North Africa, West Asia

Israel’s ongoing war against human rights defenders

Through suppressing those who criticise its human rights record, Israel is proving that it is not a liberal democracy.

Ben Jamal
28 October 2019
Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign in a protest in Dublin.
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Picture by Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Recently, Israel announced that it intends to revoke the residency rights of Omar Barghouti – a Palestinian human rights defender and co-founder of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The lack of international response speaks to the extent to which Israel’s violation of fundamental democratic norms has become normalised and not led to any re-evaluation of its standard characterisation as a functioning liberal democracy.

Omar Barghouti has enjoyed permanent residency status in Israel since 1993. Since he came to prominence in 2005 as a co-founder of the BDS movement he has had his rights and freedoms routinely denied. In 2016 Israel’s intelligence minister threatened him with “targeted civil elimination”, a statement described by Amnesty International as alarming. Since then he has been subjected to regular restrictions to his freedom of movement including in Autumn 2018 when he was denied permission to travel to Amman to attend his late mother’s funeral.

These attacks are just one manifestation of Israel’s intensifying war on BDS. The BDS movement seeks to apply non-violent tactics against the Israeli state until it complies with international law by ending the occupation, recognising the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and upholding Palestinian refugees’ fundamental right to return to the homes from which they were expelled. Ever since its inception, the Israeli state has sought to delegitimise and even criminalise the movement.

Internally, this has meant the passing of Israel’s “Anti-Boycott Law” in 2011, which means that individuals or organisations who endorse a call to use BDS tactics against Israel are liable to have legal action brought against them. It also stipulates that Israeli businesses that publicly choose not to purchase goods from occupied Palestinian land are liable to have their state-sponsored benefits revoked.

In 2015 the Israeli government branded BDS a “strategic threat” to the state, and appointed Gilad Erdan as Minister of Strategic Affairs with a brief to coordinate global efforts to oppose BDS. Since then, the Netanyahu regime has significantly ramped up its attempts to suppress the movement. This has included passing a law in 2017 barring supporters of BDS from entering the country, with Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s then chair Hugh Lanning being the first to be denied entry under the legislation. The law was controversially used against US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in August of this year.

On top of a repressive domestic agenda, Israel has invested resources into developing “lawfare” strategy whereby global allies can be persuaded to introduce repressive anti BDS laws. More than 20 US states have passed bills and orders that penalise support for BDS. In France in 2010 the Justice Minister issued an instruction to state authorities to consider calls for boycott illegal, citing an obscure law passed in 1881. This has led to more than 30 activists being charged with criminal activity for participating in BDS actions. Here in the UK in 2017 the UK government passed regulations that prevented Local Government Pension Schemes from divesting from companies complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses; regulations that Palestine Solidarity Campaign has challenged in the courts with a final determination to be reached by the Supreme Court in November.

A key tactic in this global campaign has been to seek to define BDS as an inherently antisemitic enterprise. Earlier this year, the German Parliament passed a resolution defining BDS in this way, a move which was applauded by the UK’s Foreign Secretary. Citing the resolution, the German city of Dortmund a few weeks ago withdrew its decision to award Pakistani British author Kamila Shamsie a literature prize, after finding out that the writer has supported BDS – a move which drew outrage and condemnation across the world.

Israel’s use of antidemocratic measures to silence dissent is not only directed at those advocating BDS. It has more broadly targeted human rights defenders; restricting their freedom of movement and deploying tactics of violence and intimidation.

A recent UN survey of global treatment of human rights defenders found that Israel “regularly bars activists, journalists, and protestors from travelling into Israel and the OPT, limiting the ability of local defenders from participating in the global discussion of human rights. The administrative detention that is often associated with restricting (and ultimately deporting) defenders has been described by defenders as amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have had staff refused entry or ordered to leave Israel in the past two years. Last month staff at the Palestinian NGO Addameer, which advocates for Palestinian prisoners, were subjected to an unannounced overnight office raid by Israeli forces, described by Amnesty International as “chilling” and a demonstration of Israel’s “determination to crush peaceful activism”.

Furthermore, in 2016 Israel introduced the controversial “NGO Transparency Law”. This law requires NGOs registered in Israel that receive 50% or more of their funding from foreign government entities to report to the NGO registrar and to mention such funding in all their official letters and publications, with failure to do so resulting in large fines. The International Federation for Human Rights argued at the time that this law would “in effect discriminatingly target non-governmental organisations (NGOs) critical of government policy and in particular human rights NGOs, which receive a majority of their funding from foreign governments”.

By all of these measures Israel fails crucial tests of a liberal democracy. The call for BDS is at its core a response to this reality that Israel, far from being a state upholding liberal democratic norms, is a state employing increasingly repressive laws within the context of an institutionalised system of discrimination.

Such states must be held to account – not enabled – by the international community, yet the UK government is in fact lending its support to the crackdown on human rights campaigners. Last month, UK Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick wrote that he would not tolerate local authority approved BDS campaigns in the UK. Just a few days later, it was reported that the UK Home Office had unjustifiably delayed Omar Barghouti’s travel visa to the UK, thus preventing him from speaking at fringe events of Labour Party Conference.

Omar Barghouti has now belatedly been granted his visa, and Palestine Solidarity Campaign will host him in the New Year including at meetings in the UK Parliament. His key message will be that which is at the heart of the BDS call – that it is incumbent upon international bodies, including governments, not to be complicit in supporting Israel’s ongoing denial of Palestinian collective rights. These include the right to bring the facts of their oppression into the public domain and to campaign for non violent resistance to the injustices to which they are subject.

Israel’s war against BDS and all of those defending Palestinian rights draws upon a strategy of delegitimisation. Israel believes it can persuade the world that the BDS movement is an attempt to undermine a liberal democracy from motivations rooted in bigotry. To win this argument it needs to persuade progressive world opinion of its own democratic credentials. But given its authoritarian approach to those who seek to reveal its human rights abuses, it will and must ultimately fail.

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