UK threatens to fine town halls that boycott Israel

UK Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock announced new measures at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Prime Minister of Israel/Flickr)

UK government minister Matthew Hancock this week announced new rules aimed at stopping public bodies from boycotting Israel.

The rules are so broad as to apply to boycotts of other human rights abusing countries.

While visiting Jerusalem, Hancock said the new guidance “makes clear that discriminating against members of the WTO [World Trade Organization], including Israel, is wrong and it is illegal and it must stop.” The announcement was made at a joint press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, Wednesday.

But campaigners urging boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel hit back. Palestinian activists argued that the new rules amounted to a dilution of threats earlier this week to “ban” boycotts.

Riya Hassan of the Palestinian BDS National Committee said in a statement: “this government is going further than Margaret Thatcher ever went to defend South African apartheid.”

Hassan said campaigners were seeking legal advice “but it appears that it remains perfectly legal for councils and universities to take ethical stances.”

She said it was still legal for public bodies to “exclude companies that violate human rights from tender exercises.”

Boycott still legal

A guidance note, published by the UK government, says public bodies such as local councils and some universities could face fines in civil court cases if they boycott signatories to a World Trade Organization agreement on purchasing. Israel is among the agreement’s signatories.

However, BDS campaigners do not only target Israeli firms or goods. They also urge action against international corporations that supply the Israeli military or Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Hassan said that “Palestine campaign groups urge universities and councils not to award contracts to companies such as [private security multinational] G4S, which helps Israel run prisons in which Palestinians are tortured.”

The new guidance note says that existing public contract regulations “provide flexibility for authorities to take account of wider matters in the procurement process, such as social and environmental factors.”


Nonetheless, this represents an escalation in moves to curb the BDS movement. Public outrage has “hit a nerve in Westminster,” said Hassan.

Anonymous government sources earlier this week briefed the press, with the apparent aim of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about a “BDS ban.”

The Independent led with a front page Monday claiming that boycotts of Israel were to become a “criminal offense.” But there was no substantiation of the headline claim in the article, and the final guidance note referrs to potential fines under existing laws.

Anonymous “government sources” claimed to The Independent that the new rules could also apply to boycotts undertaken by student unions but added this was a “gray area.”

Student unions in the UK have been at the the forefront of the BDS movement. In June the leadership of the National Union of Students voted to align itself with the BDS movement.

Assault on democracy

Netanyahu welcomed the new rules, saying the UK was “refusing to discriminate against Israel.” Israel lobby groups in the UK have also welcomed the government’s guidelines.

But others have slammed the move as an assault on both local democracy and the right to make ethical purchasing decisions.

A spokesperson for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told The Independent that the rules “would have outlawed council action against apartheid South Africa. Ministers talk about devolution, but in practice they’re imposing Conservative Party policies on elected local councils across the board.”

Amnesty International told The Independent the rules could encourage human rights violations, stating, “Where’s the incentive for companies to ensure there are no human rights violations such as slavery in their supply chains, when public bodies cannot hold them to account by refusing to award them contracts?”

Sara Apps, interim director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “It is shameful that our government is prepared to side with an oppressive state over the rights of an oppressed people in this way.”

The Palestinian Authority’s UK mission said in a statement: “We strongly urge the British government to reconsider its positions.”

The PSC is encouraging its supporters to use an online tool set up by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, War on Want and other groups to email the government in protetst against its moves.

Boycott takes hold

French multinational Veolia ended its role in Israeli settlements last year after local councils around the world dropped it from contracts worth more than £10 billon ($14.3 billion), according to the BDS National Committee.

Veolia lost contracts with public bodies in London, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Canterbury, East Sussex and Winchester as a result of BDS campaigns.

Councils in Tower Hamlets, Leicester, Swansea and Bristol are among those that have passed resolutions in support of BDS or condemning companies involved in illegal Israeli settlements.


Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and co-host of our podcast.

He is author of the bestselling book Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2023).