Activists have accused the United Kingdom of a crackdown on human rights campaigners over plans to ban city councils, public bodies and some student unions from boycotting “unethical” businesses, including those operating in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
As part of the measure, all publicly funded institutions will be barred from boycotting goods or services by companies complicit in weapons trade, tobacco products or Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, according to UK newspaper The Independent.
Senior government officials told The Independent that the plan would be unveiled this week when Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock visits Israel.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said that boycotts “undermine good community relations, poisoning and polarising debate, weakening integration and fuelling anti-Semitism”.
The statement added that locally imposed boycotts “can roll back integration as well as hinder Britain’s export trade and harm international relationship[s]”.
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Ben, a member of the Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign who did not provide his full name, said the effect of the conservative government’s new regulations will be “very far-reaching”.
“They will restrict the ability of local councils, for example, to make their own decisions about investments and procurement on ethical grounds,” Ben told Al Jazeera, calling the ban “an attack on local democracy”.
“The boycott or refusal to buy goods from the settlements is pretty much non-controversial,” he added, alluding to the European Union’s recent introduction of labelling guidelines for goods made in Israeli settlements.
“We see ourselves as human rights campaigners, and we are determined to continue on behalf of the Palestinian people,” Ben said.
The UK chapter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement decried the coming ban, likening it to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “unwavering support of apartheid South Africa” in the 1980s.
BDS is a campaign that demands Israel give equal rights to its Palestinian citizens, allows the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and ends the occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights.
“Rather than working to hold Israel to account for its ongoing human rights violations, UK ministers continue the arms trade with Israel and attack local democracy in order to shield it from any criticism,” Rafeef Ziadeh, a BDS spokeswoman, said in a statement.
“The BDS movement in the UK has achieved wide support precisely because of the failure of successive UK governments to take action in response to Israel’s war crimes,” she added.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sai Englert, a member of the National Union of Students’ executive council, said that the government’s move to ban boycotts “is a sign of the times … when Palestine activism is being targeted”.
Palestine solidarity campaigners, including those involved in the BDS movement, have achieved a number of recent victories.
The National Union of Students voted in favour of boycotting Israel back in June last year, following several similar moves by local student unions at universities across the country.
In February 2015, London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and academics by a landslide 73 percent vote in a referendum.
The following month, the University of Sussex voted to support their student union endorsing the BDS campaign.
The national Trade Union Congress, as well as more than a dozen individual trade unions, are also among those who support a boycott of Israel.
Citing Israel’s human rights record, Leicester City Council in late 2014 became one of the first elected bodies in the UK to pass a resolution implementing a full boycott of products made in Israeli settlements.
Englert, who is a PhD student at SOAS, said the sweeping measure is part of a broader government campaign of “silencing people who stand for social justice issues and human rights” across the world.
“I think it’s a very worrying sign for all Palestine solidarity activists,” he said. “And of course it’s not just limited to Palestine, either.”
In recent years, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority has employed a number of diplomatic and legal strategies aimed at attaining Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the besieged Gaza Strip.
According to the Al-Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network, the boycott movement offers Palestinians a political programme that enjoys wide support because of the absence of diplomatic progress.
“Due to the continuous failures of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership over the last few decades, Palestinian people are longing for tangible outcomes that impact their lives positively,” Alaa Tartir, Al-Shabaka’s programme director, told Al Jazeera.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_