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Israel’s approval of anti-boycott bill draws protests, legal challenges

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On July 12, a day after the Knesset voted 47-38 to enact the measure following six hours of contentious debate, the liberal Gush Shalom movement appealed to the nation’s Supreme Court to overturn the law. Other Israeli NGOs are vowing legal challenges, too.

“The boycott law will lead to unprecedented harm to freedom of expression in Israel and will bring justified criticism against Israel from abroad,” Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said in a statement issued following the vote. “We will all have to pay the price for this atrocious law.”

The bill, which was initiated by Likud lawmaker and ruling coalition chair Ze’ev Elkin, allows for civil lawsuits against individuals and groups calling for boycotts targeting Israel or areas under its control. Those damaged by boycotts would be able to claim monetary damages from boycott advocates. The law would also force the government to stop doing business with companies that comply with such boycotts.

Elkin’s proposal came months after some prominent Israeli artists had called for a boycott of a new cultural centre in the West Bank city of Ariel, and some academics had urged a boycott of academic institutions in the West Bank. In addition, an Israeli construction company was hired to help build a new Palestinian city in the West Bank after it agreed not to use products from the settlements.

“It’s a principle of democracy that you don’t shun a public you disagree with by harming their livelihood,” said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz of the Likud party during the debate over the new law. “A boycott on a certain sector is not the proper manifestation of freedom of expression. It is an aggressive move meant to force a sector that thinks a different way to capitulate. Boycotts are aggressive and wrong.”

Immediately after the vote, Peace Now launched a Facebook group called “Prosecute me, I boycott settlement products!” The group garnered more than 4,600 “likes” in its first day.

“It is important to understand that this struggle is not against the settlers,” Peace Now said on its website. “It is a struggle against the continuing wave of anti-democratic legislation, whose purpose is to limit the very right of legitimate public nonviolent protest.”

A coalition of four rights groups – Adalah, a legal advocacy group for Israeli Arabs; Physicians for Human Rights; the Public Committee Against Torture; and the Coalition of Women for Peace – reportedly said that they also would challenge the bill in the Supreme Court.

Yisrael Beiteinu member of Knesset Alex Miller said Tuesday that he would be the first to use the new law, announcing that he will sue Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi for calling on the public to boycott the West Bank city of Ariel, where Miller lives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly asked lawmakers on Sunday evening to delay the vote on the controversial bill, saying that it could embarrass Israel as the Mideast Quartet – the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia – opened a meeting in Washington, D.C. But ultimately he allowed the legislation to advance, although he was not present to vote on the bill.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon warned the Knesset plenum Monday that the legislation was “borderline illegal” since it could violate freedom of political expression. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who will have to defend the law against legal challenges, reportedly called it “borderline” defensible.

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