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‘The Anti-Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions Bill is Another Way to Silence Pro-Palestinian Voices’

A bill to restrict public bodies from making ethical financial decisions based on the conduct of foreign states makes no distinction between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

A protest against the 2014 Israeli offensive in Gaza in Washington, DC. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Alamy

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The Government has brought forward the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill for its third reading amid the violence of recent weeks which has seen innocent Israelis and Palestinians killed. As more children are killed in Gaza than in all of the world’s conflicts combined since 2019, the government is prioritising legislation that distinctly protects Israel from the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. 

This bill, which will restrict public bodies from making ethical financial decisions based on the conduct of foreign states, makes no distinction between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which is wholly inconsistent with International Law.

It also “affords a unique protection to . . . . Israel” by omitting Israel from exemption by any Secretary of State – current and future – except by amending the primary legislation. As settler violence intensifies in the West Bank and Palestinians are ethnically cleansed in Gaza, the government is focused on accelerating legislation that encourages impunity amid allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The bill is therefore yet another way in which Palestinians are dehumanised and silenced.

The escalation in the violence in recent weeks has exposed a grotesque level of dehumanisation of Palestinians and those who advocate for their cause. This dehumanisation is compounded by the attempt to shut down the peaceful non-violent act of boycott via BDS, from which this bill seeks to exclusively protect Israel. Not only do Palestinians have to weather displacement and arguably genocide, but even peacefully protesting their circumstances is being legislated against as a racist affront

The dehumanisation of Palestinians is such that any act of resistance is considered unacceptable. As Gaza becomes a “graveyard for children” the government seems to be conveying to the Palestinian people that any act of protesting their circumstances will be shut down, that they should accept their fate of perpetual oppression, violence and subjugation.

Human animals’. ‘Fleas’. ‘Children of darkness’. ‘Finish them’. ‘Erase the memory of them’

These are examples of the dehumanising language adopted when speaking of Palestinians or of those that simply advocate for the Palestinian cause. Israelis are ‘killed’ and Palestinians ‘die’. Even those that protest the violence in Gaza are accused of participating in a ‘March of Hatred’. The presence of many Jews and Jewish groups in these marches and in the opposition to Israels bombardment of Gaza seems to go unnoticed to those that accuse the marchers of hate.

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The cumulative impact of the repeated use of this language is to desensitise public opinion to Palestinian suffering; to manufacture an image of a people that deserves their current fate. It justifies the captivity of 2.4 million Palestinians in Gaza, which has been described by human rights groups as “the world’s largest open-air prison”. It justifies kidnapping Palestinian children and imprisoning them. It justifies the ongoing apartheid system adopted to subjugate Palestinians in their own land. It justifies the war crime of cutting off food, water, electricity, and fuel to an entire people, almost half of whom are children. It justifies the ethnic cleansing of a people already subjected to all of the aforementioned crimes. It also justifies the shutting down of any act of solidarity with the Palestinian cause whether that be through waving the flag or engaging in a boycott.

When Palestinians march for the right of return (which is enshrined in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194), they are shot down indiscriminately. When they seek to pursue their oppressor legally through the International Criminal Court, they are blocked. And when they call on the world to support their right to freedom, justice and equality through BDS, they are opposed and labelled antisemitic

As bombs, equivalent to the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima rain down on Gaza reportedly killing up to 8,000 civilians almost half of whom are children, as the population is slowly starved of food and water, as women are forced to have c-sections without anaesthesia; the UK government is busying itself hurrying along a bill that seeks to protect the perpetrator of all this from any form of censure.

The bill seeks “forever to put Israel and the occupied territories beyond public scrutiny”, according to Hannah Weisfeld of Yachad.

This censure is also reflected in the way that this Bill has been scrutinised at committee stage. The composition of the committee consists of 9 members who have visited Israel through Conservative Friends of Israel or through Labour Friends of Israel. Only one member had visited through CAABU (Council for Arab British Understanding) and one via Amnesty. The numerous pro-Israel voices are juxtaposed by the absence of a single Palestinian voice.

However, the committee did hear from Conservative Friends of Israel, the Henry Jackson Society, Lawyers for Israel, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Jewish Leadership Council all of whom are in favour of the Bill. Melanie Phillips was also called as a witness, notable for her claim that Islamophobia is a “fiction”. 

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The process of the bill’s passage parallels the apparent aim of the Bill to silence pro-Palestinian voices and activism. There can be nothing further dehumanising than to remove and silence the voices of the occupied in matters pertaining to protecting their occupier. This was summarised by Andrew Whitley, Chair of the Balfour Project who said giving evidence to the Committee that this Bill would “Hearten the most extreme nationalistic, racist Government that have ever been in place in Israel . . .As far as the Palestinians are concerned, . . .  they will see the passage of this Bill as yet another act of betrayal on the part of Britain.”

The inference of antisemitism seems to be attached to anyone flying the Palestinian flag, marching in solidarity or engaging in boycott and divestment. For Palestinians however, would their response to decades of occupation have been any different had their occupier been Christian? Would they be silent about the current bombardment had the bombs been plummeted by a Buddhist state? Would they abandon their calls for BDS if the state they were protesting were Hindu? Whilst a tiny minority of pro-Palestinian activism may veer into antisemitic territory, to label peaceful acts of protest in their entirety as antisemitic seems unjustified and seems to use the very real pain of one minority to suppress the protest of another. 

Palestinians in the West are being attacked and killed,  Muslims as a whole are being targeted for abuse and violence and those that voice any semblance of support for the Palestinian cause are also being punished. This is the cumulative impact of repeated dehumanising language in our political discourse, and the delegitimising of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices as inherently violent, barbaric, and antisemitic. 

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It is disingenuous to lecture Palestinians about Hamas when every nonviolent path to justice is blocked for Palestinians. If they march peacefully, they are shot in the full glare of the world’s media. If they boycott, they are legislated against. Even the act of flying the Palestinian flag in solidarity is disparaged as antisemitic. And all this in the absence of any real diplomacy to the much lip-serviced two-state solution.

When every peaceful path to justice is closed off, is it not inevitable that extremism wins on both sides? When people are deprived of the ability to protest their suffering, of the ability to boycott their oppressor, of the ability to even vocalise their suffering, peace in the region for both peoples will be a distant prospect.

Not only is Israel physically constricting Palestinians, but they are being restricted politically by the international community in the West; whilst they are dehumanised, ethnically cleansed, forcibly removed, made orphans, made childless, maimed and starved they are also silenced in any form of peaceful resistance to their unending afflictions. The Anti-BDS bill has been expedited by this Government as simply another way to do this.

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