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The shrinking space for pro-Palestinian activism in the UK

February 18, 2016 at 5:12 pm

In Luton, school boy Rahmaan Mohammadi was questioned for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge to class and carrying a leaflet advocating Palestinian rights by pressure group Friends of al-Aqsa- a group that recently had their bank account shut down without explanation by a UK bank. Meanwhile, news was surfacing of a crackdown by the British government on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a form of non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation. For Palestine supporters in the UK, the space for resisting the occupation of Palestine is shrinking.

Mohammadi’s teachers at Challney High School for Boys in Luton referred him to police under Prevent – the controversial government anti-radicalisation programme. Aside from wearing pro-Palestine badges and being in possession of a leaflet on Palestinian rights, he had also asked for permission to fundraise for children affected by the Israeli occupation. He alleged that police warned him not to talk about Palestine in school, and further claimed that staff members had approached his 14-year-old brother and pressured him to tell Rahmaan to “stop being radical”.

Prevent is one strand of the British Government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placed Prevent on a statutory basis for the first time, meaning that specified institutions including nurseries, colleges and universities must implement and integrate the strategy as a legal requirement. Prevent has been called “draconian” by human rights groups and criticised for singling out British Muslims to the point where Baroness Warsi warned of a “cold war against British Muslims”.

The decision to question Mohammadi under the Prevent strategy for possessing pro-Palestine material shows that government policy connects supporting Palestine with radicalization. A case study in a leaflet produced for public sector workers to help them make judgements about referrals to a support programme for young people considered to be vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists suggested that a student having discussed Palestine was a red flag. Leaked documents showing e-presentations given to teaching staff to train them on Prevent also listed Palestine, alongside Syria and the growth of Daesh, as issues that need “careful monitoring by those involved in safeguarding”.

Under Prevent, universities are now required to vet speakers thoroughly for extremist viewpoints. According to the government’s extremism analysis unit, at least 70 events featuring so-called “hate speakers” were held on university campuses last year. With an association between pro-Palestinian activism and radicalisation endorsed by the government, speakers with a background in opposing Israel’s settlement expansion, for example, could be considered “extremist”.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) says universities and Student Unions have been facing legal challenges aimed at Palestine activism even prior to the passing of the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill. The Charity Commission’s guidance for Student Unions, updated in 2001, takes a very narrow definition of the kind of political activities permitted. Following the Charities Act 2006, students’ unions have been required to register with the Charity Commission and have had legal restrictions placed on what they can do. This has only recently begun to be used to crackdown on student activism.

It is not just pro-Palestinian activism within educational institutions that has faced difficulties. In January 2016, Friends of al-Aqsa, the organisation Mohammadi had a leaflet on, announced that the Co-operative Bank had told it on 15 December that it was withdrawing banking services, citing a change in its “risk appetite”. In November 2015, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) launched a legal case after PSC’s account was also closed by the Co-operative Bank. Another 20 organisations working for Palestine – including a number of PSC branches – have also had their accounts closed or denied. PSC’s solicitors stated the closure of the accounts was due to its client’s support for Palestinian rights.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, it was announced that local councils, public bodies and even some university student unions are to be banned by law from boycotting “unethical” companies, as part of a controversial crackdown being announced by the British Government. Under the plan all publicly funded institutions will lose the freedom to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, for example. Any public bodies that continue to pursue boycotts- a form of legitimate non-violent resistance which once aided the fall of Apartheid South Africa- will face “severe penalties” ministers have said.

The formal announcement will be made by the Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock when he visits Israel this week. Fuelling anti-Semitism was one of the reasons cited for the ban on boycotts by the spokesperson for UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s office.

The blurring between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel is commonly used to de-legitimise pro-Palestinian activism in the UK. For example, Government Action on Anti-Semitism, a report released in December 2014 by the Department for Communities and Local Government, cited in the context of anti-Semitic actions, the banning of Israeli-manufactured products by Leicester City Council and Tower Hamlets flying the Palestinian flag.

Awareness and support for Palestinian rights has been growing in the UK. During the last Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip, thousands of people poured onto the streets in protest. At the same time, the space for pro-Palestinian activism is being shrunk; by government policies that associate Palestinian activism with radicalisation and criticism of Israel as antisemitism. Through government endorsements of the above and the Prevent strategy, British institutions such as banks, schools and universities have been recruited to silence Israel’s critics.

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