Israel closes door to Philly Quaker group, other organizations advocating boycott

A view of Jerusalem Old City seen from Mount of Olives, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.

A view of Jerusalem Old City seen from Mount of Olives, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based Quaker organization, is among 20 groups that Israel will now prevent from entering the country.

The blacklist stems from legislation Israel passed last year to punish groups calling for a boycott of the country over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Known as BDS — for boycott, divestment and sanctions — the movement aims to discourage people from doing business with Israel over the country’s human rights record on Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The campaign began in the summer of 2005, and backers say it has applied economic pressure on the country that has had real results — including forcing the popular seltzer-water machine company SodaStream to shut down and move its West Bank factory over international protests. The company, for its part, said the relocation was due to a need for more space, not the boycott.

But there is likely a link to the boycott that SodaStream does not want to admit, said Mike Merryman-Lotze with the American Friends Service Committee.

“It would be very hard for them to say it was BDS that caused them to leave, but it’s not coincidental that they were receiving incredibly negative publicity around their presence at the settlement and, shortly thereafter, they left,” he said.

Israel’s new policy may complicate the committee’s work, Merryman-Lotze said.

“We have a presence in Israel and Palestine. We have an office in Jerusalem and an office in Gaza, and staff in those locations,” he said. “I myself travel several times a year, as do others, to visit our staff and meet with partners we work with there.”

Israel’s escalation of its clampdown, BDS supporters contend, demonstrates that officials there are feeling increasingly threatened by the campaign.

But Israeli officials said they are defending their country’s right to exist and will continuing fighting efforts to “delegitimtize” it. The boycott campaign actively promotes Israel’s demise, according to its government.

“The boycott organizations must know that the state of Israel will act against them,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said in a statement. “The creation of this list is another step in our struggle against the incitement and lies of the boycott organizations.”

Merryman-Lotze, however, called the travel restrictions an attack on free speech, something he said is part of a pattern.

“There has been a very concerted effort led by the Israeli government over the last couple of years to stop BDS activism through chilling speech,” he said. “They have been stopping people from taking action to challenge violations of human rights.”

In the years since its formation, the BDS movement has persuaded several church organizations to divest themselves of Israel-related investments and has garnered support on U.S. college campuses. Most recently, pop singer Lorde joined a number of other performers who have canceled performances in Israel amid pressure from BDS activists.

Even so, a slew of other musicians have defied boycott calls and performed. Israel has also enjoyed new economic partnerships and diplomatic ties despite calls for boycotts and it has become a top destination for international sporting and cultural events.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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