The Knesset on Tuesday gave initial approval to a bill that opens up Israeli Boycott, Divestment, and Boycott (BDS) activists to civil lawsuits with damages of up to NIS 100,000 ($28,000), without requiring the plaintiffs to provide proof of damages.
The bill, proposed by Likud MK Yoav Kisch and backed by Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, cleared its preliminary reading with 60 lawmakers in favor, among them the opposition Yesh Atid party, and 40 opposed.
It would apply only to Israeli organizations and activists who “systematically” call for boycotts of Israeli and settlement firms, rather than individuals who call for a boycott on a one-time basis, according to Kisch.
In 2011, the government passed a law allowing civil lawsuits that demand compensation from those who call for boycotts against companies in Israel and West Bank settlements. The legislation was largely upheld by the High Court of Justice in 2015, though justices repealed a clause stipulating that courts may order unlimited sums in compensation to plaintiffs without proof of damages.
The current bill was designed to bypass the court decision. It called for NIS 100,000 compensation in cases where damages are not proven and up to NIS 500,000 ($141,000) in cases where financial damages could be established.
The High Court decision rendered the 2011 law “ineffective,” Kisch told the plenum. He described the updated bill as “sticking a finger in the eye” of boycott activists, naming several Israeli organizations, along with prominent activist Omar Barghouti (who holds Israeli permanent residency), as liable to be sued under the proposed legislation.
Speaking after Kisch, Erdan said the bill aims to “send a clear message” to the activists that the economic pressure they apply on the country “can be turned back against them.”
“They don’t desire peace, they desire simply to delegitimize the State of Israel and destroy it as the Jewish homeland,” said Erdan.
The Likud minister, whose office targets boycott efforts, compared the existing legislation in Israel to anti-boycott legislation in US states.
“Only here in the State of Israel do we have a toothless law,” he said.
Israel has been faced with boycott calls for decades, but the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) has raised its profile in recent years with help from famous backers.
In response, Israeli politicians have become more combative under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
Last year, Israel budgeted NIS 118 million ($32 million) to fight the movement. The government passed a law banning Israel boycott activists from the country and has been implementing it rigorously, most recently in preventing a group of European officials from visiting.
Agencies contributed to this report.