JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's parliament on Monday approved a contentious law against boycotts targeting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, dismissing charges that the measure is anti-democratic and could harm Israel's image.
The new law allows settlers or settlement-based businesses to sue Israelis who promote boycotts of settlements. The fierce debate reflected growing polarization between Israelis who favor expanding settlements and keeping the West Bank in Israeli hands, and those who believe Israel must withdraw from much of the territory and dismantle some or all of the settlements in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.
Palestinians consider the settlements illegal encroachment on land they claim for a state, a view backed by much of the world.
The vote was 47-36, with parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line coalition supporting it. Dovish opposition parties voted against. Netanyahu himself did not participate.
The law allows courts to determine whether a boycott call caused direct damage to a person or a business in a settlement and assess damages.
The law is one of a string of initiatives by hawkish Israelis to limit activities they consider anti-Israel. For example, they have tried to retaliate against Israeli artists who refused to perform in settlements.
Backers of the law insisted it was necessary to protect Israelis living in the West Bank. Sponsor Zeev Elkin, from Netanyahu's Likud Party, said it was unfair to target Israelis who live in settlements. Some 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements.
"The place where a person lives cannot be a reason to harm him," Elkin told the parliament. "The struggle over the boundaries of the state must be carried out here (in the parliament) and not through boycotts."
Opponents charged the law is an undemocratic attempt to curtail free speech. They predicted that Israel's Supreme Court would overturn the law, an unusual step in Israel.
Israel's Haaretz daily, traditionally critical of the settlements, blasted the new law in an editorial. Its backers are "trying to silence one of the most legitimate forms of democratic protest, and to restrict freedom of expression and association of those who oppose the occupation and the settlers' violence," the paper wrote.
Critics also warned that Israel's image as a democracy would take a further hit, at a time when pro-Palestinian groups are trying to draw international attention to Israeli practices in the Palestinian territories, including Israel's border blockade of Gaza and movement restrictions in the West Bank.
Also Monday, a senior Palestinian official said the Palestinians are still weighing details of their bid to seek U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in September.
The Palestinians have not decided whether to apply to the U.N. General Assembly or the Security Council first, according to a 25-page "work plan" obtained by The Associated Press on Monday. The paper, prepared by negotiator Saeb Erekat, lays out the options for gaining recognition of a state, noting that if the Security Council does not approve its membership, the fallback position would be obtaining non-member observer state status.
The paper notes that the Palestinian application to the General Assembly would have to be submitted by the end of this month. He suggested broad discussions with Arab nations and others over how to proceed.
Earlier Monday, Palestinian demonstrators and several foreign activists tore down part of an Israeli fence in the northern West Bank. Activists said some of the foreigners had flown into Israel over the weekend.
The demonstration took place near the Palestinian village of Izbet Attabeb. In the area, a barbed wire fence cuts through farmland along a main east-west road, villagers said. The fence keeps Palestinians from accessing the road from the village, they said, though it is open to Palestinians in other sectors.
About 10 of the foreign activists joined about 50 Palestinians in tugging at and tearing down parts of the fence, villagers said. The Israeli military said there was minor damage, and the protest ended without military intervention.
Some 600 foreign activists were to have arrived at Israel's main airport over the weekend, en route to what was billed as a weeklong peaceful solidarity campaign with the Palestinians.
Israel issued a blacklist of more than 300 names to airlines to stop those on it from boarding planes. Of hundreds of others who did arrive in Israel, about 130 were detained and questioned. Israel has deported all but 58 of the 130, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said. She said the rest would be flown out as soon as foreign airlines could take them.
Israel's president, meanwhile, thanked his visiting Greek counterpart Monday for Greece's role in stopping a flotilla of ships that was supposed to sail toward Gaza last week and challenge Israel's sea blockade.
Israeli President Shimon Peres told Greek President Karolos Papoulias, "Your contribution to lower tensions benefits the entire region as well as Gaza itself."
The visit reflects rapidly improving relations between Israel and Greece. Israel has called the flotilla a dangerous political provocation. Greece stepped in to prevent the boats from leaving its ports.