JERUSALEM — Human rights groups expressed outrage Wednesday after Israel's parliament moved toward approving a formal inquiry into their sources of funding, describing it as a step to stifle dissent and limit democracy.
The vote was one of a series needed to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry into human rights groups that work toward prosecution of Israeli soldiers and officials abroad for alleged war crimes. It passed by a wide margin, 41-15.
The sponsor of the inquiry legislation, like similar steps before, was Yisrael Beitenu, the hard-line party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Activities of groups like Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem, which expose alleged Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, have long infuriated Lieberman and his allies.
The idea of a formal inquiry into rights groups follows earlier initiatives from Israel's right, like requiring an oath of loyalty from non-Jews who apply for Israeli citizenship and banning state funding for groups that mark the annual Palestinian day of mourning over Israel's creation.
Hagai Elad, director of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, one of the country's oldest human rights advocacy groups, complained that the hard-liners who dominate the current parliament "have shown that instead of dealing with the content of the criticism voiced, they prefer to silence and vilify" the groups.
Another group, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, called the legislation "authoritarian, immoral and illegitimate," adding that it "mourns the slow but sure death of democratic values in Israel."
Critics of the groups charge that European governments and organizations channel huge amounts of money to the groups without accountability, supporting what the critics call "lawfare," legal action aimed at delegitimizing Israel.
David Kriss, spokesman for the European Union delegation in Israel, said that the EU does not hide its donations.
"All of the EU's funding is done according to accepted criteria, and donations are all listed on the EU website," he said. The EU mission does not speak for its member nations.
Israel's society has long been split between those who favor far-reaching concessions for peace with the Palestinians and those who oppose such a policy. The human rights groups targeted by the Yisrael Beitenu initiative spring from the dovish camp, branching out into active opposition to Israel's occupation of Palestinian areas.
They have produced dozens of studies critical of Israeli policies and activities, as well as countless reports in news media taking Israel to task for its treatment of Palestinians. For decades, Israel's government has been put on the defensive by the groups while trying to refute the charges.
Polls show that cracking down on the Israeli human rights groups has considerable sympathy among Israelis.
One of the most vexing campaigns for Israeli officials is the drive in Europe to arrest and prosecute Israeli officials and ex-military officers for alleged war crimes under the concept of "universal jurisdiction," under which some countries have adopted the power to try alleged war criminals, though they have no direct connection to them.
Pro-Palestinian groups, some co-operating with the Israeli organizations, have forced Israeli officials to cancel trips to Europe for fear of arrest. One, an ex-general, had to stay aboard an airliner at a London airport and return home for fear of arrest. Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni last year canceled a visit to Britain, and the two countries had to move their strategic dialogue from London to Jerusalem.
Explaining the need for the inquiry, Yisrael Beitenu said it would show who is behind the Israeli groups.
"Their purpose is to deter the Israeli military in its fight against terrorists and weaken the resolve of soldiers in their defense" of Israel, it said in a statement.
In response, 14 rights groups issued a joint statement rejecting the reasoning, adding, "Similar attempts to silence criticism have failed in the past, (and) this attempt will fail, too."