Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Israel Takes Another

Step Away From Democracy

From Palestine Monitor
August 2, 2010

According to the BNC(Boycott National Committee) Statement published on the 9th of July "after five years of BDS, the movement has proven, indisputably, to be the most effective and morally consistent form of solidarity with the people of Palestine in our struggle to end Israel’s occupation, apartheid, and persistent denial of the UN-sanctioned right of return for the Palestinian refugees." With academic and trade Unions (including UNISON), cultural figures including Dustin Hoffman and Elvis Costello and large supermarket chains including Marks and Spencers on board, the BDS campaign is gaining momentum. Furthermore it is beginning to have an economic impact: settlements have been reporting cuts in production as a result of the boycotts.

Israel is showing signs of distress. The non-violent boycott campaign has now joined the ranks of all other forms of Palestinian resistance, being awarded the label of 'economic terrorism’ by Israeli officials. As is the standard response, alongside the highly effective (though no longer very novel) use of the T-word, Israel is remedying its anxiety with legal force: The prohibition on imposing a boycott bill, is the third in recent months which sets out to criminalise criticism of Israel.

The bill passed the first of three votes almost unanimously, with even so-called centrist parties supporting the bill within the Knesset. However it has also raised concern. Coordinator of the BNC, Ingrid Gardner tells Palestine Monitor "[the bill]’s blatant disregard for even symbolic democracy has triggered criticism among not less racist veteran parliamentarians such as Rubi Rivlin (Kadima) and the former editor in chief of Haaretz David Landau, who has called for a boycott of the Knesset."

The bill states: "[It] is prohibited to initiate a boycott against the state of Israel, to encourage participation in a boycott, or to provide assistance or information with the intention of promoting a boycott." It has three targets in mind: Israeli citizens, foreign citizens and foreign political entities. How this will be applied remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that it will be used zealously and with impressive creativity.

Since the bill was put forward in direct response to the Palestinian Authority’s adoption and legal enforcement of the BDS campaign the likelihood is that it will hit them hard. The Israeli government will prevent the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority which they are obliged to do under international law. However the specific impacts are unknown at present: the BNC told Palestine Monitor that it was too early to make any comment, but that "the BNC is currently arranging for consultation with lawyers, in order to obtain advice about how to relate to this particular law bill".

Palestinians are unlikely to be directly impacted: according to Ayala Shani of 'Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from within’:"Palestinians from the West Bank were exempt from the version of the law that passed the preliminary vote last week."

The boycott bill will be targeting Israeli individuals and organisations however. Though slow to catch on, support for the boycott inside Israel has also been growing. 'Boycott! Supporting the BDS Call from within’ started last year and has a growing list of signatories from Israel. A wide range of human rights and advocacy organisations based in Israel have also issued statements in support of the BDS movement. Even Israel’s mainstream media is beginning to express understanding rather than blind indignation regarding the cultural boycott: "The Pixies and Elvis Costello are right – we are the problem" was the title of an article published in Ha’ir Tel Aviv recently. However the state will be able to silence such pro-boycott statements, should the new bill come into place.

Israelis supporting the boycott will face a fine of 30,000 NIS for their efforts. The financial impact on NGO’s will be considerable and undoubtedly crippling for some, who already work with limited budgets. Furthermore, Shani points out that the legislation will be applied broadly. She believes the boycott will also be applied to projects such as 'Who Profits?: "although the word "boycott" is not even mentioned on it, providing information that can be used to call for boycott would also be illegal." Such penalties will not only be levied at the whim of the state: Haaretz reports that "Under the proposed law, any group could sue for damages of up to NIS 30,000 from anyone who launched a boycott against them, or incited a boycott, without having to prove damage was caused".

It is not clear how successful the bill will be in terms of deterring boycott supporters: Shani points out "I think the people who are involved in this movement are experienced activists and long-time human rights defenders and for the most part they won’t be deterred." Furthermore boycott actions committed up to one year before the passing of the law can be prosecuted, so those who have already promoted the call are unlikely to avoid the fines and therefore have little to lose now.

However the bill will damage and limit human rights and advocacy organisations financially and is likely to prevent support for BDS from becoming mainstream in any effective sense. The law will also ban any foreign citizen who initiates or promotes the boycott from entering the country for 10 years and they will be banned from having financial relations with Israel. Despite such penalties however support groups like Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in the UK and organisations which have promoted BDS such as the National Lawyers Guild in the US show no signs of being deterred.

Indeed, whilst the cost might be high enough to stop Israeli citizens and organisations that have a lot to lose financially, such systematic silencing is more likely to incite criticism and encourage the boycott outside Israel. Certainly the international response in recent months has been one of growing intolerance to Israel’s policies. The bill may in fact promote the boycott rather than prevent it, this time at a lower cost to humanity. Colborne (from Palestine Solidarity Campaign) points out "this legislation, borne of fear of the boycott movement’s success, shows that democracy and freedom of speech mean nothing to the Israeli state, whether applied to the Palestinians whose land it continues to brutally occupy or to its own citizens."

Israel is justifying its attack on democracy on the basis that her larger sister was thumping people for ethical consumerism first. According to the 'explanation of the bill’: "in the USA there is a similar law that protects its friends from boycott by a third party, and the assumption is that a citizen or resident of the state shall not call for the imposition of a boycott on his own country or of its allies. This assumption has proved untrue with regard to the citizens and residents of Israel. If the USA protects its friends through law, it should be self-evident that Israel has the duty and the right to protect itself and its citizens through law."

Developed in the 1970’s in response to the Arab Leagues call for a boycott of Israel, the law states that it is illegal to boycott the USA or an ally country because of pressure from foreign countrys. According to the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance website the aim of the bill is: "(A) to oppose restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by foreign countries against other countries friendly to the United States or against any United States person; (B) to encourage and, in specified cases, require United States persons engaged in the export of goods or technology or other information to refuse to take actions, including furnishing information or entering into or implementing agreements, which have the effect of furthering or supporting the restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by any foreign country against a country friendly to the United States or against any United States person;"

In 1995 L’Oreal was fined $1.4 million by the US for allegedly writing to the Arab League stating that they had stopped production in Israel (though they were found currying favor with Israel not long after). The law has also been applied against companies who failed to notify the state of requests for information of business with Israel: The Bureau of Industry and Security claimed it had imposed over $26 million in fines for violations of the provisions by 2003.

The law has so far not been used against the BDS movement because BDS was not called for by any foreign country (note that Israel was careful to avoid this problem by using the term "Foreign Political Entity" thus including the PA). However, Matt Ross of the National Guild of Lawyers points out that "regulations and materials posted on the Commerce Department’s website sloppily refer to cooperation with a "foreign boycott" of Israel as being unlawful. Taken literally, that would make it unlawful for US groups to openly support the BDS call originating with Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, or even the foreign boycott movements."

But whilst the US has yet to penalize BDS, it seems clear that Israel will use its own anti-boycott bill, and other measures as far possible: the Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has stated that the Israeli government will be taking action against academics joining the call for boycott soon, and there have been calls for the transport minister to close land and sea ports to Palestinian exports.

But despite the blatantly un-democratic stifling of consumer freedom and the initial financial damage the bill will do to all those supporting BDS, most are clear that what is happening here is another case of Israel shooting itself in the foot. Shani points out "This is a well-expected response by the Israeli apartheid. It shows how much BDS had grown and that Israel is stuck on its repressive track and indeed should be boycotted, divested from and sanctioned."

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