Israel pushing back as BDS gains strength

Demonstrators protest anti-BDS legislation, in New York City on June 9, 2016.

As 17-year-old Palestinian girl Ahed Tamimi remains in prison awaiting trial for slapping a soldier who invaded her family’s yard, three 17-year-old Israeli girls are at the centre of a lawsuit over the decision by New Zealand singer Lorde to cancel a planned Tel Aviv concert.

Israeli legal NGO Shurat HaDin is suing two New Zealand-based Palestinian solidarity activists on behalf of the three Israeli teens for their role in campaigning for Lorde to cancel the gig as part of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

The BDS campaign was launched in 2005 by dozens of Palestinian civil society groups in protest against Israel’s apartheid policies towards Palestinians. It has gathered steam in recent times, with a growing array of musicians and other cultural figures refusing to cross the BDS picket line.

The decision of a superstar like the 21-year-old Lorde to respect the boycott is a clear sign of its growing power — a fact evidently unnerving Israel and its supporters. An even clearer sign that the central council of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) — the official representative of the Palestinian people — has formally endorsed the BDS campaign for the first time.

In a January 17 statement, the Palestinian BDS National Committee said: “As the leadership of the [BDS] movement for Palestinian rights, we welcome the PLO’s decision to officially and unequivocally declare its support for the BDS movement, already supported across the breadth of Palestinian society in Palestine and in exile. 

“This declaration, along with the PLO’s unprecedented call for sanctions against Israel, will further enhance the growth and impact of BDS across the world in pursuit of Palestinian freedom, justice and equality...

“With this official Palestinian backing of BDS, we shall work more diligently than ever with our popular base and international allies to push for a two-way military embargo on Israel, the suspension of free trade agreements with it, and the cessation of trade with or investment in any Israeli or international company involved in Israel’s annexation of occupied Palestinian land and flagrant violation of Palestinian human rights.”

In the case of Lorde’s stance, the three teens aggrieved by her cancelation could have simply asked for a refund on the tickets. However, Shurat HaDin sees this as the perfect test case for a specific Israeli law aimed at combating BDS.

Shurat HaDin states that its aims are to advocate for Jewish rights worldwide, but it interprets this as campaigning against those who “seek to delegitimise the Jewish state” — that is, Israel, a state that defines itself this way despite large numbers of non-Jews living within its borders. There can be no doubt that Shurat HaDin is specifically dedicated to protecting the state of Israel.

Founded in 2003 after the director, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, visited the Southern Poverty Law Center in the United States, Shurat HaDin has, by its own admission, links with Israeli intelligence organisation Mossad.

Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett is one of several government and ex-government officials full of praise for the NGO in statements published on its website. Bennett states: “I would like to express my appreciation for the work of the Shurat HaDin Law Center and the legal activist efforts they have pioneered.

“Utilising lawsuits and legal actions to defend Israel and the Jewish community is an important and innovative strategy that is securing success after success worldwide.”

Such comments should be seen in the context of a January 26 New York Times op-ed, in which Bennett described BDS activists as “enemy soldiers”.

Lawsuits are fast becoming one of Israel's favourite tactics in the pushback against the BDS campaign. Shurat HaDin is a leader in this field.

It has filed law suits against former US president Jimmy Carter for criticisms of Israel and Sydney University academic Jake Lynch over his support for BDS. In 2012, it even threatened to sue the charity World Vision Australia.

Now Shurat HaDin is targeting New Zealand-based activists Nadia Abu-Shanab and Justine Sachs for an open letter they wrote urging Lorde to boycott Israel. The NGO alleges Lorde’s cancellation caused “emotional hurt”.

It is important to note that Shurat HaDin is not actually targeting Lorde herself, rather the two activists for writing a public statement in support of BDS.

The suit was filed in the Jerusalem High Court of Justice on behalf of the three Israeli teenagers. For their alleged emotional hurt, the suit is only calling for US$15,000 in damages.

It appears to be a “test case” in relation to an anti-boycott law passed in 2011 by the Knesset (Israeli parliament). This law allows civil suits to be filed in Israeli courts against any person or organisation anywhere around the world that advocates for a boycott of Israel and its illegal settlements — particularly if this advocacy can be proven to have resulted in an actual boycott.

The issue of whether a boycott can be said to have resulted from a call to boycott seems to be at the centre of the suit. Proving this will be difficult, but it amounts to an attempt to punish the exercise of freedom of speech and conscience.

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