A new Israeli law would ban BDS activists from entering Israel and ‘regions under its control.’
Text and photos by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org
Earlier this week, while most international coverage was focused on the escalating violence in the region, Israeli lawmakers were addressing another threat — as they see it — to Israeli security: nonviolent grassroots activism. A new law proposed by MK Yinon Magal of right-wing Jewish Home party would ban entry to foreigners who promote the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.
“Anyone who calls for a boycott of Israel is engaging in terrorism and must not be allowed to travel the country freely,” said Magal according to Haaretz. The same report notes that the bill has the support of the governing coalition as well as 25 other MKs from various parties.
It is striking that at a time when Israelis fear stabbing or shooting attacks that Israeli lawmakers would describe a nonviolent tactic with such terminology. But after a weekend that BDS organizers claim saw 70 protests in 20 countries under the theme #SolidarityWaveBDS, documents accompanying Magal’s bill warn that “calls for boycotting Israel have intensified. It seems that this is a new front of war against Israel.”
The measure defines “boycott” by the wording of previous anti-BDS legislation as any “deliberate avoidance of economic, social or academic ties or ties to a person or other body just because of his connection to the State of Israel, its institutions or regions under its control, in order to harm it economically, social or academically.”
The phrase “regions under its control” makes clear that the bill would equally target those who only boycott Israeli settlements as well as those who advocate for a blanket boycott of all Israeli institutions.
It is worth noting that while many international activists target only West Bank settlements out of a desire to affirm Israel’s right to exist, the language of the bill implicitly affirms the notion advanced by advocates of full BDS — that the State of Israel is inextricably enmeshed in the occupation and settlement enterprise.
“BDS is a nonviolent tactic, and like any tactic, should be used in the way in which it works most effectively,” says Israeli activist Sahar Vardi. With much of the international community still not completely aware of the way the entire Israeli economy crosses the Green Line, says Vardi, it can be “more effective to focus campaigns on companies directly involved in the settlement or military systems.”
“But it is still important to understand how that economy of occupation works,” adds Vardi. “Every single bank in Israel is funding settlement construction, meaning that every single shekel in the Israeli economy is directly or indirectly invested in growing the Israeli occupation. That is why the boycott movement has identified Israel as a target, and not only economic operations specifically invested in the occupied territories.”
Magal’s bill must still obtain parliamentary approval before it becomes law. As with previous attempts to outlaw BDS in Israel, it will be interesting to see whether the version that finally passes is significantly altered or watered down. While the initial bill of 2011’s so-called “Boycott Law” proposed stiffer penalties, the final version only allowed those who consider themselves victims of boycott to sue those who promoting BDS. Even so, that law was met with broad international criticism as an affront to freedom of expression.
“Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished,” said a New York Times editorial. “We are also opposed to boycotts of Israel, but agree this is a fundamental issue of free speech.”
Israel’s High Court of Justice upheld that legislation last April with a ruling in which Justice Hanan Meltzer described BDS as “political terrorism.”
Regardless of the final version of this new law targeting foreigners, it will likely have at least some of the intended chilling effect on activists attempting to visit the region. But such activists have become accustomed to enduring long waits, searches and interrogations upon entering or exiting the areas under Israeli control. Some have already received 10-year entry bans solely because of nonviolent political activity.
Whether this new law significantly raises the stakes for such activists remains to be seen, since being denied entry has been a risk they have long faced on a routine basis. While some will continue to take precautions such as turning off their social media accounts or otherwise attempting to hide their activism on public profiles prior to entry or exit, for most in the movement, that toothpaste is well out of the tube and all over the internet for all to see.
So while this new law may have limited practical effect, the broader issue is what such legislation says about the standard of democracy and free speech in the State of Israel. Like the separation barrier, in the end it may amount to little more than “security theater” — providing the impression that the state is doing something while those committed to the gaining entry will only intensify their efforts in the face of greater opposition.