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Biden urged to defend right to free speech, back peaceful calls for Israel boycotts

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
In this undated file picture, protesters march behind a banner of the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Marseille, southern France. (Photo via Twitter)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on new US President Joe Biden to defend free speech, including peaceful calls for a boycott of Israel, and publicly renounce his predecessor Donald Trump’s legacy of branding human rights groups and activists critical of Israel and its settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian lands as “anti-Semitic.”

Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa executive director at the HRW, stated on Monday that the Democratic leader should oppose laws that penalize companies seeking to cut ties with West Bank settlements — which are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention — in order to avoid complicity in inevitable human rights violations of the structures.

Goldstein then expressed doubts that Biden would end Washington’s attempts to tar the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in ways that threaten free speech.

The BDS movement was initiated in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian organizations that were pushing for “various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.”

Thousands of volunteers worldwide have since then joined the campaign, which calls for people and groups across the world to cut economic, cultural and academic ties to Tel Aviv, to help promote the Palestinian cause.

Goldstein went on to say that former hawkish US secretary of state Mike Pompeo did not stop at accusing the pro-Palestinian BDS movement of being “anti-Semitic,” but also lumped in groups that use international law as a basis to urge businesses to shun Israeli settlements.

He said the Trump administration upended the global politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Pompeo toured a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank — the first such visit by a top US official — on November 19 last year.

The trip to Psagot came a year after Pompeo said the settlements did not contradict international law, reversing a long-held US position.

The declaration outraged Palestinians, who oppose settlements on land they claim for a future independent state.

Goldstein further noted that the former US secretary of state vowed the same day to list, and cut off funding to groups that support boycotts of Israel. Pompeo, however, did not release that list, for unexplained reasons. 

More than 600,000 Israelis live in over 230 settlements built since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem al-Quds.

All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law as they are built on occupied land.

After Trump took office in December 2016, Israel stepped up its settlement construction activities in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which pronounce settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem al-Quds “a flagrant violation under international law.”

But Biden has indicated his administration will restore US policy of opposing settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories.

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