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The movement to boycott Israeli products as a form of non-violent resistance has attracted renewed controversy in the United States (US), Israel’s most powerful ally and sponsor, amid renewed efforts to penalize supporters of the movement in both countries.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is modelled on similar initiatives taken by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, was created in 2005 after a call by Palestinian civil society groups. The groups called for a boycott until Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights; grants Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel equal rights; and allows Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
A 2015 RAND Corp. report noted that the BDS movement ‘has not yet had a significant negative effect on Israel. However, the movement is growing, particularly in Europe, Israel’s largest trading partner, and some Israeli leaders have warned that the movement’s effects could have substantial detrimental effects on the economic welfare of Israelis.’
The report estimated that over the next ten years, the Israeli gross domestic product (GDP) could take a $15 billion hit from non-violent resistance tactics, due to ‘reduced international investment and tourism because of perceived instability in the region and from a broader BDS movement in Europe’. It also noted that Palestinians would see a loss of $2.4 billion in the same period, as a result of ‘Israeli destruction of property and retaliation, which increases barriers and transaction costs to trade, and from decreased income because fewer Palestinian workers are in Israel’.
As a result of the movement’s growth, it is seen as a threat by Israel and supporters of Israel, many of whom portray the movement as anti-Semitic and say it threatens the existence of the Israeli state. The movement’s supporters – including some Jewish groups – say it is a non-violent means to put pressure on Israel to reach a political solution with the Palestinians.
The European Union (EU) ruled in 2015 that products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank should be labelled as such, saying that the designation ‘”Made in Israel” used for the products coming from Israeli settlements would mislead the consumer and therefore is inconsistent with existing EU legislation’.
The decision led Israel to accuse the EU of supporting the boycott movement, although the ruling explicitly said that the EU ‘does not support any form of boycott or sanctions against Israel’ and noted that the EU’s trade with Israel amounted to about €30 billion ($36 billion) in 2014.
In March 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for the creation of a database of business enterprises operating in occupied Palestine as part of an ‘independent international fact-finding mission to investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory’.
New controversy in the United States
Partly in reaction to the UN resolution, a group of US senators and members of Congress proposed legislation in early 2017 that would penalize US companies that take part in boycotts against Israel. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act would prohibit ‘any US person engaged in interstate or foreign commerce from supporting: any request by a foreign country to impose any boycott against a country that is friendly to the United States and that is not itself the object of any form of boycott pursuant to United States law or regulation, or any boycott fostered or imposed by any international governmental organization against Israel or any request by any international governmental organization to impose such a boycott’.
Civil liberties advocates pushed back on the proposal. In July 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to senators and members of Congress arguing that the bill violates the constitutional right to free speech as it ‘would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies’.
Two senators sponsoring the bill responded in a letter, saying that the proposal was meant to prevent US citizens or companies from complying with ‘unsanctioned foreign boycotts’, such as a request from the UN for information about a US company’s business dealings in Israel. The bill would not restrict companies or individuals ‘from expressing their points of view, speaking in favour of boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) activities, engaging in boycott activity of their own accord or being critical of Israel’, they wrote.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, a candidate for governor dropped his running mate from the race after an outcry over his support for BDS. Daniel Biss dropped Carlos Ramirez-Rosa over comments he made about Israel, saying that the US government “has subsidized the oppression of the Palestinian people” and that US divestment from Israel is “a conversation that needs to be had”.
Bliss, whose mother is Israeli and grandparents are Holocaust survivors, said issues related to Israel were “deeply personal” to him and that the BDS movement “moves us further away from a peaceful solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Human Rights Group Targeted
At the same time, Israel is reportedly planning to penalize international human rights group Amnesty International (AI) for a recent campaign encouraging its supporters to advocate a boycott of products from settlements.
Israeli media reported that under a controversial anti-boycott law passed in 2011, Israel’s finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, will eliminate the organization’s tax-exempt status in Israel, which it only obtained last October 2017. The move would not significantly impact AI’s finances, as it receives a relatively small amount of funding from Israeli donors, but AI representatives and supporters decried it as an attempt to discourage dissenting voices.
“Taking punitive action against Amnesty International over its settlements campaign would constitute a brazen attack by the Israeli authorities on the organization’s legitimate human rights work. It would also be the latest effort by the authorities to silence human rights organizations and activists who criticize the Israeli government and call for accountability,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.
Cracks in Arab Boycott
The Arab League has maintained an official boycott of Israel since 1948. Although member states have adhered to it sporadically, there was still a ripple of shock in the Arab world recently when Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa reportedly denounced the boycott and said he is willing to allow his country’s citizens to visit Israel. The comments were made public after a recent visit by the king to Los Angeles, where he attended an event for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, and visited the pro-Israel Museum of Tolerance.