US to designate Israel boycott movement BDS as antisemitic

Pompeo is visiting Psagot winery, whose vineyards The Independent found to be partially built on stolen private Palestinian land

Foreign Desk
Thursday 19 November 2020 19:29 GMT
A Palestinian holds a placard that reads ‘Boycott, divestment, sanctions’
A Palestinian holds a placard that reads ‘Boycott, divestment, sanctions’ (AFP via Getty Images)

Mike Pompeo has announced the US will formally designate the Palestinian-led movement to boycott Israel as “antisemitic” and cut off government funding to any organisations linked to it, in a tough new measure that could potentially impact leading international rights groups.

Mr Pompeo made the divisive statement during a visit to Israel where he also became the first US secretary of state to visit an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, despite the fact they are considered illegal under international law.

The secretary of state visited Psagot winery, located near the Palestinian towns of al-Bireh and Ramallah, whose vineyards are partially built on stolen private Palestinian land, according to an investigation by The Independent.

The top diplomat said that he would also visit the occupied Golan Heights, territory Israel captured for Syria during the 1967 Middle East War, again breaking with decades of previous US administration’s policy.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said Pompeo’s visit to occupied land “is an active participation in the occupation”.

Mr Pompeo posted photos of himself lunching at the settlement winery in a tweet where he lashed out at the European Union for its regulations that requires members states to label products that are made in Israeli settlements rather than Israel  proper. 

“Unfortunately, Psagot and other businesses have been targeted by pernicious EU labeling efforts that facilitate the boycott of Israeli companies,” the top diplomat wrote.

“The US stands with Israel and will not tolerate any form of delegitimisation,” he added. 

Just ahead of the tour, Mr Pompeo had announced Washington’s new stance on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calling it “antisemitic”.

“We will immediately take steps to identify organisations that engage in hateful BDS conduct and withdraw US government support for such groups," he added, saying that all nations should “recognise the BDS movement for the cancer that it is”.

Mr Pompeo did not provide additional details about which groups would be at risk of losing funding but there were reports in US media outlets last month that such a decision might impact organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam. Israel regards them as supporting BDS, accusations that each organisation has repeatedly denied. Israel has even threatened to ban their work.

BDS organisers see their movement as a non-violent protest of Israeli’s treatment of the Palestinians, modelling on the campaign that helped end apartheid in South Africa. The Israelis see the movement as an existential threat and regularly accuse its supporters of being antisemitic, which BDS movement has vehemently denied.

Mr Pompeo’s announcement was instantly condemned by rights groups including HRW, whose director in the area was deported last year over accusations past statements supported boycotts.

Palestinians protest near West Bank settlement as Pompeo begins Israel visit
Palestinians protest near West Bank settlement as Pompeo begins Israel visit (Reuters)

Eric Goldstein, HRW’s acting Middle East and North Africa director, said that Mr Pompeo had “falsely equated” peaceful support for boycotts of Israel with antisemitism and pointed to America’s long history of supporting peaceful boycotts to promote social justice and human rights.

“Instead of combating systemic racism and far-right extremism in the United States, the Trump administration is undermining the common fight against the scourge of antisemitism by equating it with peaceful advocacy of boycott,” he said.

Mr Pompeo’s brief trip became more controversial when he visited Psagot where he was met with a small protest. 

Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank, land it captured during the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want for their future state. Most of the international community views the settlements a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace. Israel believes it has a historical right to the land.

Psagot winery, which produces a wine named after Mr Pompeo, is particularly controversial.

Israeli winemaker Yaakov Berg's holds a bottle of his red blend named after Pompeo at the Psagot Winery 
Israeli winemaker Yaakov Berg's holds a bottle of his red blend named after Pompeo at the Psagot Winery  (AFP via Getty Images)

According to an investigation by The Independent, Psagot’s first batch of vines, the house belonging to the winery’s founder Yaakov Berg and his swimming pool lies on land owned by the Palestinian family Quran, known as Parcel 233, block 17. 

Israeli officials confirmed to The Independent that because at least part of Psagot winery’s vineyards are built on private Palestinian lands, they are illegal under Israeli law. They also confirmed there was a 2003 Israeli demolition order (number 252/03) out against the personal home of Mr Berg because of this, although it has yet to be carried out.

Tamam Quran, whose extended family own the land where the vineyards are based, said Mr Pompeo’s visit sent a message to the world that Israel can break the law “with no consequences”.

“International law says this is illegal, but hey, if you have enough power… nothing is going to happen,” he said at a press conference ahead of the visit.

Israeli rights activists who monitor settlements also condemned the visit.

“How ironic is the fact that a senior member of the Republican party, that worships the right to maintain private property, is visiting Psagot Winery which owes its existence to a blatant and continual violation of the right of ownership?” asked Dror Etkes, an Israeli researcher who has spent two decades monitoring Israeli settlement enterprise.

Israel passed a 2017 law that bars entry to foreigners who have called for economic boycotts of Israel or its settlements. The US House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing the boycott movement last year, and several US. states have enacted anti-BDS laws.

International rights groups have found themselves caught up in the issue.

Last year Israel’s former strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan, threatened to ban Amnesty International from Israel over a report which called on travel websites like Airbnb, TripAdvisor and to remove listings in the West Bank Settlements.

Israel also deported HRW’s director for Israel and the Palestinian Territory for past statements allegedly supporting the BDS movement.

HRW’s Goldsteing said: “The Trump administration has no business trying to tar groups because they back boycotts.”

In a statement, the BDS movement reiterated its rejection of “all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism,” and accused the U.S. and Israel of trying to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights.

“The BDS movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality, stands with all those struggling for a more dignified, just and beautiful world,” it said.

Virtually all Palestinian organisations support the boycott movement, but under president Donald Trump the US has already cut off nearly all forms of aid to the Palestinians. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to restore the aid as part of efforts to revive the peace process.

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