A developing new crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations has just been defused — for now — by the decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to allow US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to enter Israel on humanitarian grounds.
On Thursday, Israel, egged on by President Donald Trump, had barred Tlaib and her fellow Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from entering the country. Tlaib, Representative from Michigan, and Omar, Representative from Minnesota, are both Muslim women of colour, and outspoken critics of President Trump and his policies. Tlaib is of Palestinian descent, with a 90-year-old grandmother in occupied West Bank, whom she wants to visit.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Netanyahu had cited the two Congresswomen’s support for the Palestinians, and a global movement to boycott Israel, called BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, for the decision to refuse them entry. Israel was open to criticism, Netanyahu said, but “Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for, and work to impose, boycotts on Israel”.
The Israeli decision was criticised by both top Democrats and Republicans in the United States, as well as a powerful pro-Israel lobby group.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Tlaib and Omar, as well as two other women Democratic politicians of colour, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Representative Ayanna S Pressley of Massachusetts, telling them to “go back” to their home countries. All four Congresswomen are American citizens.
The BDS Movement
BDS is a Palestinian-led movement that says freedom, justice, and equality are its guiding principles, and that it “upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity”. On its website, BDS says:
“Israel is occupying and colonising Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law.”
BDS describes itself as a “vibrant global movement made up of unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots movements across the world”. In the 13 years since its launch, BDS is “effectively challenging international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism”.
Boycotts, says BDS, “involve withdrawing support from Israel’s apartheid regime, complicit Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions, and from all Israeli and international companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights”.
Divestment campaigns “urge banks, local councils, churches, pension funds and universities to withdraw investments from the State of Israel and all Israeli and international companies that sustain Israeli apartheid”.
And Sanctions campaigns “pressure governments to fulfil their legal obligations to end Israeli apartheid, and not aid or assist its maintenance, by banning business with illegal Israeli settlements, ending military trade and free-trade agreements, as well as suspending Israel’s membership in international forums such as UN bodies and FIFA”.
Israel’s anti-boycott law
The law mentioned by Netanyahu was passed in 2017, and was aimed at outspoken supporters of BDS. It was criticised by, besides Israel’s critics, the country’s sympathisers, who warned the law would isolate the Jewish nation further. A report published in The New York Times this week quoted a spokesperson for Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry as saying 14 individuals have so far been denied entry under the law.
Before Israel invoked it for Tlaib and Omar, the anti-boycott law had been used to deny entry to seven French politicians and European Union parliamentarians in late 2017, according to a report in The Jerusalem Post. Last year, the law was used against the Jewish American anti-war activist Ariel Gold, according to The Associated Press.
BDS’s alleged anti-semitism
Last month, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to condemn the BDS campaign. The movement’s supporters, including Representatives Tlaib and Omar, have been accused of anti-semitism. There has been considerable debate in Europe and America on whether BDS is a legitimate, nonviolent protest, or a movement rooted in anti-semitic sentiment, which aims to ultimately destroy Israel.
While the BDS is “loudly and proudly” anti-Zionist, the movement’s leaders reject allegations of anti-Semitism. Critics, however, say the movement fails the classic “3 Ds test” of anti-Semitism: it delegitimises Israel, it applies double standards while judging opposing claims, and it demonises Israel as a threat to humanity. Also, the BDS, while officially declaring violence against non-combatants as “illegal and immoral”, has failed to directly condemn Palestinian violence against Israeli soldiers.
Also, the BDS does not advocate any specific solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an ambivalence that critics say is counterproductive and hypocritical.