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Arab rights body faces sponsors’ ire

The National – 15 December 2008

The Human Rights Association with its 20-year record of exposing Israeli policies that discriminate against the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens is facing imminent closure as major funders withdraw money in what some observers believe may be a co-ordinated policy to silence Israel’s harshest “critics from within”.

The association, one of the most prominent of several leading Arab rights organisations, is attracting the opposition of international charitable foundations concerned with promoting democracy in Israel, according to Mohammed Zeidan, the HRA director.

The financial squeeze, Mr Zeidan said, is also designed to weaken the representation of Arab groups from Israel as they prepare to make their case at a UN conference in April that is likely to criticise the country’s human rights record.

The Jewish state has announced it will boycott the Durban review conference to be held in Geneva.

The Human Rights Association (HRA), based in Nazareth in the Galilee, has embarrassed government agencies with investigations into racial profiling at Israeli airports, the desecration of Christian and Muslim holy sites, police assaults on Arab legislators and what it describes as the army’s use of Arab communities as “human shields” during the 2006 Lebanon war.

The HRA’s work promoting the rights of Israel’s Arab minority, comprising nearly one-fifth of the country’s population, has earned the Jewish state stiff rebukes from international bodies, including UN monitoring committees.

“The kind of work we’ve been doing in Israel is unique,” Mr Zeidan said. “Official bodies in Israel have little interest in promoting equality for Arab citizens or drawing attention to their own role in implementing discriminatory policies. If organisations like ours don’t do this work, who will?”

Like other non-governmental organisations in Israel, the HRA depends on funding from abroad. Much of the money comes from Jewish foundations in the United States established to ensure Israel respects the democratic principles laid out in its founding Declaration of Independence.

But in recent months that money has dried up not only for the HRA but for some of the other major organisations protecting the rights of Israel’s Arab minority.

Other threatened organisations include those working to defend the rights of internal refugees forced from their homes by the 1948 war and those trying to conduct academic research on Israel’s discriminatory policies.

The suspicion among the heads of several Arab organisations is that they are being punished by funders because they have been making Israel look too bad.

“Over the past few years, Arab civil society groups have grown, got more professional and been much better at making their voices heard abroad,” said Ameer Makhoul, the head of the Ittijah umbrella group for Arab organisations in Israel. “Now we are paying the price.”

He said strong lobbying by the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs and Jewish pressure groups was encouraging other funders, most importantly the EU, to pull funding from many Arab rights organisations.

Mr Zeidan said he had proof that such suspicions were not unfounded.

He holds up a letter from the Moriah Fund, one of the main funders to Israeli organisations. In a letter sent a year ago by its director in Israel, Don Futterman, the fund warns Mr Zeidan that their long-standing relationship is likely to end. This year the funding was finally cut.

Mr Zeidan pointed to the reasons offered in the letter. The fund’s board, said Mr Futterman, had “concerns about some of the statements HRA had issued during the Second Lebanon War” and needed clarification about the association’s “basic orientation toward Israel’s legitimacy”.

Questioned about the letter, Mr Futterman denied the fund had severed its relationship with the HRA on political grounds. Nonetheless, he admitted the charity felt the association had “crossed a red line” during the war in issuing a press release in which it referred to the bombing of the village of Kana in south Lebanon as a “massacre” and “war crime”.

Israeli planes killed 28 civilians, half of them children, in an attack on a civilian building.

Regarding the question of Israel’s “legitimacy”, Mr Zeidan responded: “We are a human rights group. We don’t get involved in the question of whether Israel should be a Jewish state. We examine whether it is living up to its claims to be a democracy.”

Mr Makhoul noted that most of the Arab organisations continuing to be funded were either those dealing with issues internal to Arab society, such as domestic violence and women’s rights, or those lobbying for change at the local level, in parliament or courts, rather than at international forums.

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