Heavy backlash against Israels new anti-boycott law

jerusalem  |  A new law that seeks to impede boycotts against West Bank settlements sparked a ferocious debate in Israel this week — with proponents praising a new bulwark against efforts to isolate Israel and critics fearing for its embattled democracy.

Human rights groups said they would ask the Supreme Court within days to overturn the law, which allows settlers or settlement-based businesses to sue Israelis who promote settlement boycotts. Courts would determine whether a boycott caused financial harm, and if so assess damages.

By a vote of 47-38 after six hours of contentious debate, the Knesset passed the law July 11 despite a warning from parliament’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon that it violated freedom of expression and was “borderline illegal.”

Springing into immediate action was the Gush Shalom movement, which appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court on July 12, calling the law offensive to the basic principles of democracy, Ynetnews.com reported.

Also, Peace Now launched a Facebook group quickly after the vote called “Prosecute me, I boycott the settlements!”

One day before the Knesset vote, Israeli left-wing activists demonstrate July 10 in Jerusalem against the boycott law. photo/ap/sebastian scheiner

Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, issued a statement that read, in part: “The Boycott Law will lead to unprecedented harm to freedom of expression in Israel and will bring justified criticism against Israel from abroad … We will all have to pay the price for this atrocious law.”

The dispute reflects a growing chasm separating Israelis who support the country’s 44-year-old occupation of the war-won West Bank and others who view the presence of soldiers and settlers in the territory as a national calamity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, along with key members of his Cabinet, didn’t turn up for the July 11 vote, suggesting there might be a measure of discomfort with the proposed legislation.

Supporters denied the new law violated freedom of expression and the right to protest.

The law was proposed after Israeli artists called for a boycott of a new cultural center in the West Bank city of Ariel and academics called for a boycott of academic institutions in the West Bank. Also, an Israeli construction company was hired to build a new Palestinian city in the West Bank after it agreed not to use products from the settlements.

The bill’s sponsor, Zeev Elkin of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, told Army Radio that the law “is not meant to muzzle anyone, but to protect the citizens of Israel” who are settlers. Co-sponsor Danny Danon called it a way to punish “those who would support our enemies abroad.”

Israel Beiteinu lawmaker Alex Miller said July 12 that he would be the first to use the new law, announcing that he will sue Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi for calling on the public to boycott the West Bank city of Ariel, where Miller lives.

Critics predict the law would provide a tailwind for campaigns to boycott Israel over its conduct toward the Palestini-ans — an effort many in Israel regard as masking a deeper challenge to the country’s very right to exist.

It will “serve as a weapon in the hands of those people who claim that Israel is not a democracy and does not respect human rights,” said law professor Amnon Rubinstein, a former leading Cabinet minister.

A coalition of four rights groups — Adalah, a legal advocacy group for Israeli Arabs; Physicians for Human Rights; the Public Committee Against Torture; and the Coalition of Women for Peace — reportedly said this week that they will challenge the bill in the Supreme Court.

Some 300,000 Israelis now live in settlement communities, along with 200,000 more who live in the occupied, Israeli-annexed sector of Jerusalem. Nationalist Israelis view the settlers as asserting Jewish historical rights to the territory. Critics fear their presence makes a withdrawal more difficult and is turning Israel into an effectively binational state in which Palestinians will eventually outnumber Jews.

The New Israel Fund issued a press release this week, signed by CEO Daniel Sokatch of San Francisco and Rachel Liel, executive director in Israel. It stated, in part, “we are disappointed and angered” by the law’s passage, and that “in a democracy, unpopular opinions must not be illegal, or even expensive.”

It added: “Many if not most Israelis oppose the settlement enterprise, and for good reasons. Criminalizing actors who refuse to perform in Ariel, or NGOs that support holding settlers economically accountable by not buying their goods or services, is appalling. We ourselves will not exclude support for organizations that discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements.”

JTA contributed to this report.