Earlier this week, the chairman of the London-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Hugh Lanning, became the first foreign activist to fall prey to the controversial “BDS ban” law, just a few days after it was approved. The law, passed by the Knesset on March 7, prohibits the granting of entry visas or residency rights to foreigners who are advocates of the non-violent BDS movement.
Lanning was detained at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport overnight on March 12 and deported the following morning. Since becoming PSC's chairman in 2009, he had been able to travel freely to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories a number of times.
“They do see us as a threat and I don’t think they know what to do,” said Lanning in a tweet after the event.
This case is just the tip of a huge iceberg. In fact, such bans are not new. Stretching as far back as 2011, hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists who took part in the “Flytilla” campaign, with the intention of congregating in the West Bank, were barred from entering Israel.
In September 2016, Brigitte Herremans, a peace activist and charity worker who is the Middle East policy officer at Belgian Catholic charities Broederlijk Delen and Pax Christi, was detained, interrogated and finally deported at Ben Gurion airport. Her political views alone were purportedly an indication of a threat to the security of Israel.
Palestinians and foreign nationals of Arab descent are often denied entry to Israel, while other foreigners have previously faced a similar fate based on their support for Palestinian rights and BDS, even if their position is entirely non-violent.
Inspired by the South African Anti-Apartheid movement, the BDS movement wants Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank, recognise and redress the balance of rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, while advocating for the right of return for Palestinians as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
In a bid to put pressure on the Israeli public and institutions, its strategy is to boycott Israeli companies and institutions complicit in the violation of Palestinian human rights, discourage investment and call for sanctions until Israel complies with international law, halts illegal settlement construction and ends its occupation of territories seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Some observers have argued that Israel’s breach of the right to free speech and freedom of movement could actually become a catalyst for bolstering more support for the BDS movement. A statement from the PSC said:
“If Israel believes that by introducing these draconian undemocratic laws it will intimidate its critics into silence, it is mistaken. The PSC will not stop raising its voice to highlight the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself.”
A new report issued by the United Nations this week broke new ground by declaring Israel has established "an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole".
It even encouraged governments to "support boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] activities and respond positively to calls for such initiatives". The report has already caused a backlash from the Israeli government, and the head of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which published the report, resigned shortly after its release following pressure from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
While such tactics risk further isolating Israel from the international community, the political status quo in Israel indicates that such measures are likely to escalate in a bid to quell dissent, both inside and outside of Israel.
Conflating the tactics of BDS with anti–Semitism provides the Israeli government with the pretext to label this movement as a security threat. Israel’s Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan established a new anti-BDS task force in August 2016, boosted by a budget of NIS 120 million (almost US$32m) to crack down on what he sees as attempts to delegitimise Israel.
Simone Zimmerman is one of the many Jewish-American activists who recently spoke out against Israel’s travel ban.
“I am not a member of the BDS movement, but I believe that BDS is a legitimate, non-violent tactic and I personally support economic and diplomatic action and pressure against the occupation. I don’t know, do you think that makes me an enemy of the state?” she said in a video published by Haaretz.
“Basically what [the law] does is it creates a travel ban based on your political opinions. I was always taught to be very proud of the robust democracy in this country, and I think banning people based on their political opinions is not a sign of a very robust democracy.”