Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that claim to promote human rights agendas often receive significant portions of their budgets from governments. While these NGOs claim to work towards humanitarian ends, many, especially those involved in conflict zones such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, engage in highly politicized and biased campaigns. These NGOs are active in delegitimization against Israel, and, using the language of “human rights” and “international law,” work to isolate Israel and undermine its right to exist, through strategies such as BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions).

What is an NGO?

NGOs are non-governmental organizations. They are civil society associations that ostensibly work independently from governments to provide and advance services in social and political fields. NGOs and ubiquitous: for example, in Israel alone there are about 40,000 NGOs that are active in numerous aspects of life, and their activities include providing services, lobbying the government, legal action, and advocating various causes. Although NGOs prefer to be seen as grassroots groups, representing underprivileged and underserved populations and “speaking truth to power,” many NGOs have large budgets and are very powerful political actors themselves. They are highly influential, affecting change in government policy through lobbying and expensive media campaigns. For instance, groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have massive budgets and close links to Western governments, and wield influence in international frameworks such as the United Nations. In addition, many NGOs receive significant funding from governments, belying claims of independence and “non-governmental” status. In fact, NGOs are non-democratic and unaccountable. NGO officials are not elected and tend to represent a narrow sliver of like-minded ideologues. NGO Monitor’s research touches on a small subset of NGOs in Israel and around the world, those that make human rights claims in the context of conflict zones. Most of our work focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Durban Strategy

In September 2001, the UN held the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, consisting of three parallel gatherings: an official diplomatic forum, a youth summit, and a massive NGO Forum. An estimated 7,000 delegates from more than 1,500 NGOs participated in the three-day NGO Forum, made possible by grants from the Ford Foundation and various governments. The atmosphere and rhetoric at the NGO Forum featured a high level of vitriol. Israel was accused of perpetrating a “Holocaust,” Israeli soldiers were portrayed as Nazis, and antisemitism cartoons and images were distributed. The NGO Forum’s final declaration condemned Israel’s “perpetration of racist crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide.” The document called for “a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state… the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation, and training) between all states and Israel.” The document also called for “condemnation of those states who (sic) are supporting, aiding and abetting the Israeli apartheid state and its perpetration of racist crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide.” This plan of attack, or “Durban Strategy,” represents a shift in the war against Israel – from attempts to destroy Israel through military power and terror attacks, to a “soft power” political war aimed at erasing Israel through “non-violent” means.


NGOs utilize many different tactics to delegitimize and demonize Israel, depending on their budget, standing, and capacity within the powerful NGO network. This political warfare, in line with the Durban Strategy, is based on the exploitation of human rights, double standards, use of apartheid rhetoric, and false accusations of war crimes. The most common tactic is BDS – Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions.

  • Boycotts of products, culture, and academics – BDS activists lobby stores not to carry Israeli products and encourage others not to purchase them. They send letters to artists, musicians, authors, and academics, imploring them not to perform and appear in Israel or cooperate with Israeli institutions and pro-Israel individuals.
  • Divestment from companies that do business with Israel – Distorting the concept of ethical investing, NGOs accuse companies that conduct business in Israel of involvement in war crimes and violations of international law.
  • Sanctions against self-defense measures – Anti-Israel activists demand that the international community enact comprehensive sanctions against Israel – treating Israel as a pariah state. Other forms of sanctions include arms embargoes, which are premised on baseless charges of war crimes.

Another tactic, rooted in the Final Declaration of the NGO Forum, is “lawfare.” Lawfare comprises:

  • Lawsuits and campaigns in foreign, domestic, and international courts, against Israeli officials and companies and governments that have relations with Israel;
  • exploitation of judicial or quasi-judicial bodies to promote BDS and hamper counterterror measures;
  • use of international legal rhetoric and distortion of international law as a basis for promoting BDS and other claims such as “war crimes,” “massacres,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “apartheid”;
  • efforts to disrupt the Israeli judicial system;
  • organizing provocations such as flotillas and violent demonstrations under the guise of humanitarian operations and international law.