JERUSALEM - An initiative in the Israeli parliament this month to investigate the funding of local human rights organizations has intensified debate here about the role of the groups, which rightist critics have accused of harming Israel.
Human rights advocates say they are working in an increasingly hostile public climate - particularly since the Gaza war two years ago, which brought allegations of Israeli war crimes - and they warn that free speech and the right to dissent are being challenged.
Thousands of people marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to protest lawmakers' initial approval of a parliamentary committee to look into foreign funding of the Israeli rights groups.
Although a parliamentary panel cannot compel private citizens to testify and its conclusions are not binding, critics called the planned investigation a McCarthyist tactic intended to taint the rights groups, many of whom document abuse and violation of Palestinians' rights by Israeli security forces and settlers.
The committee was proposed by the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), a major partner in the governing coalition. The party is led by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, who in a broadside last week called the rights groups "collaborators with terror."
Faina Kirshenbaum, a Yisrael Beiteinu legislator who presented the motion, said in parliament that human rights groups in Israel are pursuing a "systematic campaign" to "delegitimize the state of Israel, the soldiers and commanders of the Israel Defense Forces, and Israel's right to defend itself."
She noted that the groups had submitted material to the U.N. fact-finding mission that investigated the Gaza war and later accused both Israel and the militant Islamic group Hamas of war crimes. Israel boycotted the panel, headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, saying its mandate was biased.
Kirshenbaum accused the rights groups of "branding IDF soldiers as war criminals," promoting efforts to prosecute former army officers abroad and encouraging young Israelis to dodge the draft. She said an investigation is necessary to uncover the groups' sources of funding, which in some cases, she said, originated in Arab states or "perhaps" with "terrorist organizations."
The rights organizations dismissed the allegations, noting that their funding sources, including foreign foundations and governments, are listed on their Web sites and in the financial reports they are required by law to submit to Israeli authorities.
"The purpose of the inquiry is not to establish the facts, they are well known," B'tselem, a leading rights group, said in a statement. "The motive behind the investigation is an attempt to hinder our work through smears and incitement."
Some commentators said that the move to investigate the groups' finances sends a broader message of intimidation.
"This obviously smacks of McCarthyism, and the fact that it has been initiated by a party, many of whose leaders come from the former Soviet Union, suggests a basic flaw in their understanding of what democracy and liberalism are," said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Debbie Gild-Hayo, a lobbyist with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that because the groups are already legally required to report their sources of funding, the planned inquiry is clearly an attempt to conduct a "political investigation."
Criticism of the move also came from some senior figures in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's right-leaning Likud party, among them the speaker of parliament, Reuven Rivlin, and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who called the initiative "very dangerous."
"When freedom of speech and freedom of expression are threatened, Israeli democracy is also threatened," Meridor told the Haaretz newspaper.
A petition signed by 79 law professors and sent to Rivlin asserted that human rights organizations "play a vital role in Israeli democracy." A group of prominent academics, artists and writers also raised the alarm in a separate letter to lawmakers.
"When elected officials begin investigating citizens," they wrote, "it spells the end of democracy."
Greenberg is a special correspondent.