Reaction to bill banning boycott of Israeli goods – BBC News

  • By Ione Wells, Politics correspondent, & Paul Seddon
  • BBC news

Caption,

A picture shows the Jewish settlement of Kedar in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in June 2023

The government has been urged to rethink its plans to fine public bodies that initiate boycotts against Israel.

The proposal received initial support but drew criticism from Conservative and Labor lawmakers.

Community Secretary Michael Gove said the bill would ensure foreign policy remained the UK government’s business.

But Labor says the bill undermines Britain’s longstanding foreign policy towards the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The party warned the bill also risks undermining support for people around the world facing persecution, as well as placing “unprecedented restrictions” on elected councils, undermining free speech and having the potential “widespread and negative impact” on local authority pension funds. .

The Public Bodies Economic Activity (Overseas Matters) bill seeks to prevent public bodies, including councils, from campaigning against, boycotting or sanctioning certain international areas – unless supported by the British government’s own foreign policy.

First published last month, it received initial support by 268 to 70 votes after hours of debate in the House of Commons on Monday.

Much of the debate on this issue focuses on the boycott of Israel and Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is calling for a broad-based economic and cultural boycott of Israel and Israeli settlements – similar to that implemented in South Africa in the apartheid era.

Such a boycott is supported by Palestinians who see it as pressure on Israel to end its military occupation.

The Israeli government, on the other hand, sees the entire BDS movement unfairly voting for Israel and describes it as antisemitic.

Speaking on the Commons, Mr Gove said there had been “a rise in antisemitic events following the activity of the BDS movement”.

He added that while there were “legitimate reasons to criticize the Israeli government”, the BDS movement called on the council to “treat Israel differently from any other country in the world”.

“There is nothing in this bill that prevents or deters the harshest criticism of the Israeli government and leaders,” he added.

But Labor – and a number of Conservative MPs – have voiced concern about the bill’s potential impact on British foreign policy.

Dame Margaret Hodge, who served in the Labor government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said the proposed law was “flawed, badly designed and will have disastrous consequences both here and abroad”.

“The bill is not to be seen as an attempt to bring about peace, provide better security for Israel or respond to the threat posed by BDS,” he said.

“This is about using Jews as pawns in the government’s political game.”

Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the government should remove references to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories from the bill.

He said the bill “in essence grants extraordinary impunity to Israel”, adding: “This is something that we should not grant to any country and I would stand here to make the same request if any country were named.”

The British government’s longstanding policy called for an end to Israel’s military occupation of the Occupied Palestine as part of a negotiated “two-state solution”.

Britain has for decades upheld an international legal position, in which Israeli settlements are deemed illegal – although Israel disputes this – and sees their expansion as an “obstacle to peace”.

The bill does not stop public bodies from complying with UK-wide sanctions, and gives governments the power to get certain countries exempt from restrictions.

For example, the government intends for Russia and Belarus to be released.

But the bill does not allow rules to exclude Israel, the Occupied Territories or the Occupied Golan Heights.

In doing so, it grouped the three territories together, which critics including Labor said undermined Britain’s foreign policy position by suggesting boycotting Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the Golan Heights would be tantamount to boycotting Israel – regardless of the illegality of the two. previous region. under international law.

Critics have also raised concerns that the bill will limit campaigns against human rights abuses in other parts of the world – such as against the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang.

Ahead of the vote on Monday, a government spokesman said: “Public bodies should not pursue their own foreign policy agenda.

“The bill will not preclude our crackdown on forced Uyghur labor in the supply chain as it contains exceptions to the prohibition of labor-related abuses, including modern slavery.

“The boycott prohibition does not apply to individuals, including publicly elected officials, when engaging in private acts protected by the Human Rights Act.”

Labor’s amendment to the bill was defeated in the Commons by 272 votes to 212 – a margin of 60.

The amendments have sought to reject the bill a second time over concerns that it “risks significantly undermining support” for groups around the world facing persecution, for example the Uighurs, who are “currently victims of grave abuses and human rights systems.” “.

It said it opposed “discrimination” by public bodies in how they spent their money and said all public bodies should act “without bias” when making decisions about procurement and investment.

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