Today, MPs will vote on a Government bill to ban public bodies from taking part in boycotts or divestment from countries committing human rights violations. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill singles out Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Occupied Golan Heights as the sole territories to be protected in almost all circumstances from divestment. In doing so, this bill allows Israel to act without any UK accountability—a privilege currently not afforded to any other nation or state.
The bill has been trailed since December 2019 and is routinely justified in the name of combating antisemitism. Last month, Michael Gove, the minister responsible for the bill, told The Guardian that ‘These [boycott] campaigns not only undermine the UK’s foreign policy but lead to appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse. That is why we have taken this decisive action to stop these disruptive policies once and for all.’
This legislation is an egregious attack on our collective right to protest human rights injustices and has nothing to do with the fight against antisemitism. Promoted in this way, as swathes of Tory politicians and their media outriders have done, is both immoral and deeply dangerous. It undermines the struggle against actual antisemitism and fuels a narrative that protecting Jewish people is mutually exclusive with the struggle for Palestinian rights. Make no mistake, this amounts to textbook ‘divide and rule’ politics to drive a wedge between Palestinian and Jewish communities.
The espousing of alleged care for Jewish people as the rationale for banning democratic methods of protest shows how willing the Government is to scapegoat Jewish people to serve their own political agenda—especially pronounced given how numerous Jewish groups have opposed the legislation—and to distract from its role in and motivations for curbing our rights, and for its anti-Palestinian policies. It is no coincidence this bill is the fourth in a slew of anti-democratic pieces of legislation, including the Nationality and Borders Act, the Public Order Act and the Police Crime and Sentencing Act, and hot off the heels of the recently announced UK-Israel Bilateral Relations Agreement. That the agreement was signed with an Israeli government that has faced international and domestic condemnation for its descent into far-right extremism shows the unfaltering nature of the relationship.
That same government has wasted no time also intensifying its oppression and occupation. Since the start of 2023, at least 160 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, including 26 children. The number of incarcerated Palestinians has increased substantially, homes continue to be demolished, and the forcible displacement of Palestinian communities has accelerated. Meanwhile, the Israeli government continues to openly pursue a policy of creeping annexation in the West Bank—only this week, the outpost of Homesh was given the green light by the Israeli government to be legalised; communities in Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron hills are facing forcible expulsion from their land after they lost a legal case to remain. The judge who presided over the latter case, David Mintz, is himself a settler who resides in an illegal settlement in the West Bank.
And where this systematic violence and dispossession is not being perpetrated by the state apparatus, it adopts a supportive role; in Huwara, when Israeli settlers initiated a violent pogrom in the town in the West Bank, a new CNN investigation revealed Israeli forces failed to stop the attack, failed to protect Palestinian residents and even blocked emergency services from responding.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s remarks that Huwara needed to be ‘wiped out’ illustrates how there is a direct line from those who perform these attacks to the heart of the Israeli government. It is no wonder there are no genuine attempts at holding those who carry out such attacks accountable.
The reality is that Israel knows that despite its flagrant intentions of permanent occupation and apartheid over Palestinians, it will receive unconditional support and protection from the UK government. On the rare occasion that Israel faces international diplomatic and legal pressure, a wall of protection here is always detectable: when the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into Israeli war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank in 2014, then prime minister Boris Johnson fiercely opposed it—backed to the hilt by Conservative Friends of Israel, who also have shown their full support for the anti-boycott bill.
In fact, senior Conservative MP Michael Gove, a lifelong supporter of Israel, also supported former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ alarming commitment to move the British embassy to Jerusalem. Today, it’s his ministerial department that is in charge of the anti-boycott bill. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Conservative government is leading the charge to ban BDS and undermine Palestinian solidarity.
More broadly, the silencing of Palestine advocacy remains a significant problem across the UK and Europe. A new report by the European Legal Support Centre documents how pro-Israel advocates instrumentalise antisemitism to this end via both anti-BDS legislation and the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. Lawfare tactics are also being used to target campaigners for Palestinian human rights.
Of course, these suppression tactics are not limited to Palestine advocacy. Across the pond, anti-BDS legislation has been used in the United States to clamp down on other protest movements. These laws have been used as a template for the introduction of other pieces of legislation banning boycotts of fossil fuel companies and arms companies, amongst others. For example, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) uses anti-BDS legislation as a model to block boycotts of oil companies in different states. We must therefore also recognise the danger the boycott bill poses to the wider movement for a fairer and more just future for all of us.
Yet despite the attempts to quash avenues of Palestinian resistance, the organising and agitating has remained steadfast and is precipitating steady success. The mayor of Barcelona recently suspended all institutional relations with Israel, including a twinning agreement with Tel Aviv, ‘until the Israeli authorities put an end to the system of violations of Palestinian human rights’. Meanwhile, the world’s largest private security company Allied Universal, which owns G4S, has decided to sell all its remaining business in Israel, following a successful BDS campaign.
Solidarity and Resistance
Directly on the ground, we see more and more Palestinian-Jewish solidarity projects emerging, such as protective presence shifts in the South Hebron Hills, where Jews, in partnership with Palestinian communities, accompany shepherds to their land to mitigate the risk of intimidation by settlers or the army, and to document any violence or arrests.
Placed in the context of leading global human rights organisations (including in Israel and Palestine) concluding that Israel’s actions amount to the crimes of apartheid under international law, it is clear that there is increasing legitimacy and solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian freedom, including tactics such as BDS. This was typified by the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student paper, whose editorial board proudly endorsed BDS and the quest for Palestinian liberation in 2022, having previously been sceptical of the movement. This is symptomatic of the gradual but consistent growing strength of Palestinian advocacy that is enduring despite the clampdown culture.
Once again in Britain, minoritised communities, whether it be Jews or Palestinians, are mere political footballs amid a growing authoritarian agenda. The most effective way to resist these nefarious tactics is to build new coalitions of solidarity and support to challenge these tactics and work together to campaign for both Palestinian human rights and Jewish safety within the broader struggle for collective liberation.
We see through the Government’s tactics; we know that Palestinian freedom and Jewish safety are in fact deeply interconnected struggles. We will not let the Conservatives divide us. Now is the time for Jewish-Palestinian solidarity and building new avenues of safety in the face of the threat this Government posits to both of our communities.