Two weeks ago I found myself in a sweaty room in the Royal Courts of Justice, packed with fellow Palestine activists, listening to detailed and sometimes arcane legal arguments about pension law. The journey that ended in that courtroom began in September last year when the government announced new guidance intended to prohibit 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”.
The key target of these new rules was made clear in the about the decision. This was the government acting to place a ban on boycotting Israel. The regulations were introduced in November 2016 despite a indicating that 98% of respondents thought this was the wrong thing to do, and .
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, of which I’m the director, decided to take the government on. We launched a judicial review supported with witness statements from War on Want, Campaign Against the Arms Trade and the Quakers. Finally, ! Judge Sir Ross Cranston ruled the guidance was unlawful and that the government had acted for an improper purpose.
This is a victory for the rule of law, for local democracy and for freedom of expression. But it is also a crucial moment in the until it complies with international law. This campaign emerged in 2005 in answer to a call from 170 Palestinian civil society organisations, frustrated by the decades in which international governments and bodies had issued condemnations of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people but refused to impose meaningful pressure.
The consequences of this failed policy were underlined in the last month, during which Israel’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, the West bank and Gaza entered its 50th year. On 11 June the country’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, that Israel was planning its greatest expansion of settlement homes since 1992, one year before the . During that time the number of illegal settlers occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem has grown by nearly half a million. On 20 June ,as work started on the first illegal settlement to be built outside the existing settlement blocks in 25 years, Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted “After decades, I have the privilege to be the prime minister who is building a new community in ”. Or to put it in clearer language , here is a prime minster who feels privileged to be violating international law.
The BDS movement is a response to Israel’s confidence that it can act with impunity. Modelled on the same tactics used so successfully against apartheid South Africa, it calls on all actors to end economic support for Israel’s illegal actions.
The UK government’s attempts to force though the pension regulations were part and parcel of a wider attempt by Israel and its supporters to push back against the growing success of the BDS campaign. In April a from the Israeli thinktank the Reut Institute and the US Anti-Defamation League boasted of the success since 2010 in establishing a global pro-Israel network to suppress BDS activity, and the use of anti-BDS laws as a key tactic: 14 US states have introduced such legislation.
Sir Ross Cranston’s judgment last week draws a line in the sand against the attempts to introduce such measures in the UK. It upholds the basic right to invest money on ethical principles.
For BDS campaigners in the UK this gives a huge boost to our work. A showed that public opinion is on our side with 43% of the public seeing BDS as a reasonable response to Israel’s policies and only 13% opposed. This judgment tells us that the law is with us as well. With this legal impediment removed, we will take forward the campaign to persuade all relevant bodies, including pension-fund holders, not to invest money in supporting activities that are illegal and violate human rights.
Margaret Thatcher found herself on the wrong side of history in the 1980s when she tried to prevent boycotts of apartheid South Africa. Last week, Theresa May told us that her government recognised the need to be humble, to listen to public opinion and rethink its approach to a range of issues. It’s time for her to acknowledge that current policy in the Middle East has failed and to listen to the growing chorus of voices calling for an approach that truly holds to account.