Israeli society. It would give the government ability to control the narrative and silence opposition. It is therefore a direct assault on democratic values and the right to dissent. We must not allow Israel to follow this dark path. We must stand firm in our commitment to protect Israeli democracy.”