BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti hits back at 'repressive' UK anti-boycott bill

BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti hits back at 'repressive' UK anti-boycott bill
BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti has slammed the UK government's anti-boycott bill, calling it 'extremely repressive', 'anti-democratic' and 'McCarthyite' in an exclusive interview with The New Arab.
5 min read
23 August, 2023
Omar Barghouti is a co-founder of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel [The New Arab]

A co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has hit back after the UK government put forward a controversial bill targeting the Palestinian-led campaign.

Omar Barghouti slammed the anti-boycott bill, calling it "extremely repressive", "anti-democratic" and "McCarthyite" in an exclusive interview with The New Arab.

The proposed legislation is aimed at stopping public bodies like universities and local councils from taking economic action against Israel, though it would also prevent them from implementing their own boycotts against other countries.

"This far-right, basically, leaning government is becoming so authoritarian and anti-democratic that if it passes this law, it can use it as a template against the climate justice movement, the racial justice movement, against trade unions," Barghouti said.

"With the cost-of-living crisis in the UK, with increasing social mobility against injustice, this government wants to shut down, basically, all this protest.

"And their best way – the easiest way to do it: start with the Palestinians. Start with BDS. They see us as the weakest link."

Greenpeace UK, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and trade unions like Unite are among 70 civil society groups that oppose the government's bill as part of a coalition called Right to Boycott.

Public bodies

If passed, the proposed law – officially named the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill and introduced by Communities Secretary Michael Gove – would not ban ordinary citizens from boycotting Israel.

It would apply to procurement and investment decisions made by public bodies.

"But it won't stop every other aspect of BDS in the British public – the cultural boycott, the academic boycott, the sports boycott and all other forms of BDS that are increasingly becoming popular in the UK public," Barghouti said.

However, he also believes people might misunderstand the law and think it bans BDS wholesale.

"It is intended to have a chilling effect to make people say, you know, 'I don't want to engage in this BDS campaign because, isn't that illegal?'" Barghouti said.

'No other state'

Three foreign territories are named in the anti-boycott bill: Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories (the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip) and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

It comes in a clause that would make it harder to exempt Israel than other countries from the ban on public body boycotts. Doing so would not, however, be impossible.

"No other state in the bill has this privilege for being above the law, above accountability," Barghouti said.

"By putting it there, basically, the British government's saying, 'We're allying ourselves with the extreme far-right Israeli government, the most racist, fundamentalist, authoritarian, sexist in Israel's history – in 75 years.'"

In response to a request for comment, a British government spokesperson said public bodies shouldn't be "pursuing their own foreign policy agenda".

"The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will ensure that the UK speaks with one voice internationally," the spokesperson added.

"The bill is clear that the ban on boycotts does not apply to private companies or individuals, including publicly elected officials, when carrying out private acts that are protected by the Human Rights Act."

'So out of touch'

During his interview with The New Arab, Barghouti also hit back at Communities Secretary Gove, who mentioned the BDS co-founder by name in parliament in July.

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Gove said Barghouti was opposed to Israel's existence as a Jewish state during the anti-boycott bill's second reading debate in the House of Commons.

"It is really funny for someone, a leader in the Conservative Party, to be so out of touch with the reality on the ground [as] to present a parallel reality," Barghouti responded, saying the BDS movement opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.

The Palestinian activist took the issue of Israel's existence head-on, saying it is the only country that claims a right to exist in a specific political form.

"Exist as what? As a settler colony? As an apartheid state? No regime has a right to exist as a settler colony and as an apartheid regime," he added.

"The South African regime had no right to exist as an apartheid state. Neither does the Israeli regime have the right to exist as an apartheid state."

Activists often make comparisons between South Africa's systematic oppression of people of colour until 1994 and Israel's ongoing treatment of the Palestinians.

Political solution

Gove told MPs the BDS movement "argues that the two-state solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] is wrong and that Jews should be a minority in one state".

But Barghouti said the campaign does not take a position on the ultimate political solution the Palestinian people might choose.

"Instead of adopting a one-state or two-state solution, we say whatever solution the Palestinians call for, what all Palestinians agree on is this solution has to accommodate the rights of refugees to return, ending military occupation and ending apartheid against all Palestinians," he added.

Barghouti has personally supported a one-state model. He said he had "advocated consistently for a single democratic state with equality for all" in a 2019 letter to The New York Times.

Anti-boycott bill's next steps

The anti-boycott bill was given its second reading in a vote after July's parliamentary debate.

It is currently scheduled to proceed to its next step, the committee stage, starting on 5 September, with the report stage and crucial third reading vote still to come in the Commons.

After clearing the UK parliament's lower house, the bill will then need to pass the House of Lords to become law.