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Curtailing free speech and activism comes at a great cost to us all

Millions of Muslims around the world are buying dates for the coming month of Ramadan. Many will be careful not to purchase those produced by Israel in occupied Palestinian land. This growing act of solidarity is in no small part the result of sustained campaigning by organisations linked to the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Over 50 per cent of Medjool dates, which have flooded the shops over the past few years and are a favourite of most people I know, are from Israel. In 2012, Israel's date exports were valued at $60 million; it has 35 per cent of the global share of the date market, 60 per cent of which is grown on illegal settlement farms in the occupied Jordan Valley.

Boycotting Israeli dates has become a defining feature of Ramadan for many Muslims. The spiritual act of breaking the fast with a date has become a demonstration of political defiance. It's the kind of defiance which, if we are to take the recent comments made by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mak Chishty at face value, will no doubt be viewed with suspicion.

Such displays of political solidarity, claims the senior police officer, could be an early sign of radicalisation. "The police need to move into the private space of Muslims to see if they are becoming extremist," he insists. Muslims who don't celebrate Christmas and boycott Marks & Spencer because of its support for Israel (not because "it's owned by Jews" as Chishty claims) will also be on the police radar.

The commander's myopic comments are illustrative of the many worrying, counterproductive and, frankly, idiotic responses by officialdom to the swelling tide of public opinion against Israel, which is struggling to check global opposition to its racist and colonialist policies.

When the influential Reut Institute in Tel Aviv identified the global movement for justice, equality and peace as an "existential threat" to Israel, it called on the Israeli government to direct substantial resources to "attack" and possibly engage in criminal "sabotage" of BDS activism. The institute, which is linked to the Israeli military, believes that there are various international "hubs" worthy of special attention in London, Madrid, Toronto and the San Francisco Bay Area. It has laid out detailed strategies to engage Jewish institutions and individuals in identifying and marginalising "leftist groups", separating them from liberals less critical of Israeli policy, creating a positive "brand Israel", and homing in on those who "delegitimise" Israel.

Reut's grandiose ambitions look to be making headway amongst major allies with a number of governments following, like dutiful lapdogs, Israel's example of criminalising political dissent. Such attacks against non-violent protest includes proposals to make it a criminal offence to wave the Palestinian flag. The Israeli authorities frequently use the term "illegal demonstrations" to describe peaceful protests in occupied Palestine against policies which violate international laws and conventions.

There are countless examples of Palestinians being imprisoned for organising protests against the construction of the "separation wall", for example, which the International Court of Justice described as "part of Israel's illegal settler-colonial enterprise". The coordinator of the Bil'in Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, was arrested and sent to jail for organising a weekly protest against the enrichment of settlements and the wall on his village's land. According to the Huffington Post, "during his arrest seven military Jeeps surrounded his house as Israeli soldiers broke the door, and took Abdallah from his bed. After briefly allowing him to say goodbye to his wife Majida and their three children, he was blindfolded and taken to the Ofer military prison."

By its suppression of protest in Palestinian villages like Bil'in and its ill-treatment of hundreds of Palestinian detainees who, out of desperation, have gone on hunger strike, Israel has shown that the people of Palestine living under a brutal military occupation remain a threat to the occupier, even if they use the kind of tactics promoted by M K Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course, it is to be expected that this kind of repression and silencing of dissent is used by a colonial entity which has embarked on a generational plan to dismantle the political aspirations of an entire people and deny them their human and civil rights. However, few could have anticipated that a similar authoritarian response – in terms of objectives if not in tactics – would become an acceptable suppression of peaceful protest and solidarity shown by citizens of the US, Britain and other western countries with an occupied, brutalised and dehumanised people.

The worrying level of traction gained by this anti-solidarity campaign is endangering the very pillars of freedom that are defining features of western societies. Its combination of bullying and undisguised subversion of basic democratic principles of a free society is itself now a major threat to that society.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we've seen growing hysteria with governments moving to undermine Palestinian solidarity under the guise of fighting "terrorism" and pro-Israel civil society groups using bullying tactics and intimidation. Since 9/11, US university campuses have become infested with neo-McCarthyism. Websites like Campus Watch have gained a reputation for targeting and attacking students and academics sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

The latest example of such intimidation is an online database that publicises the identities of pro-Palestinian student activists to prevent them from getting jobs after they graduate. Canary Website, which does not disclose the identity of its backers, calls on activists to "ensure that today's radicals are not tomorrow's employees."

Ali AbuNimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, told Haaretz newspaper: "It's an effort to punish and deter people from standing up for what they believe. The focus on young people and students is an effort to try to tell people that there will be a price for you taking a political position."

According to Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum and a known Islamophobe, the tactic is "a way of forcing people to understand the seriousness of their political stands."

Such scare tactics are proving to be futile against the growing BDS movement crystallised by the unspeakable levels of violence and brutality shown by Israel against Palestinian civilians in Gaza. At risk of losing the public battle, Zionist organisations are, it seems, being offered reinforcements from the state and its allies to reverse growing anti-Israeli sentiment.

Pro-Israel governments are increasingly looking for opportunities to defend their friend. They are hoping to tilt the debate by criminalising free speech to block critics of Israel. In Canada, for example, there is a move to curtail speech deemed to be overly critical of Israel. The right-wing government has signed a memorandum of understanding with Tel Aviv, claiming that "the selective targeting of Israel is the new face of anti-Semitism." Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney told the UN General Assembly that the Canadian government would exercise "zero tolerance" toward "all forms of discrimination including rhetoric towards Israel, and attempts to delegitimise Israel such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement."

France was the first country in the world to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations last summer at the height of Israel's bombardment of Gaza, even as bombs were raining down on the defenceless civilian population. In the US, which has some of the most potent pro-Israel initiatives in the world, the government has also been tilting the balance in favour of its "closest ally".

In August last year, the US government successfully prosecuted and sentenced Rasmea Odeh on charges of immigration fraud. The 67-year-old Palestinian American's defence team argued that the US attorney's prosecution of Odeh was a political prosecution of an "iconic and legendary Palestinian figure".

In Britain, Mak Chishty's inane remark about invading the "private space of Muslims" is a signal of intent to increase the pressure against Muslims and pro-Palestinian activism. The police officer's comment, intended or not, prepares the ground for the Conservative government's draconian Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which all but criminalises thoughts, beliefs and opinions that disagree with British foreign policy.

This trend is set to take on a more concrete form as right-wing governments manoeuvre to remake their countries in the name of "security" and the "war on terror". British Prime Minister David Cameron's desire to scrap the Human Rights Act is part of this process, the cost of which includes the dumping of prized freedoms and principles.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, freedom of speech and thought was paraded as the sacred cow of western society. It is ironic that we should now allow right-wing governments elected by a minority of the electorate, and who sermonised about defending the pillars of western democracy, to sacrifice venerated ideals at the very first opportunity for the benefit of a rogue colonialist state and to the detriment of us all.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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