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US to strengthen penalties for joining Arab League's Israel boycott

Companies boycotting Israel to face increased enforcement
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) holds a placard of maps showing the loss over time of Palestinian territory as he attends an Arab League emergency meeting in Cairo on 1 February 2020.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) displays maps showing the loss of Palestinian territory at an Arab League emergency meeting in Cairo on 1 February 2020 (AFP)

The US Department of Commerce has announced plans to increase its enforcement of pre-existing anti-boycott laws, in an attempt to place pressure on the Arab League to normalise relations with Israel.

The new policy, announced by the department on Thursday, would increase fines against US companies boycotting Israel, and also increase its focus on foreign subsidiaries of American companies.

The policy builds on a US law passed in 1979, which states American companies and individuals will face criminal and civil penalties for participating in the Arab League's longstanding position to boycott Israel.

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Matthew Axelrod, who oversees anti-boycott enforcement at the Department of Commerce, unveiled the new policy in a memo to department staff and at an event at the American Jewish Committee's Washington office.

"I want to ensure that we in the Commerce department are doing what we can to have the strongest possible anti-boycott enforcement programme," he said, according to Jewish Insider.

The policy changes come two years after four Arab states - the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan - broke long-standing consensus in the Arab world by normalising relations with Israel.

The deals, brokered under the administration of President Donald Trump, paved the way for the UAE and Israel to bolster economic and security ties. Last year, the Department of Commerce removed the UAE from its list of countries that were subject to its anti-boycott law.

During Thursday's event, Axelrod said the new policy could help create pressure on countries that have yet to normalise relations with Israel, including Syria and Iraq, which he pointed out were "moving in the wrong direction".

"Our Office of Antiboycott Compliance now has enhanced tools to help deter violations of our anti-boycott rules, and where deterrence proves unsuccessful, it now has enhanced tools to punish the violators," Axelrod said.

Arab countries had long held the position that normalisation with Israel would come only after its withdrawal from illegally occupied land, reached in cnjunction with a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a settlement leading to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state.

BDS movement

While the anti-boycott measure would punish companies taking part in the Arab League's boycott, lawmakers in the US are pushing for legislation to strengthen the measure.

The 1979 US law only applies to companies who boycott Israel as a result of complying with a foreign government's laws.

House Republicans in March introduced a bill that would effectively bar US citizens and companies from providing information to foreign countries and international organisations that "have the effect of furthering" the boycott of Israel.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are also working to push forward laws that would criminalise the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

More than 30 US states already have passed their own versions of legislation that effectively forces individuals and companies contracted with the state to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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