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Israel`s NGO crackdown spells trouble
Seth Freedman
The Guardian
25 January 2010

The Israeli government`s restrictions on the movement of NGO workers will impose more hardship on beleaguered Palestinians

Last week saw the latest move in the Israeli government`s clampdown on those working in solidarity with the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Ending a decades-old policy of granting work visas to employees of NGOs operating in the region, Israeli officials are now issuing NGO workers with tourist visas instead, prohibiting them from working in areas under Israeli jurisdiction, including Area C (which makes up 60% of the West Bank) and all of East Jerusalem.

Many NGOs maintain a presence in East Jerusalem and in locations throughout Area C, and as a result of the policy change they fear having to shut up shop and relocate to towns and cities inside Area A. Once there, it appears that NGO employees will be subject to the same restrictions on entering Israel as Palestinians are currently, which would severely hamper their ability to serve the needs of the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem and in Area C.

There are around 150 NGOs currently working with the Palestinian population, and all but those 12 registered prior to Israel`s occupation of the West Bank will be affected by the new policy, including Oxfam, Save the Children and Mdecins Sans Frontires. The restriction on the movement of the hundreds of NGO employees sends yet another message from the Israeli government that they have no qualms about imposing further hardships on the already-beleaguered Palestinian people, regardless of how many previous accords are trampled upon and past agreements rescinded in the process.

2009 was a bad year for relations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and all the signs point to 2010 proving equally fractious. President Obama`s frank admission of his failure to break the deadlock between the two sides has reinforced the belief among observers that the perenially intractable conflict has a long time left to run, and his capitulation to Binyamin Netanyahu over settlements has bolstered the resolve of politicians on the Israeli right.

Avigdor Lieberman and his deputy Danny Ayalon have spent months breathing fire in the direction of anyone they deem inimical to the state, whether Palestinian officials, foreign diplomats, domestic dissidents or aid workers. While some of their threats turned out to be long on bark and short on bite, there has been a concerted wave of crackdowns against certain targets which reveal the government`s true face when it comes to its political opponents.

Despite the violence of the second intifada having all but died out, Israel`s rulers continue to apply intense heat to the resistance movement, incarcerating several key Palestinian activists on trumped-up charges relating to their anti-occupation protests. At the same time, internationals visiting Palestinian Authority areas find themselves barred from entering Israel, thanks to a new policy of stamping `PA-only` visas on their travel documents.

With every repressive measure taken by Israeli officials, the more apparent it becomes that Netanyahu and his cabinet have long stopped caring about the effects of their authoritarian actions on what is left of the peace process. Violence emanating from the West Bank has all but ceased in recent months, a development which could, and should, have been capitalised upon by Israeli and Palestinian leaders keen to exploit the relative calm to embark on fresh negotiations. However, Israel`s intransigence over settlements and the sabre-rattling of Lieberman and his cohorts has prevented any progress whatsoever being made, and moves such as those taken against the NGO community only rub salt into the wound.

Taken in isolation, each restrictive policy enacted by the Israeli government is problematic enough to warrant challenging by those in the region with a real interest in justice. However, when viewed together as a chain of interlinked hardline tactics, the whole is far greater and far more disturbing than the sum of its parts. After almost a year in office, it is clear that the incumbent Israeli cabinet is engaged in a process of wilfully undermining as much as they can of the goodwill that previously existed between the two sides, and that can only spell serious trouble for the future for Israelis as well as Palestinians.

The last thing Israelis need is for more Palestinians to be driven into the arms of extremist groups as a result of heightened Israeli repression. PA officials require far greater concessions from their Israeli counterparts as a means to convince their people that they can be relied upon to deliver results, and Israeli politicians ought to do all within their power to strengthen the moderate Palestinian leadership in order to negate the influence of Hamas and other radical groups.

Cracking down on NGO workers, foreign journalists and Israeli peace activists does nothing to achieve these ends, and will only result in more hostility, more suspicion and more recriminations. In the interests of citizens on both sides of the border, Israeli leaders would do well to ratchet the tension down rather than up but if past performance is anything to go by, the chances of such a comprehensive volte-face occurring are faint at best, and receding with every passing day.

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