Israel's hardliners seek to outlaw settlement boycotts

Israeli politicians were last night debating a bill that would punish any of its nationals who call for a cultural, academic or economic boycott of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

Human rights campaigners say the bill, sponsored by right-wing politicians, is profoundly undemocratic and would deal a severe blow to freedom of speech if passed.

The bill is the product of hawkish politicians, who have bristled at domestic dissent towards Israeli policies – and in particular criticism of the settlement enterprise, viewed by many Israelis as an obstacle to a two-state solution. About 300,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The bill has provoked fierce criticism from the left, and non-governmental organisations have denounced it as anti-democratic and a violation of free speech, arguing that it robs Israelis of a means of protesting the occupation. The debate on boycotts was thrust into the public domain last summer after the Palestinians' decision to boycott settlement goods infuriated right-wing Israelis.

At the same time, a wave of high-profile international performers, among them the Pixies and Elvis Costello, cancelled performances in Israel, citing their discomfort with the occupation.

The backlash against homegrown boycotts appeared to grow in response to the refusal of a group of Israeli artists to perform at a new cultural centre in Ariel, a Jewish settlement deep inside the occupied West Bank.

And investors in a new Palestinian city provoked anger when they hired Israeli contractors on condition that they would not use materials or services from the settlements.

"It is a law for armour-plating the settlements, turning them into a sacred and immune cow, since anyone who dares to criticise it will pay dearly – quite literally," said Uri Avnery, an Israeli former politician.