Israel fears nothing more than the power of boycotts, it realises that it has the power to penalise Israeli actions while the international community looks on at its lawless actions.
Lara Al Qassem, a Palestinian-American student was detained at Tel Aviv airport on the 2 of October as she went to pursue a master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She was finally released and admitted to Israel just over 16 days later. The Supreme Court upheld her appeal criticising the authorities for their decision which gave “the unavoidable impression” that she was barred for her political opinions.
Lara will now be able to join her Masters course at the Hebrew University.
Her lawyers said in a statement that, “The supreme court’s decision is a victory for free speech, academic freedom, and the rule of law.”
However, Israeli tourism minister Yariv Levin called the court decision “shameful” and said that with their decision, the justices “were continuing to act against Israeli democracy and the clear lawmaking of the Knesset”.
The Israeli authorities had denied her entry despite having an official student visa prior to travelling. The reason given was her role as president of a small local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, which has engaged in boycotts against Israeli products in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
Her entry denial, which subsequently resulted in her detention was ordered by the Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Arye Deri.
On the 9 of October, Erdan tweeted that that if Lara “declares in a clear and explicit manner that she erred in the past and she believes today that support for a boycott on Israel and the BDS [movement] is a mistake and illegitimate, and that she regrets having served in the past as head of the branch of a boycott group, we will reconsider our stance regarding her entry into Israel,”
Clearly this was unacceptable to Lara who went on to fight her case in the Israeli courts.
Reactions to the story in Israel have been mixed.
The National Council of Young Israelis supported the Israeli Government’s decision claiming “every country has the ability to regulate who can enter its borders and Israel should be no different in that regard.”
The Hebrew University has been supportive of Lara’s entry and in an unusual step asked to join her appeal to the Jerusalem District Court.
Knesset members from the Meretz party visited Lara and leader Tamar Zandberg tweeted, “just visited Lara Alqasem, 22 year old American student detained in Ben Gurion airport for 6 days now because a right wing website didn’t like her past political activity. Israeli borders should be of a liberal democracy without thought police”.
I myself was denied entry to Israel in April 2017 following the passing of the same law under which Israel has denied entry to Lara.
The law was passed in March last year and gives the authorities power to deny entry to any foreign national engaged in supporting of boycotts either of settlement goods, or Israel, within its internationally recognised boundaries.
In my case, I was separated from wife and son who were allowed entry and I was placed on a flight back to the UK hours after my arrival. A few days later Anwar Makhlouf, another Palestinian and head of the Palestinian Federation of Chile was also denied entry under the same law, this time at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan.
Restricting BDS is backfiring
The BDS call was made in 2005 by over 150 civil society organisations. According to its website, “It works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”
Its three key demands are an end of the occupation, an end to the discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and the promotion of the Palestinian refugees' right of return.
Each of these is a moral and legal demand.
Israel’s claim that it is an anti-Semitic movement because it targets ‘the world’s only Jewish state’ is false, because the Palestinians can only target their occupiers, who happen to be Jewish.
They did not choose their occupiers, they chose Palestine.
In addition to entry denial for BDS supporters, in 2011 Israel passed the law for “Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott."
This allows an individual or organisation proposing a boycott to be sued for compensation by any individual or institution claiming that it could be or has been damaged by such a call.
Evidence of actual damage would not be required.
This law was recently used by three Israeli teenagers to sue two New Zealand-based supporters of BDS—one Jewish and one Palestinian—over a cancelled concert by New Zealand singer, Lorde.
A judge at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that, the two women must pay $12,000 in damages to the teenagers.
While the New Zealand justice minister saw this as a political stunt, the Israeli law office, Shurat HaDin which filed the suit, has said it fully intends to pursue enforcing the court’s ruling, and believes Israel’s legal agreements with New Zealand will allow it to do so.
This action has misfired as the two New Zealanders, Justine Sachs and Nadia Abu-Shanab, decided to raise funds, and to date have raised at least $18,000, not to pay the fine they had been ordered to pay but rather to give to the Gaza Mental Health Foundation instead.
In the US a number of anti-BDS laws have been passed that would prohibit companies that boycott Israel from securing public projects while in the UK, the government has attempted to stifle local authority pension funds from divesting from companies complicit in the oppression of Palestinians.
It is difficult to assess whether these have had a real impact in countering the BDS movement. However, there is fear in Israel of a growing ‘silent boycott’ including by artists and academics who simply turn down or do not respond to invitations to participate in activities organised by Israeli institutions or to perform in Israel.
There are calls for the 2019 EUROVISION song contest to be boycotted and it appears that having tried to host it in Jerusalem, Israel is now planning to move the event to a different location.
It seems that Israel’s anti-BDS policies have not succeeded in combatting this growing movement, particularly through legal means.
Israel also continues to send mixed messages about whether BDS poses a real threat. It cannot have it both ways. It is either effective and a threat to its policies, or it is not.
Israeli politicians and Israeli supporters abroad often characterise the BDS movement as ineffective. However, in reality, Israel is investing millions to counter it and has assigned a minister, Gilad Erdan, and changed the law to both ban BDS proponents from entering and to allow those that claim to have been harmed by specific actions to sue those behind the actions.
The growing success of the BDS movement does however come at a price for Palestinians like Lara al Qassem and myself, who are now denied entry to Palestine because Israel controls all entry points to historic Palestine.
This is unless we renounce their principles including speaking out against the Israeli government’s policies and in support of BDS. It would appear that this is what Lara had to do, or at least, imply.
This is doubly painful because as Palestinians we are denied entry to our homeland, while Jews from any part of the world, and with no real connection to the land, are allowed not only to visit but to settle there.
Our determination to campaign peacefully for justice for Palestinians should not come at such a high price and if international law were just, it would force the occupier to allow us all to enter, to visit and to settle.
We are still unable to exercise our Right of Return, enshrined in international law but we are also discriminated against as we are denied entry while our fellow citizens from the country whose nationality we now hold can enter unimpeded.
Israel could, of course, meet the BDS movement's demands, which include our right to return.
That would end the reason for BDS and would bring peace to the holy land.
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