Activists seek to confront UK’s plan to ban boycotting Israel

Alasdair Soussi

Al-Jazeera  /  June 27, 2023

Pro-Palestinian campaigners are lobbying British MPs to vote down the bill in July that would outlaw sanctioning Israel.

Glasgow, United Kingdom – The UK’s right to challenge Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinians through the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement must be protected. So argued two distinguished British-Palestinian activists on Monday in a livestream conversation on the online media platform Palestine Deep Dive.

Defending the Right to Boycott: Confronting the UK’s Anti-BDS Bill was broadcast online in response to the Conservative British government’s decision to pursue legislation which would see UK public bodies prevented from sanctioning and boycotting Israel, which Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused of committing acts of apartheid against the Palestinian people.

Chaired by former Al-Jazeera correspondent Mark Seddon, the program featured Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and Aimee Shalan, co-director of pro-Palestinian rights organization Makan and chair of the British Palestinian Committee.

“We are now 75 years into an ongoing Nakba [the ‘catastrophe’ of violent events which led to the creation of Israel in 1948],” said Shalan.

“We are witnessing daily killings and injuries [of Palestinians], the incarceration of Palestinians, forced expulsions, home demolitions, repeated bombardments [by Israelis] of a captive population within [the Palestinian territory of] Gaza and severe discrimination against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship as well as attacks on human rights defenders working to hold Israel to account.”

Shalan added that it was “a very difficult time politically”.

“… so it’s all the more essential that we come together as a group and we make ourselves heard. We are not willing to be silenced,” she said.

‘Ideological commitment’

Championed by Michael Gove, UK secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, the so-called Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill was a 2019 Conservative Party manifesto commitment.

While the bill does not apply to Israel alone, Gove singled out the actions of BDS last year, asserting that it was “designed for only one purpose: to attack and delegitimize the State of Israel and the idea that there should be a Jewish state at all”.

“Michael Gove has an ideological commitment to this piece of legislation,” argued Jamal on Palestine Deep Dive.

“He has been somebody who for many years has been pushing this nefarious narrative as part of a desire to shield Israel from accountability …”

The UK government of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is determined to pass the bill into law before the next general election.

If enacted, local councils, universities and other such bodies would be outlawed from pursuing what Gove has called “their own foreign policy agenda”.

Global movement

BDS was launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian civil society groups. It has since become a global lobbying movement, which has claimed many pro-Palestinian successes worldwide.

For example, popular British singer-songwriter Sam Smith acquiesced to calls to cancel their scheduled performance at the Summer in the City festival in Tel Aviv last month.

Successive Israeli governments and pro-Israel groups have long labelled the actions of BDS anti-Semitic.

BDS, however, describes itself as “an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia”.

It features many Jewish voices among its legions of supporters.

The bill has its second reading in the British House of Commons in early July.

Pro-Palestinian campaigners are lobbying MPs to vote down the legislation when the time comes, but Jamal, for one, is already planning ahead.

“If we do not succeed in getting this stopped, then there will be other ways in which we look, including the potential for legal action to stop this bill actually having impact and having effect,” he said.

With more than 30 US states having adopted their own forms of anti-BDS legislation to date, Shalan said the fight to overcome the bill is part of a wider struggle.

“It’s about democratic rights,” she said. “It’s about progressive social justice movements and the right to protest. And it’s about having an ability as citizens to actually call our governments to account … around the globe.”

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist