Israel lobby lawsuits aim to slow boycott in Spain

More than 50 communities across Spain have declared themselves “free of Israeli apartheid.”

Albert Gea Reuters

In July 2014, at the height of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Spain’s RESCOP launched a national campaign targeting local cultural institutions, businesses and associations, asking that they declare themselves “free of Israeli apartheid.”

That effort has since grown, in both size and kind. Today, there are more than 50 participating cities and towns across the country.

And it has sparked a reaction. RESCOP, which sought to build from scratch a popular embrace of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), is now facing stiff opposition from ACOM (Action and Communication), a pro-Israel advocacy group that has benefited from the Israeli government’s recent attempt at countering the growing BDS movement.

It all started innocuously enough.

“In Gijón,” the largest city in Spain’s Asturias region, “we were eating in restaurants, and drinking in pubs that had the Israeli apartheid-free logos,” Maren Mantovani, from the Stop the Wall campaign, told The Electronic Intifada.

Such nascent successes were soon boosted by other efforts.

In December 2014, another campaign with the similar, but more ambitious idea to ask municipalities to declare their entire cities “Free of Israeli apartheid” arose. The call was set forth in the “Olive Declaration,” drawn up by various groups and city representatives at a conference co-organized by a United Nations body in Seville, the capital of Andalusia.

Over the following year, activists from RESCOP and local BDS groups worked with nearly three dozen towns and cities, helping them draft motions that directed city institutions to avoid contracting services or purchasing products that were involved in violations of international and human rights law in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Cities also committed to adding the Israeli apartheid-free logos to their websites.

Enter ACOM

Today, approximately 50 cities and towns have declared themselves “free of Israeli apartheid.” The latest to join the movement is Cádiz, Andalusia. Cádiz, with more than 120,000 residents, is one of the largest cities to support the campaign. Most municipalities involved are small, rural villages across the countryside, according to activists with RESCOP.

After a year of building momentum, however, the movement ran up against ACOM.

ACOM is an Israel advocacy group in Spain that became active as the BDS campaign was taking off in the country and as Israel dedicated $25 million to an anti-BDS taskforce. Though ACOM claims to have existed since 2009, the earliest identifiable English-language reporting of its work online is from the fall 2014, when the group lobbied Spain’s congress not to recognize Palestinian statehood that is not a result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

For the last year ACOM seems to have focused exclusively on beating back city resolutions to be “free of Israeli apartheid.”

On 9 February 2016, a year and a half after the anti-apartheid campaign launched, ACOM filed a lawsuit against Langreo, a city that adopted an anti-apartheid resolution only days earlier, on 28 January. Since then, ACOM has been sending intimidating letters to cities that have adopted such resolutions, threatening litigation if they do not cancel their own motion. Some cities, like Rivas Vaciamadrid in the Madrid metropolitan area, report being sued without warning.

The lawsuits claim the city resolutions not only violate the fundamental rights of the Israeli people and all Israeli residents in the territory of Spain, according to a Rivas city representative who requested anonymity, but also assert that the motions are racist and discriminatory toward all of the Jewish community.

The lawsuits also claim the resolutions incite discrimination on the basis of national origins and beliefs, and at least one suit, seen in translation by The Electronic Intifada, portrays the BDS movement as a “foreign power” that is fighting an “imaginary ‘Jewish supremacy.’”

Spinning the narrative

ACOM has portrayed its lawfare campaign in Spain as almost entirely successful: a legal victory against the right to boycott, something Israel advocacy groups have been pursuing across the globe as BDS activism gains ground support.

“The rule of law … has become a cornerstone in the fight to resist the BDS boycott that seeks to criminalize the State of Israel and to discriminate [sic] anybody associated with it,” ACOM chairperson Angel Mas asserted in a press release this summer.

“Quite the opposite to the intentions of the boycott proponents, now legal precedents are being created to associate the BDS movement to illegal anti-Semitic activities that go against international law and human rights,” Mas added.

But contrary to the claims reported in Israel’s English-language media, ACOM has not filed litigation against every single motion, nor has it been consistently successful.

According to records kept by RESCOP, ACOM has filed at least 20 lawsuits. In three cases – including the cities of Langreo, Sant Quirze and Sant Adria – the judges have sided with ACOM, but the other cases have not been clear legal victories. In some instances, cities may have voluntarily withdrawn the motion to avoid a costly lawsuit and in other cases the rulings have been ambiguous or entirely rejected ACOM’s complaint.

In its victory in Langreo, ACOM was described as “having earned the recognition of the Jewish community of Madrid,” and the judge ruled the city’s anti-apartheid motions “incite discrimination.”

But in the case of Gijón, the court threw out ACOM’s complaint, finding the city’s motion was not discriminatory.

And in the case of Rivas Vaciamadrid, the city councilor told The Electronic Intifada, the judge ruled that the motion was constitutional as long as it did not specifically target Israeli trade agreements, and instead more generally forbid trade with all human rights violators.

Fighting back

Rivas is appealing the ruling, according to city officials. An activist told The Electronic Intifada that the campaign has also altered the language of their template so cities don’t encounter the same objections in court.

“We have a great sense of commitment to the safeguarding of the human rights and dignity of all humans around the world,” the representative of Rivas Vaciamadrid told The Electronic Intifada.

“In spite of all the legal limitations, the municipal government of Rivas Vaciamadrid remains convinced that the local government has the obligation, and our citizens expect of us, to participate in the struggle for human rights and a better world for all.”

The city representative said that the resolution had the wide support of the city, and was only opposed by the two right-wing political parties on the city council.

Meanwhile, Langreo is also appealing the court’s ruling, resisting the idea that an Israeli advocacy group can prevent the city from taking a stand against human rights violations.

But other cities have been forced to fold even before a court can rule.

At least five cities have withdrawn their motions after receiving threatening letters from ACOM, according to RESCOP’s data. Ana Sanchez Mera, a member of RESCOP based in Madrid, said these are small villages that cannot afford to defend the resolution in court.

ACOM wants to claim these as wins for its side, but Sanchez Mera stressed that there are no rulings in these cases; the cities simply don’t have the resources to fight ACOM in court.

Little public information on ACOM is available. Their website is in English and Spanish but has little to say about who they are, instead stating vaguely that they represent a network of “activists and supporters” in Spain.

Scant popular support for ACOM

According to the cities and towns visited by ACOM, however, it is an organization made up of just a few men. Angel Mas is the chairman and Ignacio Wenley Palacios is the head lawyer.

When ACOM sues a city, the organization is not joined by residents of that city or other Spanish citizens, according to those who have spoken to The Electronic Intifada. Even though the Spanish court has recognized ACOM as representing the interests of Israel and the Jewish community in Madrid, it is often just Mas or Palacios who shows up to argue in court against a town’s resolution.

RESCOP’s Sanchez Mera admits this has been a setback for the campaign, but not in the way that ACOM has presented it to the media. To The Jerusalem Post, ACOM brags that it’s stacking up the judicial victories. For Sanchez Mera, the litigation ties up RESCOP’s time and energy, but has also helped galvanize commitment among grassroots activists.

“It’s clear what the interests of ACOM are: they are protecting Israel’s interests while BDS is trying to protect human rights,” Sanchez Mera said. “I think it is good that this is exploding. I think this is making the movement stronger. We have better motions now. We have more support.”

In Europe, France is the model pro-Israel advocates hope other countries follow. Even before the launch of the global BDS movement by Palestinian civil society in 2005, France passed an anti-boycott law that has since been applied to BDS, saying boycotts against nations are illegal forms of discrimination against countries and their citizens.

Outlawing dissent

The UK is reportedly mulling similar legislation, though governments in Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands have affirmed the right to boycott.

American states are also working out where they fall on the right to boycott, with some states going so far as to create blacklists of companies that have ended contracts with Israel following boycott campaigns.

In Spain, where regional autonomy and public participation are prized, the courts have not taken a clear side. But there has been a general warming at the higher levels of politics in Spain towards Israel.

At the beginning of this year, the Spanish government compensated Ariel University, located in a West Bank settlement, more than $100,000 per the recommendation of the Council of State, for excluding Ariel from participating in a scientific competition in 2010.

The Council of State is considered the government’s most important consultative body and is composed mostly of former politicians who are appointed by the government.

The body found the government violated European laws against discrimination based on nationality or place of origin.

But RESCOP and the scores of local BDS groups across Spain still working with their governments are not deterred.

“The Israeli Apartheid Free Zones campaign across the Spanish state is inspiring similar efforts in other countries,” Riya Hassan, the European coordinator for the BDS National Committee, said in a recent press release.

“At a time of a growing democratic deficit across the European continent, it is empowering to witness how citizens are integrating solidarity with Palestinians with domestic agendas that promote social, economic and environmental justice.”

Charlotte Silver is associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.