The modern Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was launched on 9 July 2005, one year after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the “Separation Wall” that Israel was building in the occupied Palestinian territories was illegal. At the time, more than 100 Palestinian trade unions, political groups and NGOs in Palestine and the diaspora issued a call for international partners to adopt a strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions as part of the struggle against Israeli apartheid. Today, the movement has evolved into a global force almost akin to that which brought down South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Historically, the current BDS movement can be viewed as an extension of previous boycott campaigns that go back to the 1880s and 1930s.
One of the pivotal events which paved the way for the launch of the BDS movement in 2005 was the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerances which was held in Durban, South Africa. Over 3,000 civil society organisations participated in the conference and condemned in the strongest possible terms Israel’s policies, which they declared to be a form of apartheid. Meanwhile, the Aqsa Intifada which started in 2000 was itself growing in intensity and attracting international support for the Palestinian people.
There was by then a growing sense of awareness of the situation in occupied Palestine and urgency for the broadest cooperation and solidarity. The response of grass-root civil society movements has since been the mainstay of the BDS movement. Global citizens have become acutely aware that they can no longer rely on deceitful governments and agencies, which often talk the talk but never walk the walk.
The BDS movement employs three strategies: boycott, sanctions and divestment. The boycott aspect targets products and companies that are complicit with the Israeli occupation. This is demonstrated by the refusal to buy products of the occupying power, Israel, or to interact with entities that engage with its apartheid structures.
The second strategy, divestment, entails the withdrawal of investments from firms, companies or banks operating in or profiting from the occupied territories.
The third prong, sanctions, is believed to be the most severe form of protest as it involves action by governments and may take the form of economic, military or diplomatic measures. It could involve the cancellation of preferential trade agreements, by the EU, for example, or the cancellation of military deals.
Since its launch, the BDS movement has successfully enforced boycotts of Israel in a number of areas ranging from academia to culture, sports and corporate and consumer business. The wave of support for an academic boycott has been as widespread as it is unstoppable. In South Africa, universities in major cities from Cape Town to Johannesburg and KwaZulu Natal have initiated boycott campaigns. In September 2010, more than 250 South African academics signed a petition urging the University of Johannesburg to cut ties with Israel’s Ben Gurion University. The petition was endorsed by veteran anti-apartheid campaigners like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Alan Boesak.
In the same year, the British-based University and College Union voted to sever ties with the Israeli Histadrut Trade Union. In 2011, more than 250 European academics from 14 countries signed a letter demanding the exclusion from EU-funded research programmes of Israeli companies implicit in the violation of international law in the occupied Palestinian territories.
More recently, in 2015, Britain’s National Union of Students (NUS) as well as its Black Students’ caucus voted to endorse the BDS campaign. In bringing this about, the student unions at Edinburgh University, University College London, University of Liverpool, University of Sussex and the University of East Anglia all contributed with their respective votes for BDS.
Across the Atlantic in America, student governments at the Universities of California, San Jose, Princeton, Ohio and Stanford all voted in favour of resolutions for divestment from corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation.
Perhaps one of the most important successes of the BDS movement has been witnessed with the boycott of multinational companies and corporate businesses with links to Israeli apartheid. Increasingly, semi-official and inter-governmental bodies are becoming involved. In Britain, the Tower Hamlets branch of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) was successful last year in persuading the local council of the need to exclude occupation-complicit companies such as the security conglomerate G4S and Veolia from council contracts.
Elsewhere, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Jordan also decided to drop G4S, following a campaign by the BDS movement in March 2016. Given the massive losses that it was suffering as a direct result of the BDS campaign, G4S announced that it was withdrawing from the Israeli market. This followed moves by the Jordan branches of UNHCR and UNICEF to distance themselves from G4S. Similarly, the Israeli cosmetic giant Ahava which has in recent years been targeted by the BDS campaign decided to relocate its manufacturing plant from the illegal settlement of Mitzpeh Shalem in the West Bank to inside the pre-1967 Armistice (“Green”) Line.
Not everyone has been prepared to limit a boycott to companies based in or benefiting from the settlements. In Iceland, the Reykjavik municipality passed a motion in September 2015 to approve the boycott of Israeli goods for “as long as the occupation of Palestinian territories continues.” The move was welcomed by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee in Europe. “We particularly welcome that the motion uses the word apartheid to describe Israel’s regime,” said campaigns officer Riya Hassan. “There’s a growing realisation that Israel’s system of oppression meets the definition of apartheid as set out in international law.”
A decade ago, Israeli officials dismissed the BDS movement and ruled out any possibility of its success; Israel, they claimed, was the “only democracy in the Middle East” and as such was entitled to the goodwill and support of people around the world. They were patently wrong. The impact of BDS has been so profound and far-reaching that Israel is now turning to western governments appealing to them to criminalise calls for BDS action. In October 2015, France’s highest court of appeal upheld the conviction of 12 Palestinian solidarity activists for calling for the boycott of Israeli goods. Indeed, just the wearing of a BDS t-shirt is now a criminal offence in France. As they have done in the past, the French authorities invoked legislation targeting anti-Semitism as a means to intimidate and deter Palestinian solidarity activists.
In Britain, the pro-Israel Conservative government has also unveiled plans to ban local councils, public bodies and even some university student unions from boycotting companies that operate in Israel’s illegal settlement colonies. A spokesman for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn described the government’s decision as an “attack on local democracy.”
Not surprisingly, attempts by pro-Israel groups to suppress the BDS movement in Britain have been met with strong opposition. In June this year, the High Court in London dismissed all claims made by Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW) against Leicester City Council, Swansea City Council and Gwynedd Council after the three local authorities had passed resolutions in support of the Palestinians. JHRW had alleged that the councils’ resolutions in support of a boycott of Israeli goods breached equality law duties, and disregarded the need to eliminate discrimination against, and the harassment of, Jews.
The presiding judge, Lord Justice Simon, said that the councils had done nothing unlawful. Lawyers acting on their behalf said that they were exercising their right to freedom of expression protected by both common law in England and Wales, and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Whereas some leading Western powers like Britain, France, Canada and the US have succumbed to Israeli pressure, smaller countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland have resisted all attempts to suppress the BDS movement. In March 2016, the Swedish foreign ministry reaffirmed basic democratic principles by stating that BDS “is a civil society movement” and that “governments should not interfere in civil society organisations’ views.”
On their part, the Dutch and Irish governments were equally resolute. In the Netherlands, Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders confirmed that Israeli officials regularly raise the topic of BDS in bilateral meetings with the Dutch government. However, the minister said that while the government itself does not support the boycott of Israel, “endorsing BDS falls under freedom of expression.” He pointed out that statements or meetings concerning BDS are protected by the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly as enshrined in the Dutch Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
There is no doubt that the issue of Europe’s historical guilt for the Holocaust has created an almost permanent climate of susceptibility to Israeli blackmail. Legitimate criticism of Israel is often framed by the latter as anti-Semitism, thus making governments wary of imposing any form of sanctions. The situation within civil society, though, is markedly different. In fact, attitudes towards Israel’s apartheid policies are hardening. In May this year, more than 300 human rights and aid organisations from church groups, trade unions and political parties from 19 countries across Europe urged the European Union (EU) to defend the right of individuals and institutions to take part in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
As it stands, there are few options left for Israel in its attempts to suppress the BDS movement. Thus, it will in the foreseeable future continue to exert diplomatic pressure on governments wherever and whenever possible. It has already embarked on a major charm offensive on the African continent where the historic memory of South Africa’s hated apartheid system runs especially deep.
Inevitably, Israel will use its soft power by promising the transfer of technical and scientific assistance to countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With its advanced arms industry, it will offer to fulfil the security needs of weak and vulnerable governments. Whether it is in areas of engineering, irrigation or computer sciences, there is no Muslim or Arab country apart from Turkey that has the capacity or shown the willingness to challenge Israel’s diplomatic foray into Africa. It is no wonder, therefore, that we now witness growing levels of governmental support for a special seat for Israel within the African Union.
In Asia, Israel is also accelerating its efforts to reverse the traditional support for Palestine, not least within the Non-Aligned Movement. India, a founding member of the organisation, is today a major scientific and military partner of Israel. There is virtually neither hope nor prospect for Indian sanctions against Israel.
With the recent privileged acquisition of its chairmanship of the UN’s legal committee, Israel now has an opportunity to deal once and for all with yet another long-standing concern; its so-called “delegitimisation” by pro-Palestine campaigners. The central pillar of this strategy is to delegitimise or discredit in turn those who dare to criticise its policies. Hence, from now on we can expect no shortage of debates on how to sanitise the occupation, redefine Zionism and make any and every criticism of Israel an act of “anti-Semitism”.
Although it has its own historical circumstances and peculiarities the Palestinian BDS movement has been inspired by its predecessor in South Africa, where the edifice of apartheid was brought down after years of global boycotts, divestment and sanctions. The movement succeeded in part because it managed to develop a coalition of committed governments and people who were able to affect both domestic and international policy in institutions like the UN. The BDS movement against Israeli apartheid will have to forge similar strong alliances and secure the support of governments in the global north and south.
After 15 years, the international BDS movement has proved to be a highly effective vehicle of support for the Palestinian cause. If the movement is to realise its full potential it must enjoy unreserved and unlimited political support from all the Palestinian forces. At present, there are many questions and doubts about whether the Palestinian Authority has embraced the BDS campaign wholeheartedly. The Palestinians, therefore, need to take the initiative. The PA’s insistence on pursuing an end to the occupation through peaceful means is not utilising its most successful tool, which is BDS.
President Mahmoud Abbas has been explicit in refusing calls for expanding this modest action to a full boycott of Israel in line with the BDS campaign. In 2103, he famously chose a trip to South Africa, of all places, during which he rejected BDS efforts in the country. “No, we do not support boycotts of Israel,” he said, “but we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements because the settlements are in our territories. It is illegal.” This caused outrage among Palestinians and their supporters despite a “clarification” issued later by the Palestinian Embassy in South Africa.
Today there are calls for BDS to go beyond the settlements to include Israel itself. An intermittent and sporadic boycott of settlements is no longer a viable strategy. Palestinians must increase their level of boycott, divestment and sanctions activities. In order for this to take place a clear decision must be taken to disentangle the Palestinian economy from Israel’s and its satellite settlements. For all its worth, though, this will remain elusive as long as the PA remains committed to the Oslo agreements signed with Israel.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Daud Abdullah for authoring this text. Dr. Abdullah is the director of the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) in London..
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 4/8/2016
1 . M. Qumsiyeh, Popular Resistance in Palestine (Pluto Press, London:2011), p.207
2 . S. Dadoo & F. Osman, Why Israel? (Porcupine Press, Johannesburg: 2013), p.485
3. B. White, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press, London:2014), pp.120-1
4 . Dadoo & Osman, op.cit.,p.494
5 . BDS Movement, “Iceland’s capital adopts Israeli goods boycott” 18 September, 2015, https://bdsmovement.net/2015/icelands-capital-adopts-israeli-goods-boycott-13284
6 . A. Abunimah, “Sweden denies Israeli claims that it opposes BDS”, The Electronic Intifada, 16 March, 2016
7 . Haaretz, “Dutch Foreign Minister: Calls to boycott Israel protected free speech by the constitution”, 27 May, 2016 http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/1.721888
8 . K. Hawwash, “It’s time that the Palestinian Authority embraced the BDS call”, Middle East Monitor, 19 February, 2016
9 . A. Abunimah, “In South Africa, Abbas opposes boycott of Israel”, The Electronic Intifada, 12 December 2013
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