Jerusalem – Over the past month, Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies have been rocked by acts of violence carried out by Jewish extremists, including the stabbing of six participants in Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride march and the firebomb attack by suspected Israeli settlers in the West Bank village of Duma, which took the lives of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh, his father Saad and mother Reham.
In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to fight “hate, fanaticism and terrorism from whatever side”.
But recent findings by Israeli nongovernmental organisation (NGO) Peace Now, show that the Israeli government is actually providing special tax status to groups that provide donations to those convicted of politically motivated violence.
Paragraph 46(a) of the Israeli income tax ordinance allows tax-free donations to be given to “a national fund or public institution”, as designated by the minister of finance and the Israeli Knesset’s Finance Committee.
Honenu, a right-wing NGO based in the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, was deemed eligible for the special status, and any private donations it receives are essentially tax-exempt. And according to Anat Ben Nun, Peace Now’s director of development and external relations, Honenu has enjoyed this status since 2002, one year after its founding by Israeli settler Shmuel Meidad.
Honenu says it provides legal services to Israeli soldiers and civilians “who find themselves in legal entanglements due to defending themselves against Arab aggression”.
Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are known to provide stipends for Palestinians convicted of what Israeli courts describe as “terror” attacks. According to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PA gives stipends of up to $3,500, with grants as high as $25,000.
Palestinians are tried in Israeli military courts, however, and the fairness of these courts has been questioned by both Israeli and international watchdog groups. According to an internal document leaked to Israeli daily Haaretz, military courts had a conviction rate of “nearly 100 percent” of Palestinians in 2010.
Peace Now discovered, through a request for public tax filings, that in addition to providing legal assistance, Honenu also gives money directly to those convicted of politically motivated violence.
The group is “delivering tax-deductible donations either directly to those convicted of anti-Palestinian violence or their families”, who then deliver the money to the convicts, Ben Nun told Al Jazeera.
Honenu has provided legal assistance to many Israelis – mostly settlers – who have been convicted on charges related to nationalistic violence. These include Ami Popper, convicted of murdering seven Palestinians in 1990; three members of the Bat Ayin Underground, a Jewish group from the Bat Ayin settlement convicted of plotting to kill Palestinian schoolgirls in East Jerusalem with explosives in 2002; and Zvi Struck, convicted of kidnapping and abusing a Palestinian teenager in 2007.
In 2013, these and other ultra-right-wing activists received direct donations from Honenu totalling roughly $51,000. Approximately $13,000 more went to their families.
Honenu did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
While Honenu may appear as a radical fringe group to some Israelis, they have received both political and religious endorsements. Their website exhibits endorsements from prominent religious leaders such as Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and longtime spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who said he “fully [endorsed] supporting the organisation”, and considered it “truly a [good deed] to give generously to this group” before his death in 2013.
Instead of our tax money going where we need it, we are indirectly subsidising these heinous crimes.
More recently, Israeli police raided a convention of right-wing activists attended by both high-level officials of Honenu, including its founder Meidad, and former MK Michael Ben Ari, who was in government from 2009 to 2012.
“Instead of our tax money going where we need it, we are indirectly subsidising these heinous crimes,” Ben Nun told Al Jazeera. “We feel that it’s outrageous that Honenu would do this, but we think it’s even more outrageous that the state would subsidise these acts.”
Peace Now and Manuel Trajtenberg, a member of the Knesset from the leading opposition party Zionist Union, both sent letters on August 3 to Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon requesting an immediate end to Honenu’s tax-exempt status.
In response to Peace Now’s publication of its findings, the Knesset’s Finance Committee has announced a special hearing on Honenu’s tax status by the end of 2015.
Sawsan Zaher, the director of social and economic rights at the Haifa-based Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said in an interview that Honenu’s case could “accelerate the development and implementation of certain criteria for being recognised under 46(a)”, as there are currently no official requirements.
Adalah has considered applying for 46(a) recognition, but Zaher said the organisation is hesitant to do so because the process is tendentious.
“If you’re a Palestinian group that receives state funds or tax exemptions and you commemorate the Nakba [the anniversary of the creation of present-day Israel, which saw more than 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes], your funding could be cut under the Nakba law,” she said, referring to a controversial 2011 law that allows Israel’s finance minister to freeze or withdraw funds from institutions that mark the country’s independence day with mourning.
She continued: “If you compare the actions of Honenu, a recognised NGO, and those of Palestinian institutions whose funding can be frozen at any time, you clearly see that the allocation of state funds is very political.”
The revelations come at a time when even Zionist, Israeli NGOs such as Peace Now are coming under increased political pressure. In July, right-wing members of parliament Ayelet Shaked and Robert Ilatov revived a 2013 bill that would limit to $5,500 the amount of foreign government funding that NGOs are able to receive annually, should they engage in a number of activities – including calls to try officers or soldiers of the Israeli army in international courts, calls to boycott, divest or sanction Israel, or denying Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character.
Shaked, who is also the justice minister, was quoted by The Times of Israel as saying that “foreign governments, through their support of extremist organisations, are involved in the unrelenting efforts to destroy the Jewish and democratic character of Israel”.
If passed, the law would affect Peace Now to “a great extent”, and Ben Nun believes that such laws limit the work of human rights organisations, similar to a recently enacted Russian legislation.
Shaked declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO that works to document violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, is another group that believes it would be “severely affected” by Shaked’s proposed law.
Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for B’Tselem, told Al Jazeera that increased international criticism of Israel is a major factor in this bill’s revival, and that the government’s common response to this criticism is “to blame human rights NGOs”.
“Instead of finding a way to address these issues , they blame the messenger,” Michaeli stated.
The human rights advocate said she does not believe the current government, considered to be the most right-wing in Israel’s 67-year history, wants to see substantial change in these areas. In her view, the emphasis on foreign funding is a method for protecting pro-settlement NGOs: “Pro-settlement groups can’t receive funds from international governments, because what they advocate is against international law, so no government will fund them.”
Ben Nun echoed Michaeli, saying that the proposed bill is meant to change the discourse on human rights issues. She believes it is an “attempt to delegitimise peace and human rights NGOs” by asking the question ‘Where does the money come from?’, when the question should be ‘Is what we’re doing legitimate?'”
Due to the current makeup of the Israeli Knesset, Peace Now thinks there is a chance “that this bill is going to pass”, said Ben Nun. “It’s very possible, and very worrisome.”
Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @creedenewton