On July 11 the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, adopted the 'Bill for prevention of damage to the State of Israel through boycott'. The new legislation defines promoting or, sometimes, participating in a boycott as a "civil wrong" under tort law. EU officials are concerned about possible limitations that the new law might have for freedom of speech in Israel. Pro-boycott individuals could be liable to damages – and NGOs to the loss of their tax-exempt status – without any proof needed that material damage had been caused to those boycotted. This means that human rights groups funded by the EU could effectively be shut down for refusing to recognise an occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which the EU itself does not recognise.
One EU source, speaking unofficially, said that although there could be different limits to freedom of expression in democratic societies, "we think this goes beyond those limits". "It's a source of concern when it comes to the quality of democracy in Israel," the official told European news sources. Israeli representatives in Brussels declined to comment. Maya Kocijancic, a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, stressed that the EU acknowledged Israel's sovereignty and "does not advocate boycotts". But, she told European journalists, "we are concerned about the impact that this legislation may have on freedom of expression for Israeli citizens and the expression of non-violent political opposition". "We believe that freedom of speech is very important and a fundamental value of any citizen," she added. "In this respect, we are concerned, and we will raise the matter with the Israeli authorities."
The latest boycott ban came after a Palestinian civil society boycott campaign developed steam, with international support, and echoes increasingly heard in Israel.
The issue may be discussed at the EU foreign affairs council in Brussels upcoming Monday (18 July). No statement is likely, but the boycott issue, along with the revival of a proposed parliamentary inquiry into Israeli groups funded by foreign donors such as the EU, is sharpening the Brussels mood. For many years, Israeli far right parties such as the National Union have proposed such legislation, partly as a means of impeding the work of EU-funded groups in Israel. An EU official told European news sources that the moves to limit free speech in Israel would be "an element in the broader analysis" determining whether member states would support an expected Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN General Assembly in September.
Sources: EurActiv; The Guardian; Image: Flickr, by Chrs Junker