Tunisia debates bill to criminalise normalisation of ties with Israel

The draft forbids ‘recognition of the Zionist entity or the establishment of direct or indirect ties’ with it.

People hold flags during a pro-Palestinian protest after hundreds of Palestinians were killed in a blast at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza that Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed on each other, in Tunis, Tunisia October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
Demonstrators wave flags during a pro-Palestine protest in Tunis, Tunisia, on October 18, 2023 [Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

The Tunisian parliament has started debating a bill that would criminalise any normalisation of ties with Israel as the bombardment of Gaza intensifies and the death toll surpassed 9,000.

The draft, on which deliberations started on Thursday, defines “normalisation” as “recognition of the Zionist entity or the establishment of direct or indirect ties” with it, a crime that would be classed as “high treason”.

Anyone found guilty of “the crime of normalisation” could face six to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 dinars ($3,155 to $31,553), the text says. Repeat offenders could be handed life sentences.

In addition, the bill would ban any interaction between Tunisians and Israelis, including at “events, demonstrations, meetings, exhibitions and competitions” in any context, be they “political, economic, scientific, cultural, artistic or sporting” in territory held or occupied by Israel.

‘Total agreement’

The proposal to outlaw ties with Israel appeared widely popular in parliament and among the public, lawmakers said.

“There is total agreement between the president, the parliament and public opinion” on this issue, parliamentary speaker Brahim Bouderbala told deputies as the session kicked off.

“We strongly believe Palestine must be liberated from the river to the sea … and that a Palestinian state must be established with holy Jerusalem as its capital,” he said.

The legislation was drafted in late October by a group of lawmakers who back President Kais Saied, an independent law professor who was elected to office in 2019.

Saied has shored up power and cracked down on his opponents after launching a 2021 power grab that ousted the former parliament and prime minister. Tunisia’s new parliament was elected in January and has 160 deputies.

Saied has been a staunch advocate of the Palestinian cause since entering the political scene, saying it is “Tunisia’s duty to stand by the Palestinian people” and that anyone who normalises ties with Israel is a “traitor”.

His sentiments appear to be shared by a large swathe of Tunisians, who have taken to the streets in the thousands to voice their support for Palestinians and denounce Israeli attacks on Gaza since the war broke out.

More than 9,000 Palestinians, including over 3,600 children, have been killed in Gaza since Israel began pounding the enclave in response to Hamas’s surprise attacks on Israel on October 7. Hamas’s attacks killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, Israeli authorities said.

Ancient Jewish community

Tunisia has a small Jewish community, numbering about 1,000, most of whom live in closed-off quarters on the southern island of Djerba.

Their oldest synagogue, El Ghriba, is the site of an annual Jewish pilgrimage that brings thousands to the island every May from around the world.

This year, a Tunisian naval guardsmen attacked the holy site during the pilgrimage, firing bullets outside the synagogue, killing five people, including two Jewish worshippers.

A symbol of Tunisia’s Jewish heritage was again targeted on October 17 when a crowd of protesters enraged by the bloodshed in Gaza torched an empty Jewish synagogue that houses the shrine of a 16th century rabbi in the city of El Hamma in the Gabes governorate.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies