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The debate on the second reading of the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill or anti-boycott bill demonstrated the widespread opposition to this law. The Bill has been widely criticised by a coalition of nearly 70 civil society organisations united in their view that it will erode local democracy, restrict freedom of expression, and undermine campaigns for social and climate justice. This view has been reinforced by legal opinions which have made clear that the Bill is incompatible with international law and conventions on human rights.

The Government has made it clear that the specific target of this Bill is the Palestinian-led campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The Bill contains a clause which singles out Israel for special immunity from divestment and boycott actions. If this Bill passes, it will be the only state in the world which a future Government Minister cannot allow to be the subject of a public body divestment campaign.

The Government’s rationale for the Bill and for this specific clause is that calling for BDS to pressure Israel to end its rights violations is antisemitic. BDS, claim government ministers, calls for Israel to be treated by a different standard to other states, and fosters division in the UK.

The Labour front bench have made it clear they will oppose the bill because it affects the rights of a broad range of oppressed people. However, appallingly it has issued statements which make clear that it endorses the government’s narrative when it comes to BDS in relation to Israel.

The attempts to delegitimise the Palestinian call for BDS draws a false equivalence between Jewish people and the policies of the state of Israel. It also treats Palestinians by a different standard to any other group and mischaracterises both the principles and the tactics of the BDS movement.

Palestinians originally called for BDS in 2005 because they could no longer wait for the international community to come to their support in their struggle for liberation. Governments, in particular Western Governments, had failed to take meaningful action to hold Israel to account and to support the Palestinian people in realising their inalienable rights. This is despite years of UN resolutions (around 1000 in the General Assembly, Security Council and Human Rights Council), statements by human rights monitoring bodies, and reports documenting the violation of Palestinian rights.  BDS calls for sanctions to be imposed on Israel and for divestment and boycott of companies that can be demonstrated to be involved in supporting Israel’s violations of international law and the rights of Palestinians. The demands of the BDS movement are moral and legal: an end to the occupation, equal treatment for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the realisation of Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes.

The argument used that BDS singles out Israel and treats it to a different standard than other states mischaracterises the principles of the BDS call as outlined above, but also how BDS campaigns are conducted in practice. The LGPS Divest campaign run by PSC with the support of Trade Unions for example, calls on local government pension schemes not to invest in companies complicit in violations of international law and human rights, and the commission of war crimes. It then provides evidence of companies to which these principles should apply, in relation to Israel’s rights violations. This is exactly in line with what the Labour party claims to support in relation to public bodies and how they invest or procure. It is not those calling for BDS or supporting that call who are treating Israel by a different standard. It is the Bill itself that does this by granting Israel a special and eternal protection from divestment, no matter what evidence exists of its treatment of Palestinians.

It is indefensible to suggest that it is racist to call for a public body to take action to divest from companies that can be demonstrated to be involved in breaches of international law. Such a narrative is a grotesque abuse of antiracist principles and treats Palestinians by a different standard to other peoples resisting oppression. No credible political actor would claim that Black South African opposition to apartheid was driven by hatred of white people.

Prohibiting or delegitimising calls for accountability measures when they come from Palestinians leaves them uniquely unprotected amongst peoples resisting oppression across the world.

This Bill is passing through parliament at a time when the Palestinian people are under unprecedented attack. On the day of the second reading Israel launched a brutal assault on Jenin, the most serious military incursion in the West Bank for two decades. Israel killed at least 12 Palestinians, seriously injured hundreds, bulldozed whole streets and cut off electricity, internet and access to emergency health services. This assault comes in the context of a ramping up of militarised oppression by the most far-right, ultra-nationalist Government in Israel’s history, with members who are self-declared proud racists and proud fascists. It is accelerating an expansionist annexation plan, announcing thousands of new illegal settlements on a regular basis, continuing with policies of home destruction and ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem and across the West Bank.

Against this backdrop, any government or political party that claims to care about the upholding of international law and respect for human rights should be guarding these principles. They should be taking urgent and meaningful action to provide protection and support for the Palestinians under attack. They should not be supporting a Bill primarily aimed at leaving Palestinians unprotected, unable to call for meaningful solidarity actions to protect their rights.

We urge all Members of Parliament to vote down this Bill. It is not amendable and should be rejected in its entirety.