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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

No hurricane aid for Texas city residents who boycott Israel

Application form in Dickinson applies state law against BDS to those seeking relief

Texas governor Greg Abbott meets Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israeli prime minister's office in Jerusalem on January 18, 2016. Kobi Gideon / GPO via Getty Images
Texas governor Greg Abbott meets Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israeli prime minister's office in Jerusalem on January 18, 2016. Kobi Gideon / GPO via Getty Images

A city in Texas is demanding that residents applying for disaster relief funding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey promise that they will not boycott Israel.

Critics condemned the demand, describing it as a breach of Americans’ constitutional right to free speech.

But city officials in Dickinson insist that they are bound by a Texas-wide law, introduced in May, that bans public money being spent on anti-Israel causes.

So amid the legal jargon about indemnities, liabilities and reimbursements in the four-page application form is one very political condition.

“By executing this Agreement below, the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement,” reads the clause for residents applying for money to help rebuild homes or businesses.

The city, about 48 kilometres south of Houston, was one of the worst hit when Harvey swept through Texas in August.

The police department said more than 7000 homes and 88 businesses were seriously damaged. Half of the 20,000 population were affected by the category 4 hurricane which dumped record amounts of rain — as much as 129cm in places.

The storm has been blamed for at least 80 deaths, and rebuilding could cost as much as $180 billion (Dh661bn), according to the state governor.

The city of Dickinson began accepting bids for grants earlier this month but it took until now for details of the controversial clause to emerge.

Andre Segura, Texas legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the condition was reminiscent of the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s when prominent figures had to disavow membership of the Communist party and other “un-American activities”.

“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” he said.

The clause is based on the anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) bill, which outlaws the state of Texas from doing business with anyone boycotting Israel, which it defines as any action intended "to penalise, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations specifically with Israel".

It was introduced by Greg Abbot, Texas’s Republican governor, who outlined his plan to Benjamin Netanyahu when they met in Jerusalem last year.

The bill was signed into law on Israel's independence day.

“As Israel's number one trading partner in the United States, Texas is proud to reaffirm its support for the people of Israel and we will continue to build on our historic partnership,” Mr Abbot said at the time.

“Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies, and we will not tolerate such actions against an important ally.

The law — similar to ones passed in 21 other states — took effect on September 1.