Comment | This is an immense victory for Palestine, for British democracy and for the rule of law

Yesterday, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign won a historic court case against the UK Government's attempts to prevent local councils from taking part in ethical boycotts. This is an immense victory, writes PSC director Ben Jamal, one that shows that BDS is here to stay until we see human rights and justice for the Palestinian people.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 23, 2017 20:26 - 0 Comments

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Israel and Palestine. The names conjure up an image of a place that is hot, dusty, far away. It is not really a concern for the British people. Mainstream media coverage sheds lots of heat and little light. Whilst there is plenty of talk of ‘two sides’ and broad brush descriptions of the ‘conflict’, there is little appreciation of the realities of the situation.

Israeli officialdom have successfully presented this ‘two equal sides’ picture that bears no relation to reality. The hard facts are that this is a story of occupier and occupied, oppressor and oppressed, coloniser and colonised. The story is that of the native Palestinian people living under a brutal, military enforced apartheid regime.

So what can you do about your situation if you are Palestinian? You can reach out to the world and hope that they hear your call for justice. Palestinian civil society called for a worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli state in 2005. This call will last as long as Israel refuses to honour its obligations under international law.

Here in the UK, our country has a special role to play in building a just and peaceful solution for all in Palestine. In many important ways, Israel/Palestine’s history is Britain’s history. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a hundred year ago this year, colonial Britain gave away historic Palestine to the nascent Zionist movement, without consulting the wishes of the 90% majority Palestinian population. Based on this fact alone, we in Britain have a unique responsibility to make it right for Palestine.

How do we heed the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in the UK? The movement here is strong, and full of immensely committed people. Many have previously campaigned against apartheid South Africa (such as our patron, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) and understand that successes are incremental. They can be few and far between. But every single one builds up momentum that eventually becomes a wave that can longer be ignored.

Sometimes, it becomes necessary to fight for your space and right to boycott in the most unlikely corners. In September 2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government launched its latest anti-BDS measure. BDS is not accepted by the Conservative government – although 40% of Conservative voters think that it is reasonable. The minister for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, wanted to curtail divestment campaigns against Israeli and international firms implicated in Israel’s violations of international law. In recent years, These companies have included include such corporate giants as HP, Veolia, and G4S.

In order to do so, Javid ordered for regulations be drawn-up prohibiting local government pension schemes from pursuing ‘divestment and sanctions against foreign nations and UK defence industries […] other than where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the Government.’ In other words, government employees pension schemes were prohibited from divesting from Israel for ethical reasons. This occurred despite a public consultation indicating that 98% of respondents thought this was the wrong thing to do. Pension holders would have been forced into investing in companies that are complicit in human rights abuses contrary to their conscience and beliefs.

Divestment is a key tenet of the BDS movement. We believe not only that divestment from human rights-abusing companies is the moral thing to do, but that everyone should be free to make the choice to do this. We were deeply concerned that the government had moved to clamp down on freedom of expression and conscience to pursue the narrow political agenda of cosying-up to the Israeli government in the name of securing tidy trade deals in the post-Brexit era. We firmly believed that this was central government overreach into local democracy and into people’s pockets. Who is Sajid Javid to tell pension holders that they must both invest in and profit from human rights abuses?

We knew that this was only one measure the government had brought in against the BDS movement. If we didn’t stand up now, when would we see the end of this? We brought our concerns to Bindman’s LLP, a leading human rights law firm. They knew we had a case and presented it to the courts for judicial review. In March, we heard that our request for judicial review had been granted. Our day in court was to be 14 June, last week, the height of summer and the month of the fiftieth anniversary of the illegal occupation.

Yesterday, on June 22, we heard the best possible news. We had won! We defeated the government in court and proved they had acted illegally. Sajid Javid’s regulations have been struck down. They were unlawful and had acted outside the scope of his powers for an illegal purpose. It was an immense victory – for Palestine, for local democracy, for the rule of law, and for the right to peacefully protest against injustice.

The outcome is a reminder to the Government that it cannot improperly interfere in the exercise of freedom of conscience and protest in order to pursue its own agenda. To some, pensions might seem like small fry. They are not. This is about more than the right of citizens to put their money where they see fit in accordance with your ethics. This is about setting a line down in the sand – BDS is legal, BDS is reasonable, and BDS is here to stay until we see human rights and justice for the Palestinian people.

There is a long road to travel before we see justice – but with the law on our side, we will take forward our campaign for the Palestinian people with renewed vigour. If any of this chimes with you, get involved and become a member. PSC needs committed members to guide our course, contribute to the debate, and take part in direct action for Palestine. Join today and be a part of the movement!

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Ben Jamal

Ben Jamal is the Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the largest UK civil society organisation dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights.

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