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US House overwhelmingly passes resolution condemning BDS

The vote exposed divisions within the Democratic party, with progressives opposing the measure
Israeli security forces escort a group of Jewish settlers through a Palestinian neighbourhood in the West Bank city of Hebron (AFP)

The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to condemn the boycott movement that seeks to pressure Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians.

The 398-to-17 vote for the nonbinding resolution opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement reportedly came after a 40-minute debate in which no one spoke against the measure, although two progressives gave speeches earlier in the day explaining their opposition.

'I also think it is OK to be critical of the Netanyahu administration or government and their policies'

- US Representative Mark Pocan

Those who supported the resolution argue that BDS delegitimises Israel's status as a Jewish homeland, while those who oppose it say it is a dangerous stifling of free speech and the right to participate in boycotts for human rights.

The issue has exposed divisions within the Democratic ranks, with 16 members of the party, mostly progressives, voting against the resolution, including Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Tlaib was one of the two who gave speeches ahead of the vote.

"It sets a dangerous precedent because it attempts to delegitimise a certain people’s political speech and to send a message that our government can and will take action against speech it doesn’t like," Tlaib said.

Also ahead of the vote, Representative Mark Pocan said the resolution went "too far", telling people what they "can or should think" about Israel.

"I also think it is OK to be critical of the Netanyahu administration or government and their policies," he said.

During the debate, Representative Eliot Engel said it was the right of Americans to criticise the US government and stop buying products from certain countries.

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"But participating in an international commercial effort that undermines Israel's legitimacy and scuttles the chances of a two-state solution isn't the same as an individual exercising the First Amendment rights," he said.

Last week, Omar and Tlaib introduced a resolution along with Representative John Lewis, to assert the right of Americans to participate in boycotts both at home and abroad, which would challenge anti-boycott legislation at both the federal and state level.

A Middle East Eye investigation this year found that only eight US states have not introduced anti-BDS legislation or resolutions.

After the vote, Palestinian human rights activist and BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti said in a statement that it would "directly undermine the First Amendment of the US Constitution".

"It reinforces other McCarthyite anti-BDS laws, and will have a chilling effect on free speech, especially speech that is critical of Israel's military occupation and apartheid," he said, throwing his support behind the resolution introduced last week by Omar, Tlaib and Lewis.