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Anti-boycott law curbs free expression, say MADA and Human Rights Watch

Calls for boycotting Israel, such as this one, are now punishable offences under a new anti-boycott law passed by the Knesset on 11 July 2011
Calls for boycotting Israel, such as this one, are now punishable offences under a new anti-boycott law passed by the Knesset on 11 July 2011

REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Israel has violated the right to free expression by approving a law that penalises individuals and organisations that call for boycotting Israel, say IFEX members the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) and Human Rights Watch.

The law, approved in a 47-to-38 vote by Parliament on 11 July, makes it a punishable offence to publicly call for a boycott - economic, cultural or academic - against Israel, its institutions or any area under its control, a reference to the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

It would enable Israeli citizens to sue people and organisations instigating such boycotts, and subject offenders to fines. Companies and organisations supporting a boycott risk being barred from bidding on government contracts, and non-profit groups could lose their tax-exempt status.

"Whatever one thinks of boycotts, a law that punishes peaceful advocacy in opposition to government policies is a bald-faced attempt to muzzle public debate," said Human Rights Watch. "This law attacks Israeli civil society and will turn back the clock on freedom of expression and association."

MADA fears that the new law will lead to a "steep rise in the number of violations committed against journalists [in the occupied Palestinian territories] and a further suppression of Palestinian voices."

Israeli human rights groups, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, have said they will petition the Supreme Court to overturn the law on the basis that it infringes individual freedoms.

According to "The New York Times", the newspaper "Haaretz" called it "politically opportunistic and antidemocratic," and warned that it and other recently enacted laws were "transforming Israel's legal code into a disturbingly dictatorial document."

Both Amnesty International and "The New York Times", which are opposed to boycotts of Israel, agreed that the law is a fundamental issue of free speech.

"With peace talks stalemated, Palestinians are searching for ways to keep alive their dream of a two-state solution, including a push for United Nations recognition this fall. Israel risks further isolating itself internationally with this attempt to stifle critics," said "The New York Times" in an editorial.

A movement of Palestinians and foreign supporters has stepped up calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel to protest Israel's illegal settlements. Their campaigns have led to a number of cancellations of events by both Israeli and international artists.

The bill's sponsor, Zeev Elkin of the Likud, the conservative party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said his concern was that the calls for a boycott "increasingly have come from within our own midst."

He and other advocates of the law said it was a necessary tool in Israel's fight against what they called its "global delegitimisation".

According to Human Rights Watch, the anti-boycott law is only one of many efforts recently passed, or being considered by, the Knesset that restrict freedom of expression and target Israeli civil society organisations and Palestinian citizens and supporters. A law passed in February (also sponsored by Elkin) that imposed quarterly rather than annual reporting requirements on non-governmental groups that receive foreign funding exempted pro-settler groups, Human Rights Watch reports.

"No country can be delegitimised if it holds true to its democratic principles. Opponents are already challenging the law in court. We hope they succeed, for Israel's sake," concluded "The New York Times".

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