UK MPs criticise Israel's Jenin assault as opposition to anti-BDS bill grows
British MPs have told the government that a bill banning public bodies from supporting boycotts would give a licence to Israel to continue its escalating campaign of violence in the West Bank.
In a debate late on Monday, several MPs raised concerns about the ongoing assault on the Jenin refugee camp by Israeli security forces, in which at least 10 Palestinians have so far been killed and scores injured, as they spoke in opposition to the bill.
Andy McDonald, an MP for the opposition Labour Party, described the bill as "one of the most freedom-damaging, human rights-destroying pieces of legislation that I have ever seen."
"By singling out the territories under Israel's control in this legislation, the UK will give licence to the continuation of the terrible events that unfolded in Jenin today, without an appropriate, legitimate and peaceful response," McDonald said.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill seeks to ban public bodies including local councils from supporting boycotts targeting foreign governments based on moral or political grounds.
But it has been framed to specifically outlaw support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement which seeks to pressure Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories.
Crispin Blunt, an MP for the governing Conservative Party, said that banning support for BDS would deny Palestinians "their only legitimate way of expressing resistance to that occupation."
Describing a two-state solution as "impossible," Blunt said: "There is desperate anger in occupied parts of Palestine, where everything is being taken away from people, but here we are attacking a movement that tries - although, of course, there are elements of unacceptable rhetoric - to stay within the limits of peaceful resistance to illegal occupation."
In presenting the bill, Michael Gove, the communities minister, said that BDS sought to "delegitimise Israel" and had led to "antisemitic incidents and a lack of community cohesion."
Gove said: "We have seen an increase in antisemitic events following on from the activities of the BDS movement, including supermarkets removing kosher products from their shelves following specific protests."
Pro-Palestine campaign groups have criticised the government for seeking to conflate support for BDS with antisemitism, rather than as opposition to Israeli government policies which rights groups have described as a system of apartheid.
The BDS movement describes itself as an "inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia."
Proposing an amendment to stop the passage of the bill, Lisa Nandy, Labour's shadow communities secretary, said opposing BDS was "a long-standing Labour position."
But Nandy said a clause of the bill which singled out Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories conflated the two in a way that contradicted the UK’s support for a two-state solution and the rights of Palestinians.
"This clause drives a coach and horses through that, according the occupied territories the same protected status as Israel and in effect conflating the two," said Nandy.
'This clause drives a coach and horses through that, according the occupied territories the same protected status as Israel and in effect conflating the two'
- Lisa Nandy, Labour
"It contradicts established government policy, and I find it hard to believe that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has agreed to this."
The bill was nonetheless passed after Labour's amendment was defeated, with 268 MPs voting in favour and 70 voting against. Many Labour MPs and about 80 Conservative MPs abstained.
But Labour came under further pressure on Monday to oppose the bill following the publication of a legal opinion commissioned by the party which described it as "very poorly drafted" and "deeply troubling from both a domestic and international law perspective".
"The implications for local democracy, for the proud history in our regions of campaigning for global human rights, for using our economic clout for the promotion of human rights, for free speech in this country and for compliance with our international law obligations are potentially profound," concluded Richard Hermer KC, a barrister at Matrix Chambers.
Corbyn: 'Attack on civil liberties'
Speaking against the bill, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who now sits as an independent MP, said: "A truly appalling piece of legislation has been put before us… We have to put it in that context; it is yet another attack on the civil liberties of people in this country."
Corbyn said that the bill would have made it impossible to campaign against apartheid in South Africa, and would also ban any effort by public bodies to impose sanctions against Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen.
Speaking about Jenin, Corbyn said there were 14,000 people in the refugee camp in less than half a square kilometre of land.
"Israel Defence Forces says that it is not targeting civilians. It is impossible to use any kind of weaponry against the population there without targeting civilians.
"More have died. More bitterness, more hatred and more problems come down the road. Those people all around the world who want to support the Palestinian people are not antisemitic. They are not anti-Israeli groups, but what they do want is justice for the Palestinian people."
Labour's Margaret Hodge, a fierce critic of Corbyn under his leadership, also opposed the bill, accusing the government of seeking “to set a political trap” for Labour.
Describing herself as a "proud Zionist," Hodge said the bill would do more harm than good.
Hodge said: "It is about using Jews as a pawn in the government's political game. To debate the bill on the day that violence has flared up again in the West Bank is a solemn reminder of why this really matters.
'The bill plays into the hands of antisemites by doing the one thing we should never, ever do: single out Israel as the one place that can never be boycotted'
- Margaret Hodge, Labour MP
"The bill plays into the hands of antisemites by doing the one thing we should never, ever do: single out Israel as the one place that can never be boycotted."
Alicia Kearns, a Conservative MP and the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said that the UK risked censure at the United Nations and losing the support of Arab nations by failing to distinguish between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Kearns added: "I also worry that it sends the wrong message about the achievement of sovereignty through violence. It means that if Israel breaches international law in the occupied territories, public bodies cannot express their ethical objection to those crimes."
The bill next faces scrutiny by parliamentary committee and must still be debated in the House of Lords before it returns to the Commons for further consideration.