Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, marked one of the lowest points in its 60 years of repression towards the Palestinian people. The continuing occupation, along with the illegal separation wall, has destroyed any semblance of a Palestinian economy and today 70 per cent of Palestinians live in crushing poverty. More than half depend on food aid to survive.
A strategic response
The response of Palestinian civil society to this ongoing destruction is to call for an international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign similar to the one conducted against South Africa. Palestine activists now commonly refer to Israel as an ‘apartheid state’, deliberately invoking the former South African regime and the revulsion people felt towards it. Ronnie Kasrils, a prominent ANC member and Jewish South African, has even described the situation in Gaza and the West Bank as ‘infinitely worse than apartheid’.
As Naomi Klein has argued, ‘The relevance of the South African model is that it proves that BDS tactics can be effective when weaker measures (protests, petitions, back-room lobbying) have failed.’ She points out that a BDS campaign against a small, trade-dependent country like Israel could actually succeed.
Boycotts come in various forms. In the UK, the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign is running a boycott of consumer goods produced in Israel. There has been a focus on fresh produce grown in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Carmel Agrexco, the Israeli state-owned agricultural exporter, has been a target of direct action in the UK, while activists have lobbied supermarkets not to stock Israeli goods. Sporting, cultural and academic boycotts have also been initiated.
Since the assault on Gaza, the calls for boycotts have stepped up. Local councils such as Birmingham and Oxford have passed boycott motions and many of the university occupations over Gaza (see page 39) had BDS calls in their demands. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, with 600,000 members in 55 unions, is preparing a boycott of Israeli goods, and in February dockworkers in South Africa refused to unload a ship containing Israeli goods.
Divestment means targeting corporations that are complicit in the occupation and ensuring that university funds, pensions or other public money is not invested in such companies. War on Want has been running a divestment campaign since the launch of our report Profiting from the Occupation in 2006. The report exposed companies such as Caterpillar, whose special military bulldozers are used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes, and French multinational Veolia (known in the UK for running Connex South East Trains and for sanitation contracts with councils), which is building a tramline from Jerusalem to the ring of illegal settlements around it.
The Church of England, under pressure from campaigners, recently decided to divest £2.2 million from Caterpillar (although the church insists this was purely for financial reasons). A campaign in Sweden got Stockholm council to cancel its contract with Veolia earlier this year. Hampshire College in Massachusetts is now implementing a divestment policy and has highlighted over 200 companies that violate its socially responsible investment rules by funding Israel, including United Technologies, General Electric and Motorola.
The Stop Arming Israel campaign has been calling for the UK government to put in place an arms embargo on Israel since its attack on Lebanon in 2006. The government licenses arms exports to Israel worth between £10 million and £25 million a year, including components for tanks and combat aircraft deployed against civilians in Gaza.
UN special rapporteur Richard Falk has challenged the complicity of countries ‘knowingly providing the military equipment, including warplanes and missiles, used in these illegal attacks [on Gaza]’. By selling arms to Israel the UK is giving direct material support for Israel’s aggression and sending a clear message of approval for its actions. In January, the Liberal Democrats joined the call for an arms embargo. In February, the Palestinian human rights organisation Al Haq launched legal proceedings with Public Interest Lawyers in the UK to judicially review the sale of arms to Israel.
The European Union, Israel’s principal trading partner, currently allows Israel preferential trading options through the EU-Israel Association Agreement. Campaigners are pointing to breaches of UN resolutions on human rights to argue for its suspension. In March the Peace Cycle collective cycled from the International Courts of Justice in the Hague to the European Parliament in Brussels to present a petition to MEPs to suspend the agreement.
Gaza cannot be simply another chapter in the book of Palestinian tragedy since 1948. It must be a turning point when the world stands up and says enough is enough. A boycott, divestment and sanctions strategy can do just that. It is a peaceful and non-violent form of civil protest that can involve people at different levels across the world, opening up the possibility of a sustainable movement that might actually be able to bring about justice for the people of Palestine.
Yasmin Khan is the senior global justice campaigner at War on Want