Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Hekmat told me yesterday that there would be some sort of workshop going on in the Friends International Centre today. It turned out that a 23-member delegation of Interfaith Peace-Builders from the USA were coming to listen to three speakers. The first of the three speakers, Omar Barghouti, put across a very persuasive case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a response to Israel’s continuing oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories and within Israel.

Omar Barghouti, author of “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: The global struggle for Palestinian rights”, told us that the call for BDS was issued in 2005 by a broad coalition of Palestinian organisations. Palestinians are calling for respect for their basic human rights and the application of international law. They have three demands: end the occupation of the Palestinian territories; respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland; end discrimination against Palestinians living in Israel. The Civil Rights movement in the US called for racial equality. Why should Palestinians in Israel be denied equality?

Of the 11.6 million Palestinians worldwide, 38% live in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem), 12% live in Israel, and 50% live in exile or in the diaspora. 69% of Palestinians are refugees, displaced in 1948 and/or 1967.

Omar several times compared the situation in Palestine/Israel with South Africa under apartheid. Gaza has been separated from the West Bank, with movement between the two becoming increasingly restricted since 1991. The West Bank has been dissected by settlements and connecting roads into about half-a-dozen “Bantustans”. Each “Bantustan” can be isolated by the closure of a few checkpoints on the roads into and out of the area.

Israelis have been called upon to join the BDS movement. A significant number must have done so, because in July 2011 the Israeli government thought it necessary to introduce an anti-boycott law which was passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. This law forbids the participation of Israeli citizens in any boycott.

The main thrust of the boycott is cultural and economic. A significant number of musicians and artists have cancelled visits to Israel. This has stimulated a debate within the country. Some Israeli academics and writers are boycotting Ariel University, because it lies within a settlement. The Knesset’s subcommittee on culture and sport has met several times to discuss the issue, because of the damage that a boycott could do to Israel’s image.

The Israeli government is especially alarmed by the involvement in BDS of Jews in the USA, e.g. on university campuses. Israel depends on the support of the US administration, but, unlike South Africa, Israel does not play an essential role in the global economy.

An academic boycott was launched in 2004. Omar stressed that the boycott applies to institutions, such as Ariel University, and not to individuals. (A later speaker complained that there have been cases of individual academics being boycotted.)

Although the focus has been on academic and cultural boycotts initially, economic boycotts are becoming increasingly significant. Veolia, which provides various services to the illegal Israeli settlements, has lost local government contracts in the UK and, just last week, in St. Louis in the USA. A broad coalition which involved labour organisations and environmentalists as well as the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee campaigned successfully to stop Veolia being awarded a contract which would have resulted in the company taking over the city’s water department.

The UK-based security company G4S runs Israeli jails where Palestinians are incarcerated in administrative detention. The universities of Oslo and Bergen have decided against awarding contracts to G4S. In the case of the University of Bergen, G4S had submitted the lowest bid for the contract, but the University calculated the cost of the damage to the University’s reputation, if they were to award the contract to G4S. Taking this into account, another bid became more competitive.

A major investment broker has stated recently that companies which are targeted by the BDS campaign should disclose this, because it exposes them to a financial risk.

Omar stressed that economic boycotts need to be targeted according to three criteria: involvement of the possible target company in maintaining the occupation of the Palestinian territories; the potential for building a broad coalition in support of a boycott, as in St. Louis; a reasonable chance of success.

Omar also stressed that BDS focusses on Israel’s violations of human rights and works for freedom, justice, and equality. It is essential to distinguish between opposition to the policies and actions of the state of Israel and opposition to Jews which would constitute anti-Semitism. The BDS campaign opposes anti-Semitism.

Palestinians are saying, “Stop helping our oppressor!” BDS is a way of withdrawing support from the illegal policies and activities of the state of Israel: occupation, colonialism, and apartheid.

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