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“The European Court recognition of the freedom of boycott is one step forward, we will build on it”

Henri Eichholtzer, one of twelve BDS activists who won historical case in the European Court of Human Rights speaks to Quds News Network

Last June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) gave a major blow to the pro-Israeli propaganda, which has for decades associated the Palestinian struggle and international solidarity with Palestine, to antisemitism. The court ruled in favor of twelve French Palestine solidarity activists from the Alsace branch of the France- Palestine Solidarity Association.

The activists were sued in French courts for charges of antisemitism and incitation to racial hatred, after they performed a public call for the boycott of Israeli products in the French city of Mulhouse, in the Alsace, in 2009. After years of judicial battling in French courts, the ECRH acquitted the twelve activists and recognized the boycott of Israeli products as a legitimate form of freedom of speech. The court decision sets a judicial precedent in Europe, at a time in which the Palestine solidarity movement faces attempts of delegitimization, and at a time in which the occupation state makes all efforts to normalize its relations with the Arab states.

Quds News Network met Henri Eichholtzer, one of the twelve activists acquitted by the ECHR, in an exclusive interview. He spoke of the ECHR ruling and its importance, of the Palestine solidarity movement in France and the challenges it faces, of the pro-Israeli groups’ use of antisemitism to repress the solidarity speech, and of the relation between the Palestinian people’s struggle and the international solidarity movement. Following is his full dialogue with our correspondent, Qassam Muaddi:

Did you expect, when you were first accused, that your case will bring about a European judicial precedent, establishing the boycott of ‘Israel’ as freedom of speech? How did it happen?

No, we didn’t. It all started in 2009, when about fifteen of us, all belonging to the France-Palestine Solidarity Asociation (AFPS) were holding a peaceful activity in a supermarket in Mulhouse, Eastern France. We placed some Israeli products in a shopping cart and made a public statement about it, demanding the supermarket to remove the products from their shelves because they fund occupation in Palestine. Next thing we knew we had a law-suit against us filed by a pro-Israeli group for antisemitism and incitation to racial discrimination.

First, the court of Mulhouse acquitted us, but then the pro-Israeli group appealed in front of the court of Colmar, and then we were sentenced to a heavy fee. We took it to the last instance of French justice, the court of cassation, which confirmed the sentence against us.

What was your reaction?

It was a shock. A hard blow to us and to the Palestine solidarity movement. It was then that we decided to go to the European Court of Human Rights -ECHR. We were confident of our case, and we were not willing to give up. Eventually, as we expected, the ECHR acquitted us and recognized the boycott of ‘Israel’ as a form of freedom of expression.

Although your activities focused on the boycott of commercial products, you were sued for racial incitation and antisemitism. What is the connection?

I would like to know that too, we should ask the pro-Israeli groups in France. In fact, these groups usually can’t face our message on Palestinian rights, which is why they evoke antisemitism and slander us. Many of these groups make part of the ‘CRIF’ (The representative council of Jewish institutions in France), whose direction is usually close to the Israeli government policies. In 2009, when our case started, the French minister of interior at the time, Michelle Alliot-Marie, had promised the CRIF in one of its PR dinners to block all anti-Israel boycott speech as a form of antisemitism.

We should note that not all the Jewish community in France has the same attitude. Many Jews supported us during our case and many Jews support the Palestinian cause as well. We also recognize that antisemitism does exist in France, but some politicians deliberately use the accusation to slander the Palestine solidarity movement and delegitimize it.

In 2017 French President Emmanuel Macron declared that anti-Zionism was a form of antisemitism. Before him, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that both terms were synonyms. Why do you think that French politicians take this position? And how does it affect the Palestine solidarity movement?

They do it because antisemitism is an easy accusation to make in France. It works very well in silencing people, and many politicians are personally close to pro-Israeli groups, who use the antisemitism card to silence us. These groups are very influential and many of them are connected to the Israeli government.

Our mission is to counter this influence, to clarify facts and explain to both our politicians and our society, that our solidarity of Palestine is a legitimate support of a just cause. It’s a difficult task that requires a lot of work and patience, but things are slowly advancing.

Why are they advancing so slowly?

Because there is a big amount of disinformation. People in France get their information from the same places. People from the older generation, like myself, read a specific newspaper that they trust or are used to and watch a TV channel that they prefer. Younger people get their information from the internet, which is more open and diverse, but nevertheless overwhelmed with superficial information and propaganda.

The pro-Israeli groups and ‘Israel’ itself invests heavily in white-washing its own image. A recent example is the Tour de France bike competitions, that were postponed to the end of this month of August. ‘Israel’ managed to get an Israeli team in the competitions, promoting it massively. We are currently engaging the organizers and the public, to explain that this is an attempt to present ‘Israel’ as a normal, liberal state, hiding its true face of occupation and war crimes.

Has there been any evolution in recent years on the level of information about Palestinian reality? How does your case impact such evolution?

Things advance slowly as I said, and again, require a lot of work. But Palestine solidarity is more present than before because the Palestinian cause has proved to be able to unite people from very different backgrounds. You can find far-left activists along-side Catholics and Muslims. Young people from the neighborhoods as well as retired citizens. Palestine as a cause can do that in France because everybody understands the essential values that the Palestinian cause stands for, namely Justice, freedom, and human rights.

As far as our case is concerned, the ruling of the ECHR is very important for freedom of expression. It guarantees our right to communicate, advocate, and inform about Palestine, not only in France but in Europe. At the same time, we have to be humble. Palestine is not on the top-list of public interest in France right now. Our victory in the ECHR had a limited impact on public opinion in France.

All solidarity groups celebrated it, whereas pro-Israeli groups attacked the ECHR, claiming that the ruling of the court will encourage, again, antisemitism. One of their websites called us, the activists acquitted by the court, “Islamo-leftists”. They have a strange way of making up names and slanders, but it doesn’t affect us. We will build on this victory and continue our work of solidarity for Palestine. The ruling of the ECHR is just one step forward.

How do you think the pro-Israeli lobby will respond to this ruling of the ECHR in favor of you and of the right to boycott ‘Israel’?

Normally, they can appeal until September. If they don’t, then the ruling becomes definitive. We don’t think though that they will appeal because the ruling is very solid. It came after a very long procedure and was pronounced by seven judges unanimously. There is no much of a chance to change the ruling, which is why we believe there will be no appeal.

It is a reality now, that the boycott of ‘Israel’ and calling to it is recognized as a right and a legitimate form of freedom of speech. This is not only a victory for the Palestine solidarity movement but rather a victory for freedom of speech in general.

What role do Palestinians have in your efforts in France and in the world?

Palestinians have the main role in continuing their resistance. We support their struggle, but it is their struggle. They also have an important role in acknowledging their cause and countering the false image that has been made of them and their cause.

We believe that it is very important to have a direct connection between the solidarity movement internationally and the Palestinian people in Palestine. We, in the French solidarity movement, have a direct connection with communities in Palestine. We make yearly visits to Palestine to strengthen these ties and get as many solidarity people in France to get in touch with Palestinian reality first-hand. We believe this to be very important because it is the Palestinian voice that we should communicate.

What message would you give to the Palestinian people in these moments, when some Arab states are normalizing relations with the occupation state?

We know that some Arab states are abandoning the Palestinian cause, but Palestinians can count on the solidarity of peoples all over the world. In France, we admire the energy and steadfastness of Palestinians. Your resistance and your determination are an inspiration to us. We know too well that the Palestinian people are not defeated or submitted, but rather the contrary, proud and strong people. We will continue to draw inspiration from your resistance and communicate it to the world.

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