x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Anti-boycott bill sparks freedom-of-speech row in Israel

A law that would effectively ban Israelis from calling for boycotts of any part of the Jewish state or its settlements on occupied Palestinian land has stirred fierce opposition from rights groups.

JERUSALEM // Israel's parliament was poised late yesterday to vote on a law that would effectively ban Israelis from calling for boycotts of any part of the Jewish state or its settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Activists and intellectuals have criticised the controversial bill, accusing the politicians behind it of stifling free speech and compromising Israel's democracy.

Despite attempts to defer debate on the bill, the parliament's ruling body decided that it would be held at the end of business yesterday, with a vote possible early today.

It comes in the wake of several calls within Israeli society for the boycott of institutions or individuals linked to West Bank settlements.

Earlier this year, a group of Israeli academics signed a petition calling for a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to be boycotted.

And last year, 53 leading Israeli artists signed a statement pledging not to perform at a cultural centre at the same settlement.

Under the proposed law, those calling for similar boycotts could be sued by any individual or institution claiming economic, cultural or academic damage as a result of the boycott.

The bill does not require the petitioner to prove the damage was caused, but only that the damage could reasonably have been expected as a result of the boycott call.

It covers all calls for boycotts of people or institutions with ties to "the state of Israel, one of its institutions, or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage."

The bill, sponsored by a member of the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, must pass two more readings before becoming law, both scheduled for today.

It is believed to have sufficient support among members of the Knesset to pass.

But it reportedly faces opposition from speaker Reuven Rivlin and the parliament's legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, who fear the supreme court would strike it down as a violation of free speech.

Earlier yesterday, Israel media reported that the bill's second and third readings could be postponed, as advisers to Mr Netanyahu warned against timing a vote with a meeting of the international peacemaking Quartet in Washington.

But the Knesset speaker and his advisers, after a two-hour meeting, decided in the early afternoon that a vote would be held later the same day.

The bill has stirred fierce opposition from rights group, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which calls it "a direct violation of freedom of expression."

The group's executive director, Hagai El Ad, said the bill "represents the current unfortunate crest in a wave of anti-democratic legislation that is gradually drowning Israel's democratic foundations."

Haaretz, Israel's leading left-wing newspaper, similarly criticised the bill in an editorial yesterday, warning that it would "subvert Israeli democracy".

"Knesset members who vote for this law must understand that they are supporting the gagging of protest as part of an ongoing effort to liquidate democracy," the editorial said.