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New UK anti-boycott bill shields Israel from accountability

In passing this law, Britain is once again standing against Palestinians by planning to take away one more peaceful tool to demand their rights to freedom, justice and equality
Protesters gather in London in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for Palestinian rights (undated; credit: Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

If proof were needed that Britain continually throws Palestinians under the bus, it came hot on the heels of the UK-Israel "Bilateral Relations Roadmap" when the pro-Israel Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, tabled last week the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill banning Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

In passing this law, Britain is once again standing against Palestinians by planning to take away one more peaceful tool to demand their rights to freedom, justice and equality.

In May 2022, the late Queen Elizabeth II announced in her "Queen's Speech" - the annual opening of the British parliament - that her government would pass legislation barring public bodies from participating in boycotts as they would undermine "community cohesion".

There were no further details given at the time, but it was ultimately not put forward as planned under her reign. However, the government finally introduced the anti-boycott bill on 19 June with the second reading planned for early July.

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The bill was always designed to ban public bodies, including local authorities, pension funds and universities, from exercising their right to implement ethical investment policies if the targets were not seen as in line with UK foreign policy.

While supporters of Palestine were convinced that the government wanted to attack the BDS movement specifically, it was only when the actual text of the bill became public that it became clear how brazen the government is in siding with Israel.

The bill included a paragraph that names Israel as a state that cannot be boycotted. No other state was singled out for protection.

Erasing the occupation

The stated aim of the bill is to "make [a] provision to prevent public bodies from being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions, subject to certain exceptions; and for connected purposes".

The new bill effectively erases the occupation by treating Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Golan Heights as one entity

The government would, therefore, be interfering in decisions made by public bodies based on its own investment and procurement needs if they are not in line with British foreign policy.

However, there was no level playing field in this application. Israel was made an exception as detailed in section 3 subsection 7: "Regulations under subsection (5) may not specify, and regulations under subsection (2) may not result in a description of decision or consideration relating specifically or mainly to - (a) Israel, (b) the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or (c) the Occupied Golan Heights."

By making an exception in the bill for Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies, the UK is tacitly equating the territories inside and outside the Green Line as being one area that cannot be boycotted. In this, it is equating Tel Aviv, the Ma'ale Adumim settlement in the West Bank and the settlements in the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981 and which former US President Donald Trump recognised as part of Israel.

The US was wrong but shamefully honest when it claimed, through its then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador to Israel David Freedman, that Israel was not illegally occupying any significant amount of Palestinian land.

However, through this bill, Britain is effectively erasing the occupation through the back door by treating Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Golan Heights as one entity.

Contradicting its own position, the bill's press release claims: "It will also not change the UK's approach to the Middle East Peace Process, or our position on settlements, which are illegal under international law."

The audacity of this policy shift recalls the UK's disastrous Balfour Declaration, which even Boris Johnson, during his tenure as mayor of London, described as "tragically incoherent" and "an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama". 

The bill effectively removes the "Green Line" separating Israel from its illegally occupied territories, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and treating the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as Israel.

If this, together with the bilateral roadmap, is seen as part of the benefit of Britain leaving the EU through Brexit and making its own way in the world, then it does not augur well for its trajectory when it comes to it upholding international law.

UK 'hypocrisy'

In its statement offering the reasons for the bill, the government directly conflates pro-Palestine activism with antisemitism, claiming: "These campaigns not only undermine the UK's foreign policy but lead to appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse."

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Yet it provides no evidence for this and offers the Palestinians no other alternative, peaceful means of attaining their legitimate rights.

The statement provides a quote by the pro-Israel group, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and confirms support by another, the Jewish Leadership Council. Neither of the organisations question the bill's inclusion of illegally occupied Palestinian territories or the Golan Heights because they clearly do not distinguish between them.

The government's lack of engagement with dissenting Jewish groups in the UK is stark. But even more so is its failure to consult Israelis with a different view on the issue.

Take, for example, the 14 groups that have since called on the Tory government to withdraw the bill.

Still more blatant is the absence of any discussion with the Palestinian or Syrian communities in the UK. This, once again, confirms that the UK backs Israel no matter what it does - apart from occasionally calling for investigations when it murders civilians, including children, but holds no stick to beat Israel with.

The tabling of the bill coincided with the deadly events in Jenin in which Israel murdered five Palestinians, including a 15-year-old girl, amply demonstrating why the peaceful BDS movement is necessary to isolate Israel until it adheres to international law and ends its occupation; allows the return of refugees; and treats its citizens equally.

Those demands are legal and ethical and anything but antisemitic.

The bill further exposes the extent of Britain's hypocrisy, given its stance against Russia and the range of sanctions it imposed on the country after a year of occupying Ukrainian territory. Despite Israel's 56-year occupation and numerous reports exposing its apartheid policies, the UK government has not imposed a single sanction on the country.

While the bill is designed to shield Israel, it will impact other causes including climate justice

While the bill is designed to shield Israel, it will impact other causes including climate justice, leading a broad coalition of more than 60 civil society organisations supporting the right to boycott to come together to oppose and campaign against it.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which is at the heart of the coalition, has started a petition to oppose it.

British parliamentarians must choose whether they will support an anti-democratic bill that singles out one state for protection from any accountability. They must decide whether they will support the hypocrisy of a law supporting the illegal occupation of one land while opposing another, or be consistent in their policies.

If parliamentarians insisted that the rule of law must prevail then they will support policies that bring peace closer. But ones like this bill send a message to Israel that it can continue to act with impunity and similarly tells the Palestinians that they will neither be provided with protection from Israel's murderous policies nor supported in their peaceful resistance to them, including through BDS.

Britain continues to shield Apartheid Israel from accountability and to throw Palestinians under the bus. What a shameful stance.

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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