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Tory moves to curb Israel boycotts will fail

Last week the government made an announcement intended to intimidate supporters of Palestinian rights.

It was trailed in the media as a “ban” on boycotts of Israel, which The Independent claimed would now become a “criminal” offence for public bodies.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign said this amounted to “a gross attack on our democratic freedoms and the independence of public bodies from government interference.”

There is no doubt that the new measure is probably the biggest attack by the Tory government yet on the movement for Palestinian human rights. In the last 11 years, a key tactic of that movement has been boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS.

But the devil was in the detail, as so often.

When the formal announcement was made by Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock at a press conference in Israel alongside Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday, and the formal “guidance note” was published by Whitehall mandarins, the full picture became clearer.

The so-called “ban” would not in fact involve any criminal penalties. At worst it could mean some publicly-funded bodies – such as local councils and some universities – may face (ironically) sanctions, such as fines.

While that is still a serious escalation in the Tory government’s assault on democracy, it’s rather less than was feared. Indeed, in my opinion, anonymous “government sources” have been briefing the press to that effect precisely in order to stoke fear, uncertainly and doubt, to intimidate BDS activists into backing down.

This bullying behaviour is part of a recent pattern in the supposedly democratic western countries allied to apartheid Israel: in the US, soon in Canada, and worst of all in France.

But it is unlikely to work.

Speaking to my sources in the Palestine solidarity movement last week, I hear that there is already talk of local activist organising for civil disobedience against these measures. Indeed, the talk on social media when The Independent started talking about a “BDS ban” was almost universally: “come and stop us then!”

It’s encouraging to hear of such commitment to the struggle for solidarity with the Palestinians. But we are far away from the point of the need for actual civil disobedience. Indeed, reading the details of the government’s memo as I did last week, it seems there are still ways to campaign for local government boycotts of companies involved in propping up and supplying the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

PSC chair Hugh Lanning said Thursday: “This flies in the face of democracy. However, the guidance itself is not particularly coherent and there are still opportunities for councils to divest from companies whose business violates Palestinian human rights. The note states that the new guidance is consistent with existing FCO guidelines on doing business with companies active in the settlements … The advice itself also notes that it is possible to take ‘social and environmental factors’ into account – which means that there is still the possibility for companies with involvement in wider human rights abuses to be excluded from contracts.”

The whole thing seems rather aimed at placating Israel, which has been screaming for the last year or so about the need for a “war” against BDS. There’s no doubt the apartheid state is rallying all its allies for this fight.

But these guidelines seem rather to misunderstand the nature of BDS.

As my colleague Ben White pointed out, BDS is not an absolute principle, it is a tactic based on a strategic analysis: “As Nelson Mandela said in 1958, boycott is not ‘a matter of principle’ but ‘a tactical weapon,’ whose application is based on ‘the concrete conditions prevailing at the given time’. There is no shortage of evidence that Israel is practising apartheid; this is attested to by numerous human rights organisations. Therefore, the same tactics that helped free South Africa must be our response.”

At it’s most fundamental level, BDS is refusing to participate in something: Israeli war crimes, occupation and apartheid in this case. Trying to combat a moral struggle for human rights, justice and return of refugees with crude legislation, and intimidation via all the methods the state apparatus can summon will not ultimately succeed.

For the government however there is a real danger that these measures could backfire, and encourage BDS activists to strengthen their struggle, as well as give more publicity to their cause, rallying more allies.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.

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