Democracy under threat over EI funding, Dutch groups say

Foreign Minister of the Netherlands Uri Rosenthal has threatened to punish the Dutch foundation ICCO for its continued funding of The Electronic Intifada. Dutch civil society organizations condemn the minister’s tactics, warning that the government is attempting to suppress free speech and other basic democratic rights when it comes to criticism of Israel’s human rights record.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-government-linked organization NGO Monitor — which sparked the controversy by leveling false accusations against The Electronic Intifada in November — has expanded its assault to include Oxfam NOVIB, a Dutch international development and human rights organization that has supported the Netherlands Palestine Committee (

On 13 January, ICCO director Marinus Verweij met with Rosenthal, who had publicly criticized and promised to investigate ICCO’s support for The Electronic Intifada. According to a 13 January press release from the Dutch foreign ministry, Rosenthal “had a frank and open discussion today with the interchurch organization for development, ICCO, which receives some 75 million euros in government grants per year. The meeting was prompted by ICCO’s funding of the website Electronic Intifada, which has published calls for the boycott of Israel.”

The foreign ministry statement added that “Rosenthal considers this to be directly contrary to Dutch government policy and has urged ICCO to remedy the situation. ICCO claims that its support for the website is paid from private donations, but the minister dismissed this argument as disingenuous.” The minister also warned ICCO “that continuing activities that are in conflict with the government’s position could affect funding.”

“There’s nothing wrong with holding critical views, but going directly against government policy is something else,” the statement quoted Rosenthal as saying (“Rosenthal takes ICCO to task,” 13 January 2010).

ICCO provided 50,000 euros per year to The Electronic Intifada in 2009 and 2010, and lesser amounts in previous years, amounting to about a third of the publication’s budget since 2006. The majority of The Electronic Intifada’s funding comes from direct donations from readers.

Following the meeting with Rosenthal, ICCO director Verweij defended the independence of ICCO and other nongovernmental organizations in a commentary in leading Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, an English translation of which was distributed to ICCO partners by email. “It is surprising for a minister … to criticize a civil society organization because of its support for a news site that says things that don’t please him. Does the Dutch public broadcasting system need to worry about the financial support it receives from the Dutch government because guests in its program Pauw & Witteman make critical comments on Israel?” (Original Dutch version: “Hoezo ondermijnen we de regering?,” 14 January 2011)

The ICCO director wrote that his organization’s policies were guided by a strict adherence to international law and human rights principles. Verweij noted that numerous international bodies, including the International Court of Justice at The Hague, have confirmed the illegality of Israel’s ongoing settlement activities and the construction of its wall in the occupied West Bank. Under these circumstances, Verweij wrote, “The only way to temper Israel’s appetite for settlement, to get the country to relent and to create the conditions for a sustainable and just peace, is by exerting pressure on the Israeli government. For the Palestinian population, for churches and civil society organizations such pressure has become the only remaining option to peacefully express their frustration about Israeli violations of the international law and to persuade Israel to finally change its policies.”

John Veron, a representative of ICCO, separately told Volkskrant that ICCO supports alternative media related to other countries in conflict such as Sudan and Congo and that “A free press is one of the conditions for building a democracy … In conflict situations in particular, media reports of the violations of human rights of citizens are important” (“‘Site Electronic Intifada staat voor persvrijheid’,” 19 January 2011)

Meanwhile, Partos, a national umbrella for more than a hundred Dutch civil society organizations in the international development cooperation sector, strongly condemned Rosenthal’s threats to ICCO’s funding, asserting in a statement that they constitute “a dangerous precedent.” The requirement that Dutch organizations adhere to government policy is a “fundamentally new and particularly pernicious road,” the statement said. The democratic independence of civil society, Partos asserted, “does not suit countries with restrictive regimes, where development agencies often work. But it does suit our own country, which flies the flag for freedom of expression and association” (“A free society needs a free civil society,” 19 January 2011).

On 22 January The Jerusalem Post published a new article by pro-Israel advocate Benjamin Weinthal, repeating NGO Monitor’s original accusations against The Electronic Intifada, including claims that the publication is “anti-Semitic” and “frequently compares the Israeli military to Nazis.” The newspaper provided no examples to support these allegations nor did it attempt to contact The Electronic Intifada for comment. But in a new twist, The Jerusalem Post quoted a Dutch West Bank settler condemning The Electronic Intifada as “a jihadist news site” (“Dutch FM mulls slashing funding for anti-Israel charity”).

Citing NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg, the newspaper also attacked Oxfam NOVIB for providing funding to an event held by the Netherlands Palestine Committee in Amsterdam on 16 May 2009 at which Ali Abunimah, co-founder and executive director of The Electronic Intifada, spoke. The Netherlands Palestine Committee paid for Abunimah’s travel and lodging.

David Cronin, an author, expert on European Union-Israel relations and frequent contributor to The Electronic Intifada, argued that the controversy showed that Dutch democracy was under threat from the Israel lobby, in a speech in Amsterdam on 15 January, the text of which he posted on his blog. “As soon as somebody tells the truth about Israel being an apartheid state and a vicious colonial project,” Cronin said, “it is only a matter of time before the lobby will label him or her an anti-Semite. This is a deliberate move designed to muzzle debate” (“Dutch democracy under threat from Israel lobby,” 16 January 2011).

“I am proud to be a contributor to The Electronic Intifada,” Cronin added, “because I know that it defends the core human values enshrined in international law. It fearlessly exposes how international law is violated by such activities as the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the merciless blockade of Gaza. Is it no longer acceptable in the Netherlands to defend international law?”