A Notable Legal Victory for Justice in Palestine

BEIRUT — A British court decision earlier this week marks an important advance for those who fight for justice, Palestinian rights, and a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I refer to a High Court decision in England which allowed political boycotts of Israel to go ahead, and rejected attempts by pro-Israel groups and the government from prohibiting such boycotts.
In this pioneering British court case, the judges allowed the decision by three elected local councils in North and South Wales and the Leicester city in autumn 2014 to support the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS). The decision could turn out to be hugely consequential for several reasons, given that the battle over the appropriateness or otherwise of the BDS movement is slowly assuming center-stage in the global political struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine.
The most important aspect of this ruling strikes me as simply being that it is a court ruling by a panel of respected independent judges in a system that is universally respected and that makes decisions only on the basis of the letter and spirit of the law. This is in sharp contrast with the situation in the Middle East, the United States, and other lands, where preponderant Israeli political muscle, intimidation, or military advantage try to dictate political realities.
On the assumption that we should all promote the adjudication of the core issues in the Palestine-Israel and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts according to the universal rule of law, rather than one’s capacity to kill, colonize and intimidate others, this is a positive decision that could well influence others like it that will follow in many countries.
It is important for such cases to be given wide international publicity, and to provoke an extensive and honest public discussion about the main issue at stake: Is it appropriate for any person, organization, or political entity in the world to react to a situation of occupation, colonization, and exploitation in another country by using peaceful BDS tactics to register opposition to the existing conditions and seek to end the subjugation in question through non-violent political pressure?
The answer across the entire world is a very obvious ‘yes’. Yet in the case of boycotts or sanctions against Israel’s occupation, colonization, exploitation, and widespread subjugation of Palestinians, the Israeli government and pro-Israeli zealots around the world are trying frantically to equate such political protests against Israeli criminal actions with anti-Semitism and delegitimization of the state of Israel. Such outlandish intimidation attempts are largely failing, as more and more individuals and institutions around the world assert their right to use BDS tools against Israel’s colonization and discrimination policies, just as the world did against South African Apartheid.
The UK and US governments at assorted national and local levels are trying to make BDS-type moves illegal. The UK government issued guidelines earlier this year making it illegal for local public institutions, including local councils and universities, to support boycotts. If they do, they could be fined in civil court cases for contravening World Trade Organization rules. Opponents of this move argue that organizations should be able to make “ethical” procurement decisions, and also say BDS-like moves are protected by freedom of speech principles that are central to British and other democracies.
The British court, relying on the spirit of the law rather than the political threats from the Israeli government and its aggressive surrogates in the West, agreed. It noted the importance of protecting the right of freedom of expression, and also said that, “criticism of Israel is not seen by all Jews in this country as an attack on their community, or, at least, not necessarily so.”
This issue will resurface many times in the months and years ahead, and it is critical that it be argued on the basis of the actual aims of the BDS movement, rather than the lies and distortions that pro-Israel groups use to intimidate BDS supporters, mostly focused on two lies: that BDS is anti-Semitic, and aims to delegitimize Israel as a whole. The truth is that BDS and other peaceful political actions criticize Israel’s political actions — its mistreatment, occupation, exploitation, colonization, and discrimination of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories, and in refugee exile — and seek to pressure it politically to respect existing legal provisions that assert the rights of Palestinians and existing restrictions on the actions of occupying powers.
This British legal decision is significant because it both supports the free speech-based aspects of the right to protest politically against Israeli criminal policies, and it rejects the increasingly feeble Israeli attempt to label any critics of Israeli policies as anti-Semites. That approach no longer works, because the world increasingly sees, and wants to protest and end, Israel’s inhuman, Apartheid-like policies against Palestinians. The more this battle takes place in respectable courts of law, the better it is for the cause of justice that will serve Israeli and Palestinians alike in the long run.
Rami G. Khouri
is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri
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