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Boycott bill: Pro-Palestine groups not invited to give evidence to MPs

Committee scrutinising anti-BDS bill set to hear from Melanie Phillips and pro-Israel lobbyists, but not from supporters of Palestinian cause
Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters let off smoke flares during a demonstration in support of the Palestinian cause in central London on 15 May 2021 (AFP)

Palestinian advocacy organisations have not been invited to give evidence in person to a parliamentary committee scrutinising proposed legislation which would ban public bodies in the UK from disinvesting from Israel due to concerns over the abuse of Palestinian rights.

The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill has faced criticism from pro-Palestinian groups and human rights organisations because it would specifically outlaw support for civil society campaigns targeting Israel, such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

Several prominent human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been named on a list of those invited to give evidence to a public bill committee which started examining the bill this week.

The committee on Tuesday heard evidence supportive of the bill from witnesses including James Gurd, executive director of Conservative Friends of Israel, and Alan Mendoza, the executive director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank.

Others invited to give evidence this week include UK Lawyers for Israel, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, and newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips, who has written that there are “no good reasons to oppose the bill”.

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But organisations not invited despite submitting written evidence include the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which describes itself as “the biggest organisation in the UK dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights”.

Ben Jamal, PSC’s director, told Middle East Eye: “It’s outrageous that not a single representative of Palestinian civil society or the PSC, which leads BDS campaigns here in the UK, have been invited to give evidence to place the proper facts on the record.

"If the committee intends to offer the bill any proper and serious scrutiny then it will act to remedy this deficit and not be complicit in the erasure of Palestinian voices."

'Profoundly irresponsible'

In its written evidence, PSC described the bill as “profoundly irresponsible” and warned the government it risked stoking fear and division by linking BDS and criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

It said that by protecting Israel from public sector boycotts, the bill “actively promotes impunity for violations of international law and well-documented human rights violations committed against Palestinians”.

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Other organisations submitting evidence critical of the bill included the Council for Arab British Understanding (Caabu).

Chris Doyle, the director of Caabu, confirmed to MEE that his organisation had also not been invited to give evidence.

“The far bigger issue is the sheer absence of any Palestinian voices - academics human rights activists, there are plenty of them who are not invited - to give voice to why Israel should be held to account and the lived experience of Palestinians over decades,” said Doyle.

“I think there are many arguments that are not being challenged here. The government charge that the primary motivation behind BDS is antisemitic certainly needs to be challenged.”

Tuesday’s hearing was preceded by an invitation to members of the committee to make declarations of interest concerning the bill.

Seven Conservative MPs on the 19-member committee said they had visited Israel on trips organised by Conservative Friends of Israel, and six of them declared friendships with James Gurd, the chair of CFI.

Three Labour members of the committee said they had been on trips to Israel organised by Labour Friends of Israel, including Steve McCabe, the current parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel, and George Howarth, the chair of the committee.

Anum Qaisar, a Scottish Nationalist Party MP, said he had visited the occupied Palestinian territories on a trip organised by Amnesty, while Kim Leadbeater, a Labour MP, said she had been on a trip organised by Caabu.

Doyle told MEE: “The government has clearly ensured that many supportive MPs are on the committee. I don’t believe this committee will seriously and thoroughly examine this bill. This is designed as a committee to ensure the safe passage of the bill, not proper scrutiny.”

'Act of betrayal'

Giving evidence on Tuesday, Gurd said that campaigns in support of BDS had fed persecution and discrimination against the UK’s Jewish community, and had a “chilling effect” on the UK’s economic relations with Israel.

But Andrew Whitley, chair of the Balfour Project, a charity which describes itself as advocating for peace, justice and equal rights in Israel and Palestine, told the committee that the bill would “hearten the most extreme nationalistic, racist government that has ever been in place in Israel”.

He added: “As far as the Palestinians are concerned, I regret to say this, but I am afraid they will see the passage of this bill as yet another act of betrayal on the part of Britain.”

Hannah Weisfeld, the director of Yachad, a British Jewish organisation that supports a two-state solution, also spoke at the committee and said the proposed bill would "put Israel and the occupied territories beyond public scrutiny".

Weisfeld warned that the bill risked causing "real disharmony" among communities and disagreed with government minister Felicity Buchan who said the bill's purpose was to ensure that foreign policy was set by the government rather than by local authorities.

"To me, the bill is not really about that issue; it is about creating what I think will become quite a nasty debate around Israel-Palestine, and I do not think that that is going to benefit the Jewish community particularly," she said.

The public bill committee is due to hear further evidence on Thursday before producing a report including any proposed amendments to the bill.

It then faces a third reading in the House of Commons, as well as scrutiny in the House of Lords, which could also suggest its own changes before the bill becomes law.

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