Israel steps up battle against boycott movement

AP News
Posted: Mar 07, 2017 3:07 PM
Israel steps up battle against boycott movement

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has stepped up its battle against outside supporters of an international boycott movement against the Jewish state with a new law that would bar entry to them.

The measure drew fierce criticism Tuesday from dovish activist groups who condemned it as the latest in a series of steps to silence critics. Officials, meanwhile, struggled to explain how it would be enforced.

The BDS movement advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel in what its supporters say is a nonviolent way to promote the Palestinian struggle for independence. It has urged businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel and includes thousands of volunteers around the world.

But Israel says the campaign goes beyond Israel's occupation of lands claimed by the Palestinians and masks a deeper aim of delegitimizing or even destroying the country.

The law, which was approved by the Knesset Monday night, does not apply to Israeli citizens or permanent residents. It states that no visa or residence permit will be given to anyone who "knowingly issued a public call to impose a boycott against the state of Israel or committed to participate in a boycott."

It also includes who boycott Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — a position that is supported by many Israelis as well.

"This isn't about someone who personally boycotts but a person who calls for boycott or who actively participates in a boycott," said Betzalel Smotrich, a lawmaker from the pro-settler Jewish Home party who sponsored the bill. "We can't prevent that in the place he lives, but we should definitely not help him and let him into our country and allow him to use us as a base against us."

Omar Barghouti, a founder of the boycott movement, called the measure an "Israeli regime own-goal par excellence."

"It is not a requirement or a necessity for human rights defenders and groups supporting BDS to enter the country to do their work effectively," he said. "If anything, banning them from entry will further motivate them to increase their work."

Israel already is known to detain prominent BDS activists and sometimes deport them.

The new law would tighten those restrictions by increasing the Interior Ministry's powers to block people from entering, said Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, an advocacy group that promotes the rights of Israel's Arab minority.

"It's like tagging them, naming and shaming them and telling them directly you are not allowed in," she said.

But more worrisome, she said the law could affect as many as 10,000 Palestinians who live as temporary residents inside Israel with spouses or other relatives who hold Israeli citizenship. Under Israeli family unification law, these Palestinians can live in the country but not receive citizenship.

Zaher said it was to be expected that some people who are adversely affected by Israeli laws would be drawn to the boycott movement.

"We will have more spouses, more family members that will not be allowed to enter Israel based on their political affiliation. So we will have another threat to those families who are already under the threat of separation," she said.

Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. branch of Israel's anti-settlement Peace Now group, called the law a "severe blow to Israeli democracy."

The group said its opposition to settlements is rooted in its support for Israel. It believes that Israel's continued occupation of land containing millions of Palestinians threatens the country's Jewish and democratic character.

"It would be absurd for the government of Israel to block us from visiting the country we love and care so much about because we chose to express a legitimate view in a legitimate way," the group's president and chief executive, Debra DeLee, said in a statement.

Oded Feller, head of the legal department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said it was unclear how the law will be enforced.

"We'll find out in the next weeks and months to come. I believe if they suspect someone, they will ask to look through their Facebook account, telephone, things like this," he said. He predicted the law will be challenged in court.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees immigration policy, said only that it was working to formulate regulations on how to implement the law.

The legislation follows a 2011 anti-BDS law that allows people to sue boycotters for damages.

Last year, Israel passed a law that increased regulation on rights groups that receive foreign funding. It also has taken aim at Israeli rights groups that criticize military and government policies overseas, and threatened to punish theater troupes that refused to perform in West Bank settlements.