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Palestine activists win landmark Supreme Court ruling against UK government

Local pension schemes now able to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation, after governmental guidance ruled unlawful
A protester ties the Palestinian flag to a lamppost opposite Downing Street (Reuters)

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) won a landmark legal victory against the British government on Wednesday, as the Supreme Court ruled local pension schemes could divest from companies complicit in Israel’s military occupation.

It is seen by pro-Palestinian activists as a major boost in efforts to counter the British government's apparent attempts to criminalise support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In court, the PSC was challenging 2016 UK government guidance prohibiting public pension funds from pursuing policies deemed contrary to British foreign or defence policy. That meant funds were unable to divest from or boycott companies that are complicit in Israel's occupation and illegal settlement development in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights, or the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.

BDS is a highly sensitive topic for the Israeli government, which has close ties to its British Conservative counterpart.

'This historic victory represents a major win not just for the campaign for Palestinian rights, but for the fundamental principles of democracy, freedom of expression and justice'

- Kamel Hawwash, PSC

The Supreme Court decision additionally grants the right of opting out from investments in the UK's defence industry.

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Since 2017, the PSC has been taking on the government in court with the support of the Quakers, the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and War on Want.

It won in the High Court and then lost in the Court of Appeal - this week winning a final verdict at the Supreme Court. The PSC challenged that the 2016 guidance imposed a ban on “ethical pensions divestment”, which is unlawful.

The Supreme Court verdict grants Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) funds the right to decide how and where money will be invested.

The pension scheme is one of the largest in the UK. In March 2019, it served 5.9 million public-sector employees in England and Wales, and had a huge market value of funds, estimated at £287.2bn.

The scheme, in which employees pay monthly up to their retirement, is administered across 99 regional pension funds in the country.

'Historic victory'

Responding to the verdict, chair of Palestine Solidarity Campaign Kamel Hawwash said: “This historic victory represents a major win not just for the campaign for Palestinian rights, but for the fundamental principles of democracy, freedom of expression and justice."

“At a time when Israel is continuing to ramp up its oppression of the Palestinian people and its illegal acts … the government should be acting to uphold international law and defend human rights, not attacking peaceful campaigns which seek to do precisely that,” he added.

PSC’s solicitor, Jamie Potter, said: “LGPS members now have the freedom to pursue their own principles in respect of the role of the arms trade and foreign countries in violations of human rights around the world, when determining how their pension monies are invested.”

In December, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson planned to introduce a new piece of legislation making it illegal for UK public bodies to work with those involved in the BDS campaign.

Johnson has long been a fierce opponent of BDS, telling the BBC in 2015 that he could "not think of anything more foolish" than boycotting Israel. 

The BDS movement responds to Palestinian calls to divest and boycott Israel in an attempt to pressure the state to end its 53-year military occupation and safeguard the rights of Palestinians.

The PSC said in a statement: "For some years, Israel and its allies have been engaged in a battle to delegitimise activism for Palestinian rights... The UK government’s attempts to introduce these regulations must be understood within that context."

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