Israel’s “BDS blacklist”, published in the Israeli media on Sunday, bans 20 charities and human rights groups from entering the country, because they support the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – a campaign that holds Israel to account over violations of Palestinian rights and international law.
This repressive move is borrowed straight from the playbook of South Africa’s apartheid regime, which had the same aim of silencing critics. Ultimately, Israel’s blacklist will fail, just as South Africa’s did. But first and foremost, the ban calls for a robust condemnation from people of conscience around the world – and the UK government, which continues to conduct “business as usual” with Israel.
As one of the blacklisted organisations, War on Want is in good company, alongside groups such as the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee – a US Quaker group awarded a Nobel peace prize in 1947 for assisting people persecuted by the Nazis.
Barring foreign advocates of human rights and international law is the latest in a string of increasingly frantic attempts to gag critics of the Israeli government’s unjust and illegal policies, and to intimidate the growing global movement in defence of Palestinian rights.
Israel is not alone in this. Leaders of rightwing governments, from Narendra Modi to Donald Trump, are increasingly resorting to authoritarian measures for the purposes of political censorship. Yet grassroots opposition shows that a deep and abiding will exists to defend free speech and civil liberties.
This isn’t War on Want’s first encounter with a blacklist from an apartheid state. In the 1980s, when the South African government banned foreign funding for anti-apartheid groups there – in particular those calling for boycotts – War on Want led the UK campaign to oppose the ban. At that time, our staff regularly visited South Africa to work with partner organisations; they were under constant surveillance and followed everywhere they went. Of course, the government’s primary aim was to target the grassroots black activists we worked with, who faced arbitrary imprisonment, torture and death.
Similarly, the bans and blacklists that we face today are only a shadow of what Palestinians endure every single day. This year we remember that it is 70 years since more than 800,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes; they are still denied their right to return by Israel.
Over these seven decades, Israel has imposed travel bans, evictions, and home demolitions that have become part of daily life for Palestinian families. So are arbitrary arrest and detention without trial, collective punishment, violence, and torture without redress.
These injustices are the very reason why the BDS movement exists: when all other roads to justice have led nowhere, Palestinians have refused to give up their rights, calling on people of conscience around the world to help make Israeli oppression visible and to campaign against the institutions that profit from it. The BDS movement, as this blacklist demonstrates, spans the globe: a non-violent means of winning peace and justice. That is why we are proud to support it.
Israel’s BDS blacklist is designed to intimidate and silence people and organisations, such as War on Want, who call for international law and human rights to be respected. It is an attempt to smear human rights defenders, and to make principled calls for justice seem “controversial”. That’s why civil society must come together in the face of such attacks and refuse to let human rights defenders be silenced.
The UK government has a heavy responsibility. While Israel is violating international law and Palestinian human rights, the UK government continues its bloody arms trade with Israel, encouraging repression against Palestinians, and the demonisation of groups abroad that condemn the repression.
That’s why we are calling on the British government not only to condemn this crackdown but to stop arming Israel – and to hold its government to account for the apartheid policies that made BDS a necessity in the first place.
• Asad Rehman is executive director of War on Want