Israel’s anti-boycott law to ‘muzzle’ Palestinians
Al Jazeera examines the impacts of a controversial law allowing the state to penalise those who call to boycott Israel.
Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a 2011 law that would penalise those who publicly advocate for boycotting the country and its illegal settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Should the court be convinced that there was “malicious intent” involved in the call for boycott, the suing entity may be entitled to damages from the boycotting party.
What is the anti-boycott law?
The Law for the Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott – or the anti-boycott law, as it’s more commonly referred to – allows for suing individuals or groups for “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or body solely because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions, or an area under its control”.
The law gives Israel’s finance ministry the right to impose financial penalties on any organisation receiving state funds that makes calls for boycott. With approval from the Knesset’s constitution, law and justice committee, the government can also limit bidding on tenders to companies or organisations that do not participate in boycotts or boycott calls.
Only one provision of the law, which allowed for compensation without proof of damage, was struck down by the Supreme Court.
What groups were involved in fighting this law?
By a vote of 5-4, and in a 233-page decision, the court rejected petitions by Israeli civil society organisations. The petitioners included five leading Israeli human rights groups: the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, the Center for the Defence of the Individual (HaMoked), the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Yesh Din.
Three other organisations that promote an economic boycott of Israel were also involved, including the Coalition of Women for Peace, the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel, and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.
The petitioners argued that the law silenced opposition. “Boycott is a worldwide recognised and legitimate non-violent tool in struggles for social and political change,” the Coalition of Women for Peace said in a statement.
Who does the law target?
According to Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and a co-founder of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement: “This repressive law will disproportionately muzzle the second-class Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Palestinian non-citizens in occupied Jerusalem, and the small but clearly effective minority of Jewish-Israeli supporters of BDS and other selective boycotts of the occupation-related companies and institutions.”
Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, said the law hits Palestinian East Jerusalemites hard because it prevents them from “using a main civil protest tool of boycott to end the occupation”.
This arbitrary law harms Palestinians more than others, because they are on the front lines of struggling against the occupation and the violation of the human rights of their people under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
“This arbitrary law harms Palestinians more than others, because they are on the front lines of struggling against the occupation and the violation of the human rights of their people under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza,” Zaher said.
What other effects does the law have?
According to Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, the law blurs the boundaries of the Green Line – the 1949 armistice line – because it makes it illegal to even boycott settlements in the West Bank. Eldar called it “a legal stamp of approval to imposing Israeli state law on territory outside its borders, which is another way of calling for the annexation of the West Bank”.
Eldar said the law has also left its mark on freedom of expression in Israel. “Thus, while blurring the issue of the Green Line boundary, the [Supreme Court] justices placed a question mark over the boundaries of free speech in Israel,” he wrote.
Why was this law upheld now?
Some argue that the law comes in response to the BDS movement’s growing influence. “This draconian bill, which came in response to the unquestionable impact of the Palestinian-led BDS movement, desperately attempts to delegitimise boycotts – a crucial, time-honoured form of nonviolent resistance that played a key role in the South African anti-apartheid struggle and the civil rights movement in the US,” Barghouti said.
What was the Israeli court’s reasoning for this decision?
“There is no flaw in the Knesset giving expression in law to a struggle against those who try to destroy us,” Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote, explaining why he rejected the petition.
Writing the ruling for the majority, Judge Hanan Melcer acknowledged that the law infringed on freedom of expression, but said it advanced a worthy cause, while being “limited” in its harm to those who call for boycotts.
The law relates solely to boycott calls, and does not impose any criminal prohibition on those who express the political views underlying calls for a boycott, Melcer wrote. “To establish grounds to sue for tort liability requires many elements – proof of damage, a causal link between the tort and the damage, and awareness of the reasonable possibility of damage.”