Middle East

Israeli MPs back 'McCarthyite' probe on rights groups

Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset, 27 December
Image caption The bill was proposed by the hard-line party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Israeli MPs have voted to begin the process of setting up a formal inquiry into foreign funding of rights groups, a move critics say is "McCarthyite".

The bill accuses local rights groups of damaging the legitimacy of Israel's military by "branding IDF soldiers and commanders as war criminals".

It was sponsored by the hard-line party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

It follows other recent initiatives from the Israeli right, like requiring an oath of loyalty from non-Jews.

The motion to establish the commission of inquiry will now go to parliament's House Committee for debate, ahead of a full vote before the Knesset.

MK Fania Kirshenbaum - of Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party - who submitted the proposal, accused human rights groups of branding Israeli soldiers as war criminals.

"These groups provide material to the Goldstone commission [which investigated the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive] and are behind the indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world," Ms Kirshenbaum said.

A series of arrest warrants for Israeli politicians and military officials have been issued in the last few years, particularly by pro-Palestinian groups in European countries.

The 41-17 vote brought a storm of protest from local rights groups, including Acri, Btselem, Adalah and the Hotline for Migrant Workers.

"Persecution and attempts at silencing will not stop us. In a democracy, criticism of the government is not only legitimate - it is essential," said a statement from Btselem, one of the organisations named in the decision.

The Welfare and Social Services Minister, Isaac Herzog, called it a "political witch hunt" suited to "shady regimes" that would damage Israel's international standing, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Israel "must be a light unto the world in terms of freedom of speech and freedom to express beliefs, and reject proposals that have the scent of McCarthyism," Mr Herzog said, referring to the 1950s communist witch hunt led by US Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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