Israel – Boycotting from Within
Since its launch in 2005 following a call by the broadest-ever assembled coalition of Palestinian civil society groups, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has made progress in leaps and bounds.
Michael Pooler speaks to campaigners from Israel and Palestine who are building the movement from within.
Hind Awwad is co-ordinator of the Palestinian Boycott National Council (BNC).
Awwad says BDS has brought about a change in the nature of global civil society action on Palestine: “BDS has proven to be the most effective way of solidarity with the Palestinian people, as it has shifted traditional, mostly symbolic solidarity work to concrete and effective campaigns to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law”.
Its impact has been felt primarily in the domain of boycotts – covering consumer, academic and cultural areas.
For Awwad this success rests on the autonomy that the BDS guidelines grant activists around the world in running their own campaigns.
While strictly defining the criteria on which companies can be targeted for boycott, the call-out leaves the method and form of campaigning to be decided by local groups.
Working in solidarity with the BNC is Boycott from Within, a group of Israelis opposed to the occupation. Campaigner Ronnie Barkan gives his analysis: “Israel is an ethnocracy: it is a system designed to serve the interests of one ethnic group – Jews.
The Zionist Left insists on only discussing the occupation of ‘67 while refusing to deal with the inherent racist character of the state, which is responsible for the denial of the rights of Palestinian refugees.
Unlike the Zionist Left, who call only for a boycott of goods from the settlements and essentially support the occupation, we support a full boycott led by Palestinians. We say there is a picket line and you must choose which side you are on.”
In the face of Israel’s overwhelming military might and the complicity of Western governments, the volunteer-led campaign has been sustained by a series of victories.
Most notably is that over Veolia, the French engineering company that runs the Jerusalem Light Railway – constructed on occupied land and opened in 2008. Exposed for their part in the occupation they subsequently suffered through BDS targeting, with their share value plummeting by 50 per cent since March 2011.
“Veolia have lost out on around £10bn of contracts and they have finally declared that they will withdraw from the railway,” says Barkan. “Companies are now making reference to human rights – although we know it is largely lip-service”.
In his eyes the cancellation of concerts by famous artists, including the Pixies, and the late Gil Scott-Heron, “Is more effective as it touches on the aspect of the country’s symbolic legitimacy”.
Yet there have also been economic repercussions due to divestment, as Awwad recounts: “The Norwegian government’s pension fund, one of the largest in the world, divested $6m worth of shares that it held in Elbit Systems [an Israeli defence electronics manufacturer]’.
The objective of the campaign is to use the tools of boycott while pushing for internationally imposed sanctions until Israel respects and implements full rights for Palestinians – a set of demands that includes ending the occupation of pre-1967 lands, granting full equality to Arabs and the right of return of all refugees.
“What distinguishes BDS is its rights-based approach,” says Awwad, “The BDS movement addresses the injustice done to all Palestinians: those in the occupied territory, inside Israel, and the majority of the Palestinian people who are in the diaspora”.
Not all in favour
Inevitably, however, there are critics.
Ronnie Barkan responds to accusations that BDS conceals anti-Semitism: “The campaign is based on the values of zero tolerance to racism. BDS does not target individuals but the criminal activities of institutions and representatives.”
Awwad replies similarly to the charge that BDS aims to ‘destroy’ Israel: “South Africa survived the end of apartheid, only now it’s no longer segregated. The aims of the BDS movement are to end Israel’s military occupation, colonisation, and apartheid. If some believe that this will mean the end of Israel, then what does that say about it?”
Another indicator of the impact of BDS is a draconian law recently passed by the Knesset that makes the promotion of BDS a civil wrong, with the liable party subject to pay compensation – even if economic harm is not proven.
Awwad believes that the next stage for the campaign is promoting a military embargo on Israel on the basis of its human rights violations.
Until then, she says:“It is important to connect struggles and build alliances. The struggle for Palestinian rights can only seen as a part of the global struggle for equality and human rights for all.”