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A Palestinian woman passes by Israeli border policemen on guard in Jerusalem's Old City in March. (MENAHEM KAHANA/MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian woman passes by Israeli border policemen on guard in Jerusalem's Old City in March. (MENAHEM KAHANA/MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Arab-Israeli group takes Canadian agency to court over terminated funding Add to ...

An Arab-Israeli research group is taking the International Development Research Centre to court, alleging the Canadian Crown corporation cut off funding to the group under pressure from the Israeli government.

Mada al-Carmel, a 10-year-old social research centre based in Haifa, conducts research into Israel's Arab minority. Two years ago, Mada received a pair of three-year grants from the IDRC to study the marginalization of women in Arab-Israeli society and the low level of political participation by Arab Israelis.

In March, the IDRC terminated the grants, worth almost $800,000, in their second year. The decision means a loss of 40 per cent of Mada's income and a serious blow to the organization's reputation and credibility.

There was no indication of poor performance by Mada. Indeed, a March 3 letter from the IDRC states: "We wish to emphasize that this termination is … by no means a reflection on the quality of the work being done by your institution."

Nadim Rouhana, Mada's founding director and a professor at Tufts University in Boston, alleges that parties close to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu pressed the Canadian government and the IDRC to end support for Mada.

As a Canadian Crown corporation, the IDRC is funded by the federal government but is managed at arm's length in order to avoid any appearance of political interference.

IDRC president David Malone, a distinguished former Canadian diplomat, denies that outside pressure or government interference played a role in the decision to terminate Mada's grants.

"It was a management decision," Mr. Malone said. "Strictly internal."

The decision has led to a legal application by Mada al-Carmel against the IDRC to have the termination quashed for lack of cause. The case is being heard in Federal Court in Ottawa.

In a sworn affidavit, Mr. Malone states that the IDRC's mandate is to fund research in developing nations and that Israel, as a high-income country, is not considered a developing state. Therefore, he stated, he felt duty-bound to kill the contracts.

He acknowledges that the Mada grants were "first brought to my attention as the result of an inquiry by NGO Monitor, an Israeli advocacy group," in late January.

Shortly afterward, IDRC management received a communication from the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon, also inquiring about Mada.

Mr. Malone launched an internal inquiry to determine what, if anything, NGO Monitor had written about Mada.

NGO Monitor has carried out numerous campaigns aimed at discrediting international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the New Israel Fund (a predominantly Jewish group) and Israeli organizations such as B'tselem, a human rights group, that have criticized Israeli government policies.

It was NGO Monitor that last year informed critics of Rights and Democracy, another federally funded arm's length organization, as well as the Canadian church group KAIROS, about the groups' support for parties and forums critical of Israel. Subsequently, KAIROS lost a $7-million grant from the Canadian International Development Agency. During a period of turmoil that saw several board members and staff resign, Rights and Democracy ended its support for three organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

All this has been part of a wider Israeli crackdown on NGOs. Diplomats and aid officials in Israel have recently complained about what one diplomat called an "all-out assault on legitimate human rights groups," being promoted by the Netanyahu government.

Israel is highly sensitive to non-governmental organizations - often funded by foreign governments - telling Israelis how to run their country.

The IDRC learned that NGO Monitor had reported scathingly about a poster it claimed Mada had produced. The poster depicts an Israeli soldier with his hand in front of a Palestinian woman's chest and the provocative caption: "The occupation penetrates her life everyday."

"Mada al-Carmel publishes crude posters with images of an Israeli soldier touching the breasts of an Arab woman," wrote NGO Monitor's president, Gerald Steinberg.

The poster, however, clearly does not depict the soldier touching the woman's breasts.

Furthermore, Mada didn't publish the poster. Another organization did. But NGO Monitor persisted in its criticism.

"Even if Mada is not responsible for the poster itself, it still is part of a whole network of organizations that accuse Israel of sexually abusing Arab women, and that's false," Mr. Steinberg said.

"No one [here]has accused Israel of sexually abusing Arab women," insisted Dr. Rouhana. The event the poster advertised, he insists, pointed out how the minority role of Arabs in Israel adds to the marginalization of Arab-Israeli women.

This is not the first time NGO Monitor has been criticized for overzealous attacks on organizations critical of Israeli policy.

Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, recently wrote: "It [NGO Monitor]seems dead set on eliminating human rights monitoring of Israel entirely and smearing anyone who supports this vital activity."

Following the IDRC's investigation, Mr. Malone wrote to Mr. Cannon that he planned to continue Mada's grants. A month later, however, Mr. Malone changed his mind.

It was revealed in court in mid-June that, two weeks before Mada got the pink slip, Mr. Malone met with the Israeli ambassador at the Israeli embassy in Ottawa.

When asked by Mada's lawyer if that meeting had anything to do with his decision to terminate Mada's contracts, Mr. Malone was prevented from answering by a lawyer for the Attorney-General of Canada, who warned he must not reveal the contents of any such embassy meeting as it relates to Canada's national security and international relations.

Mr. Malone cautions people from leaping to conclusions. "It remains tempting, clearly, to construct a conspiracy theory out of something I was not allowed to testify to by government policy," said Mr. Malone, who pointed out that he had earlier testified under oath that he received "no direction, directly or indirectly … from any other party external to IDRC."

"David Malone's not the bad guy in this; he's a victim," an IDRC insider said. "I think he genuinely believed that unless he ended Mada's funding, the government would find a way to end IDRC's arm's length independence from government."

Mr. Steinberg denies that was ever his goal. "We didn't consciously go after Mada, and we certainly didn't lobby the Canadian government to end Mada's funding."

"We simply made an inquiry, and the fact that it apparently triggered an investigation and a decision to end Mada's funding is an internal Canadian matter."

"You have to appreciate the atmosphere in Ottawa when all this was happening," says Audrey Macklin, a professor of administrative law at the University of Toronto. "Everyone was abuzz about Rights and Democracy," she said, "and they already had seen funding taken from other aid organizations."

"I can believe that Malone acted out of fear of losing the organization's independence," she said. "But when you make decisions out of such fear, you've already lost your independence."

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