Palestine solidarity activists are mobilizing against the UK government’s efforts to stop local councils divesting from weapons producers and firms that assist Israel’s crimes.
A “public consultation exercise” has been called to solicit views on efforts by the ruling Conservatives to override decisions by city and regional authorities if they clash with British foreign or security policies.
Activists who regard the efforts as an attack on local democracy have set up an online forum, through which UK residents, can take part in the consultation exercise. The consultation — called by the central government — will close on 19 February.
The Conservatives have made it clear that the proposals are in response to measures introduced by various councils against firms doing business with Israel.
When announcing them in October, the Conservative government issued a statement complaining that “hard-left foreign and defense policies” were “on the rise.” Among the examples it cited was a 2014 decision by Leicester City Council to boycott goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The proposals indicate that Israel’s supporters are perturbed about the growth of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. They follow a successful mobilization targeting Veolia, a major corporation that has been involved in building a light rail network for Israel’s settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Veolia has been excluded from municipal contracts collectively worth billions of dollars because of decisions taken by councils in the UK and further afield. Because of that pressure, Veolia was forced to sell its investments in Israel.
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, has said he wants to stop authorities where the rival Labour Party has a majority from influencing the UK’s international relations. At an event held last year by Conservative Friends of Israel, a lobby group within his party, Hammond said: “Under a Conservative government, our foreign policy will be made in the Foreign Office and not in hundreds of Labour-controlled town halls.”
War on Want, part of the BDS movement, has formed an alliance of organizations that oppose the Conservative’s plans. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is part of that alliance, too.
Shielding arms dealers
The ad hoc alliance also includes activists on climate change, who are concerned about the initiative’s potential implications. Environmentalists across the world have been calling on public authorities to divest from the oil industry and other major polluters.
The Conservatives have stated, too, that they wish to halt measures against weapons-producers. The Conservatives have specifically referred to a campaign aimed at ensuring that local authority pension schemes divest from BAE Systems.
Many local authorities in the UK have voted to divest from fossil fuel companies or to exclude the arms industry from their pension schemes.
This is not the first time that Prime Minister David Cameron and his colleagues have tried to denigrate the Palestine solidarity movement.
Prevent, the government’s flagship “anti-terror” policy, has previously been used in such a way. It obliges teachers to report children who they regard as susceptible to radicalization.
Under Prevent, a 15-year-old boy was reportedly accused by the police of holding “terrorist-like” beliefs after he had worn a “Free Palestine” badge.
The Conservatives’ efforts are part of a bigger international push to counter the BDS movement. France has effectively criminalized protest actions that urge a boycott of Israel. And the US is seeking to have provisions that would outlaw a boycott of Israel inserted in a planned trade agreement with the European Union.
Cameron and Hammond have been staunch defenders of Israeli aggression, particularly its 2014 attack on Gaza. Privately, Foreign Office staff have said that maintaining strong ties with Israel is now a key priority for the UK.
More than likely, the Conservatives’ efforts will backfire on them. By trying to ban the boycott of Israel, they are turning the surrounding issue into one about freedom of expression. And by assaulting local democracy, they have angered elected representatives across the country.
The Conservatives will not succeed in weakening the BDS movement. If anything, they will make it stronger.