After failed attempts to delay debate, a controversial law was passed by the Israeli parliament on Monday night. It allows Jewish settlers in the West Bank to seek damages from Israelis individual or organisation who promote boycotts of settlements. (photo from bbcimg.co.uk)
The prime minister’s Likud party sponsored the bill which was carried by 47 to 38 in the 120-seat parliament. Benjamin Netanyahu did not himself vote.
The bill follows several Israeli calls to boycott institutions or individuals that are linked to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The settlements are deemed illegal under international law but Israel disputes this.
Last year continued building in settlements stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, as they want the West Bank to be part of a future state.
A pledge by Israeli academics and artists to boycott the Ariel settlement was one of the recent initiatives which angered settlers and their political patrons.
They did not appreciate either that when they signed on to help build a new modern Palestinian city, north of Ramallah, Israeli developers agreed not to use products or services from settlements.
The new law says that those who sponsor a “geographically based boycott”, which includes any part of the Jewish state or its settlements, could be sued for damages in a civil court by the party injured in the boycott call.
Not required to prove that there was “economic, cultural or academic damage”, the petitioner only has to prove that the damage could reasonably have been expected as a result of the boycott call.
Anyone convicted of breaking the new law could receive a fine of up to 50,000 shekels ($14,500).
“The State of Israel has for years been dealing with boycotts from Arab nations, but now we are talking about a homegrown boycott,” said the author of the legislation, lawmaker, Zeev Elvin, the Associated Press news agency reported.
“It is time to put an end to this travesty. If the State of Israel does not protect itself, we will have no moral right to ask our allies for protection from such boycotts.”
Rights groups opposed the bill, saying it compromises Israeli democracy and calling it “a direct violation of freedom of expression”.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) described the law as “deeply anti-democratic” and a violation of Israelis’ freedom of speech.
“There is no question that promoting boycotts is a legitimate, democratic, non-violent form of protest that is being used by Israelis on a wide variety of issues from environmental issues to opposing the prices of certain products,” said ACRI executive director, Hagai el-Ad.
“No reasoning has been suggested to explain why the boycott of settlement goods should be uniquely cherished as opposed to the right of the Israeli citizen to protest.”
During a noisy demonstration outside the Justice ministry on Sunday, activists (photo, from bbcimg.co.uk) carried banners which read “the boycott law boycotts democracy.”
Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote in an editorial that lawmakers who voted in favour of the bill were “supporting the gagging of protest as part of an ongoing effort to liquidate democracy”.
“They are trying to silence one of the most legitimate forms of democratic protest, and to restrict freedom of expression and association of those who oppose the occupation and the settlers’ violence,” the paper also wrote.
There are plans to challenge the new law in the country’s High Court.
But the intense debate around the new law shows the growing polarisation between Israelis who wants to expand settlements and keep the West Bank in Israeli hands, and those who think that to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians they should withdraw from much of the territory and dismantle some or all of the settlements .
Parliament’s speaker Reuven Rivlin, said he had unsuccessfully appealed to Mr Netanyahu to seek a rewording of the legislation after the assembly’s legal adviser said it “impinged on political expression” in Israel.
“What this law will enable is for anybody harmed by a deliberate boycott campaign to seek damages through the courts,” said its sponsor, Zeev Elkin, a Likud parliamentarian.
In a statement Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that making “the boycott of Israeli settlement products punishable by law will send a clear message that Israel is not committed to a two-state solution”.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has conducted an increasingly concerted campaign against Jewish settlements.
A law banning settlement produce from Palestinian shops in the West Bank has been passed last year, and traders who break the law face both prison and a heavy fine.
But the PA has not yet passed a promised legislation that would make it illegal for Palestinian labourer to work in settlements.