Critics say the move is designed to suppress the freedom of speech of Palestinian human rights activists.
Occupied West Bank – Spouses hoping to reunite with their families in Israel, as well as Jewish and non-Jewish visitors, that have endorsed a boycott of Israel and Israeli settlements could be banned from entering the country if a new bill becomes law.
The anti-boycott bill passed a first reading in the Israeli parliament in mid-January and is set for a final vote in early February.
The legislation would deny entry permits and temporary residency permits to anyone who has publicly called for a boycott of Israel or represents an organisation that has called for a boycott.
The Israeli minister of interior would be able to make exceptions to the ban at his discretion.
Based on a 2011 law that allowed for civil suits against people, including Israelis, who called for a boycott of Israel, the current bill refers to the same definition of a boycott.
“It defines a boycott against Israel as anything against Israel or territories under Israeli control. It includes boycotts of the settlements,” said Michal Pomeranz, an Israeli human rights lawyer. “It’s specifically BDS-related.”
Established in 2005, BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is a Palestinian-led international movement that calls for a boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from Israeli companies and governmental sanctions on the country in order to pressure the Israeli state to prevent human rights abuses against Palestinians.
The movement is loathed by the Israeli government and has been cited as a national security threat. In August 2016, Gilad Erdan, Israeli public security minister, announced the formation of a new task force that would seek to identify, track and deport activists who supported a boycott, as well as prevent their entry into the country.
The new legislation would give the Ministry of Interior more powers to prevent activists from entering Israel at all.
Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Israeli parliament with the Palestinian Joint List faction, told Al Jazeera that the boycott movement had become more popular internationally and the legislation was an attempt to curtail BDS and stifle criticism.
Israel is violating international laws and they are making laws to give legitimacy to the violation of international law. That's the real meaning of the new Israeli law, which says 'if you call for international law, you are violating Israeli law'.
“It’s an attack against anybody who protests against Israeli policies. The boycott movement is not a violent action against Israel. They are using legitimate steps to change policies and to force Israel to obey international law,” he added.
“Israel is violating international laws and they are making laws to give legitimacy to the violation of international law. That’s the real meaning of the new Israeli law, which says ‘if you call for international law, you are violating Israeli law’,” he said.
Israel’s Ministry of Interior already has extensive powers to prevent individuals from entering the country. For example, if ministry staff members believe that a visitor is planning to stay in Israel or commit a crime, or if they are worried about their political activity, they can deny that person an entry permit.
“The current law pretty much gives the Ministry of Interior and the officials working for it very broad discretion whether to let someone in or not. Most people don’t have a right to enter Israel, unless they are here for part of family unification or something like that,” said Pomeranz, noting that officials have been allowed to use their discretion to act on what they think is evidence that a person’s activity could potentially harm Israeli interests.
“The law changes this and gives the official no discretion and says that anyone that has been found to be part of a BDS movement is not allowed to enter. The starting point changes from ‘everyone is allowed to enter and we prevent people if there is a reason not to’. It now says ‘anyone involved in the BDS is not allowed in’,” she said.
The bill has been advanced by Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the right-wing, pro-settlement Jewish Home party. According to Israeli media reports in the run-up to the final reading, Smotrich’s spokesperson said: “The State of Israel need not and cannot allow entry to those calling for a boycott of it. The BDS leaders are working to spread anti-Semitism in the world and do everything in their power to harm the State of Israel”.
As well as banning entry to foreign visitors, the legislation would prohibit people who have called for a boycott from receiving temporary residency permits in Israel. Around 8,000 – 10,000 Palestinians are going through the process of family unification and use temporary residency permits to stay with their spouses in Israel.
These temporary permits last for six months and have to be renewed twice a year.
“It will affect people who are in the family unification process, who still didn’t get permanent residency in the family reunification process. So it will lead to the violation of the right to family life, because it will lead to the separation between spouses and children,” said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, the legal centre for minority rights in Israel.
Together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah has sent a letter of objection to the proposed legislation to be sent to senior figures within the government, urging them not to support it.
“The issue is more related to the arbitrary enforcement of an authority and discretion that will be based on political and irrelevant considerations, while checking or examining who will enter the state of Israel and who will not,” Zaher told Al Jazeera, adding that the bill was the latest in a wave of political moves to stifle political dissent in Israel.
“The main purpose is to silence the opposition, it is to shrink the space of freedom of expression for whoever is opposing the Israeli occupation and discrimination against Palestinian citizens,” she said.
Pomeranz agreed that the bill was part of a broader political trend.
“Instead of dealing with the criticism itself, Israel’s tendency is to just delegitimise the boycott itself, the same as it does with Breaking the Silence, the same as it does with any NGO or human rights organisation. That’s the policy nowadays,” said Pomeranz.