Knesset vote - Michal Fattal - July 11, 2011
Members of the Knesset voting on a bill, July 11, 2011 Photo by Michal Fattal

The Knesset passed a law yesterday penalizing persons or organizations that boycott Israel or the settlements. Forty-seven MKs voted in favor and 38 opposed, following a five-hour debate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not present during the vote.

MK Zeev Elkin (Likud ), who sponsored the law, said it is not meant to silence people, but "to protect the citizens of Israel."

Under the law, a person or an organization calling for a boycott of Israel, including the settlements, can be sued by the boycott's targets without the latter having to prove that they sustained damage. The court will then decide how much compensation is due. The law also states that individuals or companies that boycott Israel or the settlements cannot bid in government tenders.

The members of the recently formed Atzmaut faction did not take part in the vote for ideological reasons, even though coalition discipline was imposed.

Several organizations, including the Women's Coalition for Peace, Physicians for Human Rights, the Public Committee Against Torture and Adalah, intend to petition the High Court of Justice against the law today.

The petition will be based in part on the opinion of the Knesset's legal adviser, who stated that parts of the law edge toward "illegality and perhaps beyond." He warned that the law "damages the core of freedom of expression in Israel."

MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union ) said yesterday he would be the first to make use of the law by suing Teldor Cables & Systems for allegedly agreeing to boycott settlement products in contracts it signed with the Palestinian Authority.

Peace Now said yesterday it has launched a Facebook page to protest the legislation, calling on people to boycott settlement products. It hopes to mobilize tens of thousands of supporters in a national campaign, it said.

"Anyone who buys products from the territories is financing construction in the settlements and outposts, damaging Israeli exports and strengthening the occupation," said Peace Now secretary general Yariv Oppenheimer. "As Israelis, we will not renounce the right to protest and the freedom to say that."

Kadima's spokesman said the Netanyahu government is damaging Israel.

"Netanyahu has crossed a red line of political foolishness and national irresponsibility, knowing the meaning of the law and its severity, while giving in to the extreme right taking over the Likud," said the spokesman for the opposition party.

The vote followed a stormy debate, during which the opposition members slammed the legislation sponsores.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz ) blasted the bill during the debate, calling it outrageous and shameful. "This legislation is an embarrassment to Israeli democracy and makes people around the world wonder if there is actually democracy here," he said.

He questioned the bill's effectiveness, saying, "Do you really think anyone would pay any attention to this bill?"

Ilan Gilon, another Meretz MK, said the bill would further delegitimize Israel.

MK Ahmed Tibi asked, "What drove an MK to sponsor a boycott bill? Was he boycotted and beaten as a schoolboy?"

He then told Yisrael Beiteinu MKs, "You are denying the right to protest, but tell me, what do you think a peace activist or Palestinian is allowed to do to oppose the occupation? Is there anything you agree to?"

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ) said, "The bill to protect the settlements crosses a red line. It makes the settlements sacred and harshly penalizes anyone who tries to undermine that. The radical right repeatedly is insisting on breaking the record for anti-democratic legislation. This legislation pushes Israel out of the democratic circle and shatters the fundamental principles of freedom of protest and expression."

MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) said, "The law is intended to protect the occupation and gag those who oppose it."