So Much for Israeli Democracy

Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch.

Last week, the Israeli High Court upheld the Anti-Boycott Law passed by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in July 2011. The law targets Israeli opponents of the occupation who call for boycotting settlement products and/or Israel as an economic pressure tool to compel an end to an occupation that is nearing its 50th year. The court’s decision will allow companies to sue and win monetary compensation, as it were, from individuals and institutions who call for boycotts (the court did strike down one provision of the law which allowed for higher compensation without proving that the call for boycott was the cause for economic losses.)

“Boycotts and divestment are recognized around the world as legitimate, non-violent tools of protest. In its decision, the Supreme Court approved the silencing and the restriction of legitimate protest to criticize and act to change Israeli policy,” Ma’ayan Dak of the Coalition of Women for Peace, one of 8 Israeli civil organizations that challenged the law, said after the court’s decision.

The decision came the same week that Human Rights Watch released a new report that “documents rights abuses against Palestinian children as young as 11 years old, who earn around US $19 for a full day working in the settlement agricultural industry. Many drop out of school and work in conditions that can be hazardous due to pesticides, dangerous equipment, and extreme heat.”

“The work that children perform can be both grueling and hazardous. Some children who work on settlement farms described vomiting, dizziness, and skin rashes after spraying pesticides with little protection, and experienced body pain or numbness from carrying heavy pesticide containers on their back.”

Palestinian children work with no labor protections as Israel openly admits to not conducting oversight over settlement farms where Palestinians are employed. The Israeli government argues that it is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel does not explain how the PA, an institution with limited authority even over Palestinian cities and towns, would be able to send in its inspectors to a gated settlement and enforce its regulations on Israeli settlers. Israeli settlements are in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has full military and administrative control, and Israeli settlers are subject to Israeli civil law (Palestinians live under Israeli military rule). To add insult, Palestinian families have had their farm lands expropriated by the Israeli state and handed over to settlers. Having lost their agrarian independence and self-reliance, Palestinian families are compelled by force of economic circumstances to send their children to work as day laborers on the very lands they once called their own.

If you’re an Israeli offended by the exploitation of a captive labor force, by the injustice of land theft, and the brutality of the occupation, boycotting settlements products – making the occupation less profitable for the occupiers – would be an obvious course of action. But as Ma’ayan Dak notes above, the recent court decision acts to silence dissent and civil action by imposing a cost that will deter many from speaking out. While Israelis who call for boycotting any Israeli company for any reason – to protest, say. environmental harm – will suffer no penalties from affected firms, Israelis who call on their fellow citizens and foreign markets to avoid enriching farmers who employ child labor on occupied lands may be sued.

Vocal Israeli dissent against the occupation and its human rights abuses is already rare in Israel. The High Court has marginalized dissent even further by treating it as grounds for prosecution.

Many of Israel’s defenders in the U.S. have argued that international pressure on Israel to end the occupation – whether U.S. diplomacy or the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – is unnecessary since Israel is a democracy with the internal mechanisms to end the occupation without the aid of international prodding. But with the High Court’s recent decision it is hard to argue that Israeli democracy alone can end the occupation when the legislative body has imposed a financial penalty for the civil action of boycotting firms operating in the occupied territories.

By Khelil Bouarrouj.