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Israel-Palestine: Anti-boycott bill threatens British democracy

As outlined in the Queen's Speech, Conservatives are set to bring forward legislation to ban public bodies from participating in BDS campaigns
A flag flutters at the Palace of Westminster in central London in October 2019 (AFP)

The recent announcement in the Queen’s Speech on the government’s plan to ban public bodies from participating in boycott campaigns - under the pretext that such activity would “undermine community cohesion” - has been on the cards since the 2019 election campaign, when the Conservatives pledged to do exactly that.

This policy is driven by a desire to protect Israel from the peaceful Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. Despite claiming that BDS is largely ineffective, Israel is spending millions of dollars on efforts to combat the movement. Its past actions have included banning foreign boycott activists from entering Israel and pushing US states to adopt anti-boycott laws that punish firms for practising BDS.

British MPs should stand on the right side of history and not only defeat this bill, but finally put an end to the double standards 

In 2015, Boris Johnson, then the mayor of London, derided British supporters of BDS as “corduroy-jacketed, snaggle-toothed, lefty academics”. Michael Gove, another high-profile conservative politician, said in 2016 that the campaign to boycott Israel was a “crime worse than apartheid”. Numerous human rights groups have since confirmed that Israel practises apartheid against the Palestinian population.

Today, in Johnson’s government, Gove will oversee Britain’s fight against BDS. He will be shadowed in the Labour opposition by Lisa Nandy, who has previously spoken out against the boycott movement.

Last week’s announcement in the Queen’s Speech followed a parliamentary vote in February to ban boycotts of Israel in public pension funds, severely curbing the rights of fund administrators to have their ethical views taken into account when investing.

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Calls for equality

Israeli propaganda routinely accuses BDS supporters of being antisemitic, a claim that has no basis when the movement’s demands are examined. BDS calls for the implementation of basic Palestinian rights, including an end to the Israeli occupation, equal treatment for all citizens, and respecting the right of return for Palestinian refugees. These demands are not only legal and peaceful, but also ethical.

The BDS movement does not pose any threat to Jewish communities around the world. The “community cohesion” argument does not hold water; how does a movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against a foreign state impact communities in the UK?

Pro-Israel protesters confront anti-Zionism protesters in London in April 2018 (AFP)
Pro-Israel protesters confront anti-Zionism protesters in London in April 2018 (AFP)

The drive to implement an anti-boycott policy suggests that Britain will never hold Israel to account for its crimes, for fear it could upset the Jewish community in the UK. It is worth noting here that members of the Jewish community hold different views on Israel, and many have strong objections to Israel’s apartheid policies and oppression of Palestinians.

Indeed, the BDS movement should prompt members of Jewish communities who claim to have an affinity with Israel to question its recent, appalling history and repeated violations of Palestinian rights, including through the 2018 nation-state law, which codifies superior rights for Jewish citizens and paves the way for further Israeli annexation of Palestinian land.

Double standards

Following on from the Queen’s Speech, the Conservatives appear committed to bringing an anti-BDS bill to parliament soon. Yet, considering Britain’s championing of sanctions against Moscow over the Russia-Ukraine war, the government may find it challenging to land on wording that curtails boycotts of Israel, while allowing them for other countries.

Palestinian activists and other social justice campaigners have been aware that this was coming, and they have been organising for some time. Last month, dozens of groups united to launch a website and issue a statement warning against the proposed legislation and calling on the government to back away from it. They labelled their partnership “Right to Boycott”.

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While last week’s announcement makes clear that activists have not convinced the government to drop its anti-BDS quest, the focus now shifts to ensuring the related law does not pass. Parliamentarians across party lines will need to do much soul-searching in the coming days, asking themselves whether curtailing democratic rights is a fair price to pay for maintaining political relations with Israel.

Holding a massive majority in parliament, the British government can potentially pass any legislation it chooses, unless there is a backbench rebellion. In this case, such a rebellion could be triggered by the legitimate fear that the anti-boycott bill would further erode democratic rights in the UK.

British MPs should stand on the right side of history and not only defeat this bill, but finally put an end to the double standards when it comes to the Palestinian people - and ensure that Israel is held accountable for its crimes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham. He is chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and a founding member of the British Palestinian Committee (BPC).
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