TEL AVIV // Israel's right-wing yesterday applauded new and controversial legislation that financially penalises boycotters of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the left lambasted it as a severe blow to the freedom of speech.
But there was one thing on which both sides could not disagree: the so-called anti-boycott law passed late on Monday reinforced the power of Israel's settlement movement in the corridors of the country's parliament.
The law, which even the parliament's legal adviser warned may be illegal, was passed by a majority of 47 to 38 in the 120-member assembly and facilitates lawsuits against individuals or groups publicly calling for a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The law also appears to target anti-settlement Israeli groups promoting Palestinian rights by revoking tax exemptions and other legal rights and benefits from any organisations or persons taking part in such a boycott. Those suing would be able to get compensation even if no actual damage is caused.
At least five human rights groups said yesterday that they will jointly petition the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn the legislation as soon as next week, claiming it harmed non-violent public opposition to Israeli policies.
The groups, along with centrist and left-wing legislators, slammed the law as an effort to legitimise the burgeoning settlement enterprise that is viewed by much of the international community as illegal. They also claimed that the bill was the latest move by the predominantly right-wing parliament to suppress public demonstrations by the Israeli left and the country's Arab minority.
Hassan Jabareen, founder of Adalah, which promotes the legal rights of Israeli Arabs, said: "This is the first time any sort of boycott was prohibited by Israeli law, and it was done to legitimise the settlements."
Mr Jabareen said that the Supreme Court was unlikely to approve the law because its definition of a boycott was "too vague and wide" and it seemed to discriminate against anti-settlement activists.
Right-wing lawmakers began pursuing the anti-boycott law several months ago after a group of prominent Israeli performers publicly stated they would not appear at a new theatre in Ariel, one of the West Bank's biggest settlements.
The law appeared to draw the support of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The premier did not take part in the vote, suggesting he may have sought to avoid being personally associated with it, but did also did little to block its passage.
Instead of dissuading boycott calls, the law appeared to trigger a new wave of dissidence among those who, in the past, have urged such action against Israel.
Peace Now, a group monitoring the expansion of settlements, shortly after the late-night parliamentary vote opened a new page on the social networking site Facebook that aimed to draw thousands of Israelis to support boycotting products made in the settlements. Yesterday evening, it had attracted nearly 4,000 supporters.
Niv Gordon, an Israeli political scientist and one of the country's most outspoken individual advocates for a cultural, economic and political boycott against Israel, said in an interview yesterday that he would now try to persuade as many acquaintances as possible to show public support for a boycott.
"This law calls for a major act of civil disobedience," Mr Gordon said. "I am not scared of this law per se because I doubt it would pass the Supreme Court's judicial review. What scares me is that this is a further sign of the destruction of any remnants of Israeli democracy."
The legislation follows in the footsteps of similar laws attempting to silence the Israeli Left and Arab citizens. Those include a law imposing fines on Arab towns, local authorities and state-funded groups that commemorate Nakba Day, a day of mourning in which Palestinians mark Israel's 1948 creation.
Another law, criticised as racist, requires new citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to a "Jewish and democratic state" while another measure allows small communities to reject those viewed as not fitting their social fabric, which critics say is targeted at Arabs.