EU anxiety as Israel bans ‘boycott speech’

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EU officials are getting nervous about moves to limit free speech in Israel, after the Knesset voted to sanction individuals and groups that call for a boycott of settlements.

One source, speaking unofficially, said that although there could be different limits to freedom of expression in democratic societies, "we think this goes beyond those limits".

"It's a source of concern when it comes to the quality of democracy in Israel," the official told EURACTIV.

Israeli representatives in Brussels declined to comment.

The 'Bill for prevention of damage to the State of Israel through boycott', adopted on 11 July, defines promoting or, sometimes, participating in a boycott as a "civil wrong" under tort law.

Pro-boycott individuals could be liable to damages – and NGOs to the loss of their tax-exempt status – without any proof needed that material damage had been caused to those boycotted.

This means that human rights groups funded by the EU could effectively be shut down for refusing to recognise an occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which the EU itself does not recognise.

Maya Kocijancic, a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, stressed that the EU acknowledged Israel's sovereignty and "does not advocate boycotts".

But, she told EURACTIV, "we are concerned about the impact that this legislation may have on freedom of expression for Israeli citizens and the expression of non-violent political opposition". 

"We believe that freedom of speech is very important and a fundamental value of any citizen," she added. "In this respect, we are concerned, and we will raise the matter with the Israeli authorities."

The latest boycott ban came after a Palestinian civil society boycott campaign developed steam, with international support, and echoes increasingly heard in Israel.

A year ago, 36 Israeli theatre actors and staff refused to perform in a cultural centre in Ariel, a settlement in the West Bank.

More than 50 Israeli civil society groups then protested when legislative proposals were announced, on the grounds that they limited free speech.

Since the vote on 11 July, some liberal Israeli commentators have even argued that Israel has tipped towards "fascism".

EURACTIV understands that the issue has "caught the attention" of European foreign ministers and may be discussed at the EU foreign affairs council in Brussels next Monday (18 July).

No statement is likely, but the boycott issue, along with the revival of a proposed parliamentary inquiry into Israeli groups funded by foreign donors such as the EU, is sharpening the Brussels mood.

For many years, Israeli far right parties such as the National Union have proposed such legislation, partly as a means of impeding the work of EU-funded groups in Israel.

An EU official told EURACTIV that the moves to limit free speech in Israel would be "an element in the broader analysis" determining whether member states would support an expected Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN General Assembly in September.

Arthur Neslen

 

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem following the Six Day War in June 1967, and almost immediately began building settlements for Israeli Jews to live on. The settlements are thus considered illegal by the International Court of Justice and the international community.

The settlers argue that Jews have lived on the land in the very distant past and more recently too, following the first waves of Zionist migration in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. So they argue that there is a continuity to their actions.

During the Oslo process, the settler population more than tripled and today, it is thought to be roughly 500,000, with around 300,000 settlers living in 121 settlements and about 100 outposts in the West Bank, and 200,000 living in east Jerusalem, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

These settlements "are connected to one another, and to Israel, by an elaborate network of roads," which along with security zones, checkpoints, and walls effectively control 42% of Palestinian land, B'tselem say, and confine Palestinians to ghettoes.

As a result of all this, Palestinian civil society groups and the Palestinian Authority have called for a boycott of settlements. The latest legal moves were spurred after some Israeli human rights groups joined them.

 

  • 20 July: Knesset vote expected on setting up a parliamentary inquiry into the funding sources of Israeli human rights organisations.
  • Sept. 2011: A vote on Palestinian statehood is expected at the UN General Assembly.

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