Britain responds to Gaza’s suffering by criminalizing support for Palestinians
The land of Magna Carta is organizing a bonfire of human rights and fundamental freedoms, with measures to criminalize support for Palestine and send asylum seekers off to Rwanda. Among a rush of bizarre measures before they are banished from power for a generation, Britain’s Conservatives are pursuing legislation that would ban local councils, universities and other public bodies from boycotting Israel.
The timing, as Palestinian civilians are being massacred in their thousands, could not be more diabolical. The proposed law includes the occupied Palestinian territories in its definition of Israel — thus making it illegal to take a stand against Israeli settlements that are themselves illegal under international law. It is doubly perverse that this contradicts Britain’s long-held political stance on the occupation’s illegality.
In a scathing attack on the bill, Alicia Kearns, the Conservative MP who chairs Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said it “breaks with our foreign policy; undermines freedom of speech; goes against international law; and promotes an odd exceptionalism in UK primary legislation.”
The government is rushing such policies through Parliament to create political hand grenades in its incessant far-right culture war, seeking to brand the opposition Labour Party antisemitic. While a high proportion of Labour’s grassroots are instinctively pro-Palestinian, and under previous leaders the charge of antisemitism carried some weight, some of its newer leaders now seem to believe they can demonstrate their readiness to govern only by trotting out pro-Israel platitudes. Labour has opposed the measures in a starkly lackluster manner — citing freedom of speech concerns, while emphasizing that the party “completely opposes a policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.”
The world has changed beyond recognition since these anti-boycott measures were first conceived: over 25,000 Palestinians — 70 percent women and children — have lost their lives in Israel’s genocidal operations in Gaza, with thousands more buried under the rubble. Horrified British citizens, along with the rest of the world, have ingested a daily diet of atrocities and carnage through both conventional and social media. It is not just those from Muslim and ethnic minority backgrounds, but also young people and university students who are outraged at how the country’s political class ties itself in knots to avoid criticizing Israel. Hundreds of thousands of British people with experience of working in the Gulf states and the rest of the Arab world generally have a more nuanced understanding of the Palestinian cause.
Huge numbers have participated in pro-Palestinian demonstrations in major UK cities, which right-wing media and prominent politicians denounce as “hate-marches” peopled by “anti-British extremists.”
Britain and other states are pursuing measures that would criminalize those taking a principled stand on crimes against humanity and the persecution of the Palestinian people.
Ahead of elections due this year, the Conservative Party is furiously tearing itself apart in an ever more rightwards leaning death roll. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has a net popularity rating of minus 49, and Labour are a commanding 28 points ahead in the polls. But the Conservative solution to its chronic unpopularity has been to become embroiled in civil war over plans to deport refugees to Rwanda.
This proposal was initially blocked by the Supreme Court, which unsurprisingly ruled that Rwanda was not safe for asylum seekers. Sunak’s solution is to ask Parliament to pass a law declaring Rwanda safe. Hard-liners wanted to go even further through potentially illegal measures to block the jurisdiction of institutions such the European Court of Human Rights, enabling the government to violate human rights law with impunity. No wonder they are so hasty to make common cause with Benjamin Netanyahu’s pariah regime!
No less a figure than Baroness Kennedy, the leading barrister and member of the House of Lords, denounced the Rwanda measures as a “hated and hateful” piece of legislation, which at best could remove only a handful of asylum seekers at enormous expense. Such monomaniac obsession with this issue, while ignoring the dire state of Britain’s public services and stagnant economy, is obviously not a vote winner for a kamikaze ruling party that long ago lost the will to govern responsibly.
Attitudes toward the BDS movement vary across the Western world. A number of major European cities have revoked twinning agreements with Israel, including Barcelona, which severed its relationship with Tel Aviv. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Germany and the US have canceled numerous events by pro-Palestinian figures on the basis of spurious allegations of antisemitism.
The municipality of Oslo, a city of huge symbolic importance to the peace process, passed a measure prohibiting “Made in Israel” labels on goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements. Ireland is pursuing legislation to ban trade with settlements. This follows a 2019 ruling by the European Court of Justice that all goods produced in “Israel-occupied areas” had to be labeled as such so as not to mislead consumers.
The European Court of Human Rights furthermore ruled in 2020 that anti-boycott legislation violated freedom of expression.
The situation is radically different in the US, where 35 states have enacted laws to outlaw boycotting Israel. Although courts have pushed back against such restrictions on freedom of speech, several companies have been persecuted after desisting from investment in illegal settlements. Students at prestigious US universities who supported BDS have been added to recruitment blacklists.
It is perverse and outrageous that at a time when Israel is facing genocide charges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Britain and other states are pursuing measures that would criminalize those taking a principled stand on crimes against humanity and the persecution of the Palestinian people. I love Britain as the free, democratic country that adopted me — so it hurts on every level to witness such illiberal measures being forced through, as if the free world wanted to undermine everything it stands for.
Those who seek to penalize us for acting according to our conscience shouldn’t just be kicked out of office, but should themselves face a reckoning for advocating measures that trample democracy, freedom and justice underfoot for their own political advancement.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.