Israel's boycott legislation: The siege within

Last Updated 18 July 2010, 16:25 IST

The measure has been proposed to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign initiated five years ago. This gained momentum after the lethal Israeli commando assault on May 31 on a Turkish cruise ship taking part in a flotilla seeking to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Some 500 academics have responded to the draft legislation with a petition accusing the government of trying to stifle freedom of opinion, expression and academic thought. The petition, signed by academics supporting and opposing boycott and divestment, states: “We have different and varied opinions about solving the difficult problems facing Israel, but there is one thing we are agreed on — freedom of expression and academic freedom are the very lifeblood of the academic system.”

The campaign hit the headlines when pop musicians Elvis Costello and the Pixies and film stars Meg Ryan and Dustin Hoffman cancelled appearances at concerts and cinema festivals in Israel. Boycott and divestment, advocated by the African National Congress, helped bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Israeli government has also threatened to take action against domestic human rights organisations that take a principled stand against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Among these organisations are B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights.

B’Tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights in the occupied territories founded in 1989, is the most high profile of these organisations. It has for more than two decades documented Israeli activities harmful to Palestinians. During a recent interview in Jerusalem by Deccan Herald, Jessica Montell, the organisation’s executive director, said B’Tselem has, during the past 10 years, also focused on educating Israelis about the situation. B’Tselem furnishes Palestinians under attack from Israeli settlers with video cameras to record skirmishes and trains Gazans in video blogging to provide evidence of attacks on Palestinian farmers by Israeli troops.

“We work with the (Israeli) government, military, Shebak (the internal intelligence service), and the Knesset (parliament). Our main criticism is lack of accountability,” she stated. The Israeli government was livid when B’Tselem provided key information to the UN Goldstone commission which identified possible Israel war crimes during its 2008-09 war on Gaza.

Public hostility
When asked if she is concerned about governmental interference in B’Tselem’s work, she observed, “I am less concerned about its ability to disrupt our activities than about increasing public hostility to our mission.” She pointed out that one group of Knesset members wants to require registration and declarations from organisations receiving money from foreign sources while a second wants to declare illegal anyone or any group publicising information on Israeli war crimes. She called the attitudes of the current Knesset ‘incredible’ because they reflect the mind-set of the ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist right linked to the settler movement. In previous Knessets, she said, there had always been “10 members ready to table and channel issues pertaining to Palestinian human rights, now there are only a few”.

Rabbis for Human Rights is an on-the-ground non-violent advocacy group with 120 members which attempts to oppose Israeli troops and settlers seeking to violate Palestinian rights. During a tour of the northern West Bank, director Arik Ascherman stated, “Ours is the only rabbinic organisation in Israel dedicated exclusively to human rights. It was established in 1988, during the first (Palestinian) intifada.” The organisation sends volunteers to help Palestinian farmers fend off settlers while planting and harvesting their fields and picking their olives.

“Our legal department deals with (Israeli) expropriations (of Palestinian land). We also rebuild (Palestinian) homes that have been demolished and plant olive trees. The fact that we are rabbis sends a message (to the Palestinians) that they should not equate (the Jewish) religion with the violent extreme right” in Israel.

Deep in the countryside east of Nablus, we met Jamal, perched on an elderly red tractor. He made an appointment for volunteers to come while he plowed two fields. “His own tractor was trashed by settlers,” asserted Ascherman. By law Palestinians should have access to their fields and enjoy Israeli army protection but since settlers generally have a free hand, Gandhian rabbis offer themselves as human shields.

US-born Ascherman, a tall bearded man, has been banned from the Shaikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem on Fridays when Israelis and Palestinians stage joint protests against settler evictions of Palestinians from their homes. There are hundreds of courageous Israelis who call for boycott and divestment in order to force their government to change its policies, scores who document human rights abuses, and tens who interpose between violators and victims. These righteous Israelis are now in danger of either losing funds needed to carry on their work or being declared illegal, ‘disloyal’ and even ‘enemies of the state’.

(Published 18 July 2010, 16:25 IST)

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