Lobby group laments Israel travel ban as “victory” for BDS

New Israeli law barring entry to supporters of boycott may end up helping BDS movement, Israel lobby group warns. (Magne Hagesæter)

Israel’s parliament passed a law on Monday barring entry or residency to non-Israelis who advocate boycott, including of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The law will apply to anyone “who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel that, given the content of the call and the circumstances in which it was issued, has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott – if the issuer was aware of this possibility.”

After a month’s delay, the new law passed by 46-28 votes. The Joint List, a coalition of parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel, Meretz, a Zionist left-wing party, and the Zionist Union all opposed the bill.

Adalah, a group that defends the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, wrote to lawmakers last month warning that the bill would have a particularly severe impact on Palestinian citizens of Israel who are applying for reunification with family members living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip or outside the country.

“The Israeli interior ministry is not authorized to stand at the country’s front gate and decide for Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents of the [occupied Palestinian territories] – who are dependent upon Israeli border crossings – which opinions and perspectives are worthy of being heard,” lawyers for the two organizations wrote.

Israel controls all entry to the occupied West Bank and to a large extent the Gaza Strip as well.

The groups said the new measure would come on top of discriminatory residency restrictions that have affected thousands of Palestinian families since 2003.

Political gatekeeping

“My grandparents are buried in Israel, my husband and kids are citizens, and I lived there for three years, but this bill would bar me from visiting because of my work in support of Palestinian rights,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said in response to the new law.

In January, a spokesperson for Bezalel Smotrich, a co-sponsor of the bill, favorably compared the planned ban on BDS activists to US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

“The State of Israel need not and cannot allow entry to those calling for a boycott of it. The BDS leaders are working to spread anti-Semitism in the world and do everything in their power to harm the State of Israel,” Smotrich’s spokesperson claimed, echoing charges frequently leveled by Israeli officials against the nonviolent Palestinian-led movement.

Israeli officials already can – and frequently do – deny entry to anyone at their discretion, including activists and people of Palestinian, Arab or Muslim ancestry.

But the new law seeks to make a political test for entry the norm. The interior ministry can make exceptions, allowing entry to people who advocate for BDS.

Roy Folkman, another co-sponsor, denied the bill would be a blanket ban.

“It doesn’t cover any individual who ever said something,” he stated in January. “It’s aimed mainly at organizations that work against Israel.”

Last month, Israel denied a work permit to Human Rights Watch’s new country director on the basis that the organization produces “Palestinian propaganda.”

Omar Shakir was allowed to enter this week on a tourist visa.

Last December, Israel refused entry to Isabel Phiri, the associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches, claiming she supported BDS.

Phiri was traveling as part of a delegation. A national of Malawi and the only African, she was the sole member detained, interrogated and deported.

Targeting Palestinians

Under Israel’s discriminatory “Law of Return,” Jews from anywhere in the world are automatically granted citizenship.

But Palestinian citizens of Israel can only have family members outside the country join them under an onerous “family reunification” procedure, even if those family members were born in territory that is now part of Israel. There is a blanket ban on Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip joining their spouses in Israel.

But thousands of Palestinians who already live in present-day Israel, as well as in occupied East Jerusalem, could be affected by the new law. Palestinians undergoing “family reunification” must complete several years as a “temporary resident” before receiving permanent residency. They may now be denied permanent status because of their political views.

Those who already have permanent residency will not have it revoked by the new law.

“Victory” for BDS

The justice ministry had urged lawmakers to make an exception for exception for Palestinians with temporary residency, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported. The ministry hoped the change would strengthen the law against court challenges, but the lawmakers refused.

“We’re not afraid of criticism, but we have national pride,” said David Amsalem, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, who chaired a key committee that approved the bill. “Someone who has already received temporary residency from us and is being considered for permanent residency, who comes and harms us, as a guest, why should we let him stay?”

The new law is proving to be a major embarrassment for Israel lobby groups that have tried to shield Israel from growing international ostracism over its human rights abuses.

J Street, a US liberal Zionist organization that strongly opposes BDS, said it was “alarmed” by a measure that would deny people entry based on “political discrimination.”

“This bill will do nothing to deter the global BDS movement – indeed it hands them a victory,” J Street warned. “The bill will further isolate the country, validate Israel’s critics and deny many people the opportunity to hear and learn from Israelis and Palestinians firsthand.”

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Something's fishy when a country proclaims its 'liberal democracy' as a main public relations and propaganda point, but then turns around and legislates that what SOME PEOPLE have TO SAY will not be allowed. Neither will THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES BE ALLOWED INTO THE COUNTRY. What is Israel afraid of? Is there another way for them to deal with this problem? Of course there is, but they have rejected a just settlement to the problem throughout the reign of every single Israeli prime minister. This fact is explored in detail, prime minister by prime minister, in Avi Shlaim's "Israel and Palestine". Now finally there is a non-violent approach to the problem, BDS, but Israel can't even countenance that. No violence, no non-violence: they really have it figured out...they think.

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Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.