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Israel’s friends at Westminster ‘hijack’ foreign aid debate

Pro-Israel MPs were accused this week of ‘hijacking’ a Westminster debate on UK government foreign aid in order to attack the Palestinian Authority (PA) and smear Israeli human rights groups.

Monday’s debate came in response to an e-petition initiated by The Mail on Sunday, asking the government to “stop spending a fixed 0.7 per cent slice of our national wealth on Foreign Aid.” A handful of MPs, however, used the forum to repeatedly raise the topic of alleged ‘incitement’ and payments to ‘terrorists’ by the PA, a recipient of UK aid money.

The intention of Israel’s supporters had been flagged in advance, resulting in Conservative MP Alan Duncan warning at the start that it would be “a tragedy” and “repulsive” if the debate “was hijacked by those who want to use it to demonise Palestine and Palestinians.”

Duncan’s suspicions were proved right: Labour MPs Joan Ryan and Ian Austin, as well as Tory MPs Andrew Percy, Eric Pickles, and Matthew Offord, constantly returned to their theme; “there may be some groans”, Percy noted at one point, before launching into another attack on the PA.

It was enough to prompt Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Human Rights Andy Slaughter to express “dismay that there has been a concerted campaign today to demonise the Government’s funding of the Palestinian Authority.”

Towards the end of the debate, MP Diane Abbott, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, commented that “it is of no help to people in the region, particularly ordinary Palestinians on the West Bank, to demonise the Palestinian Authority.”

Matthew Offord, however, was not satisfied with merely criticising government money to the PA. The Conservative MP for Hendon alleged that “a number of NGO projects currently sponsored by DFID in Israel and the Palestinian Territories… have a questionable outlook of endorsing violence.”

Offord did not specify which NGO projects he was referring to, nor provide any evidence. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Echoing the talking points of Israel’s extreme-right, Offord claimed that “some of those NGOs engage in activities that undermine peace efforts and increase tensions, and a number are heavily involved in ‘lawfare’ and the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Offord’s source would appear to be NGO Monitor, whose reports he quoted, and who he described as an organisation that “seeks to hold NGOs in Israel and the Palestinian territories to account.” This description of NGO Monitor is either disingenuous or ignorant.

As Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf wrote in a piece last year (‘Israeli Right renews its fight on funding for human rights orgs’) one of the goals of NGO Monitor is “to attack what they see as the last political platform for anti-occupation activity inside Israeli society.”

Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor, has worked as a consultant to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and recently appeared at an Israeli government-sponsored conference in order to denigrate respected groups such as Oxfam and Human Rights Watch.

NGO Monitor was not the only darling of the Israeli right cited by MPs during the debate. Joan Ryan, Labour Friends of Israel chair, and the DUP’s Jim Shannon also cited Palestinian Media Watch, whose director is a West Bank settler who believes Palestinians “have no history in [the] land.”

Offord named 10 NGO projects in Israel that receive UK government funding, including groups that could hardly be described as radical leftists (e.g. Peres Centre for Peace). But he singled out one Israeli NGO, Yesh Din, for particular attack.

According to Offord, “in October 2013, members of Yesh Din took part in an Arab celebration on the ruins of a Jewish community in Homesh, with attendees desecrating Jewish symbols and waving anti-Semitic posters, including one depicting a Jew with a spear through his head.”

Asked for comment, a Yesh Din spokesperson said Offord was guilty of presenting “an erroneous account of the events, based on misleading information that the Israeli extreme right tried to spread in the past.” It was “unfortunate”, he added, that the MP “did not bother to check the facts before partaking in the ongoing demonisation campaign against Israeli Human Rights NGOs.”

The ‘celebration’ cited by Offord marked the return of Palestinian land to its owners, 35 years after it was first seized by the Israeli military. Until 2005, the site was an illegal settlement (Homesh), and eight years later, following a legal petition by Yesh Din, the seizure order was nullified.

The Yesh Din spokesperson acknowledged that during the event, to which the group’s members were invited, one individual waved an “anti-Semitic poster” that was “removed at the request of several of the participants.” But “contrary to the image MP Offord tried to paint, the celebration was not held on the ruins of a Jewish community and no Jewish symbols were desecrated.”

The NGO is proud of the support provided by the UK, the spokesperson continued, “which allows us to monitor human rights infractions and to try and remedy them.” Offord, he concluded, can be assured that his “money is going to causes that the British people should be proud of.”

Yesh Din has long documented the impunity enjoyed by both Israeli settlers and Israeli armed forces for violent crimes committed against occupied Palestinians. Unfortunately, it would appear that Matthew Offord and his like-minded MPs are, in fact, keen to undermine such efforts.

In recent times, there has been a well-publicised intensification of attacks on Israeli and Palestinian human rights defenders, including, most importantly, at the highest level of Netanyahu’s government. It is striking that Israel’s friends in Westminster are now following the lead of Bibi’s coalition, and other, even further right-wing elements, in going after liberal NGOs.

Earlier this month, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began its fiftieth year. Just in the last two weeks, Israeli ministers have variously vowed that “there will be no Palestinian state”, urged the annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank – and the expulsion of its Palestinian inhabitants – and tied cultural funding to performances in settlements.

Yet instead of calling time on occupation and colonisation, home demolitions and discrimination, some MPs, in the words of Andy Slaughter during the debate, are determined “to give cover to the Netanyahu-Lieberman regime” – even if it means promoting right-wing Israeli propaganda outfits and smearing those promoting the rule of law and accountability.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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