New law: severe penalties for Israel boycott
On Monday the UK government announced a proposed crackdown on local councils, public bodies, the NHS, and possibly some universities’ student unions’ ability to boycott unethical companies and contractors. In particular, a new law will make policies advocating for the refusal to purchase or contract products or services originating from or involved in perpetuating occupied territories in Israel a criminal offence.
Nash Riggins, writing for The Independent notes that: “Leicester City, Stirling, Clackmannanshire, Midlothian and West Dunbartonshire Councils have all implemented local bans on goods that come out of Israel and its illegal settlements”. The Middle East Eye stated that a Scottish government notice to local councils in Scotland also "strongly discouraged trade and investment from illegal settlements". Riggins writes that “More than a few student unions have followed suit”, and indeed, the National Union of Students (NUS)- a confederation of 600 student unions- reaffirmed its vote in June 2015 in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). With such widespread support for BDS actions, there has been considerable pushback to the new proposals.
The UK Cabinet Office issued a statement in defence of the move, claiming that, "Locally imposed boycotts can roll back integration as well as hinder Britain's export trade and harm international relationship”.
The Palestinian BDS National Committee draws stark parallels between UK support for a boycott ban, and ex-Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s support for apartheid in South Africa.
Rafeef Ziadah, a UK spokesperson for the Committee, said: “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. What sort of message does this send to UK companies like G4S [who provide equipment and services to both checkpoints which make up the Apartheid wall, and Israeli prisons, within which prisoners are held without trial and are tortured] and JCB [who provide bulldozers which destroy Palestinian homes, mosques, olive trees and buildings, and partake in the construction of settlements] that aid and abet Israel’s violations of international law?”.
An article on the BDS movement’s website states that: “A coalition of campaign groups – including climate campaigners who are working with local councils that have divested from fossil fuel companies – are campaigning against the moves to restrict the ability of local councils to make ethical investment decisions”. More info here: http://waronwant.org/protect-local-democracy
Media outlets celebrating the move were in the minority. Tom Wilson writing for City.am, a London-based mouthpiece which self-describes as ‘business with personality’ cited former communities secretary Eric Pickles as someone who ‘put it best’ by lamenting that, “The attempt by the irresponsible left to demonise Israel is bad for British business, bad for the local taxpayer, and deeply damaging to community relations”.
Some took to Twitter to share their thoughts on the matter. RAF Veteran Harry Smith said that “This government is almost at the point of rubbing shoulders with fascism”, whilst the Oxfordshire Green Party condemned the move as a “muzzle on free speech”. A Legal Advisor at the International Commission of Jurists remarked that the UK plan to banboycotts of unethical companies will “help perpetuate human rights abuses and prevent accountability”.