Is BDS’ campaign against Israel reaching a turning point?

The movement calling for the boycott, divestiture and sanction of Israel is gaining momentum globally.

Palestine solidarity
Leading academicians and artists, as well as some church groups, have headed BDS' call [AP]

At the height of its military – particularly nuclear – and economic power, Israel is feeling uncharacteristically vulnerable; but this time the threat is ironically coming from a nonviolent movement anchored in international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Last June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively declared the Palestinian-led global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “strategic threat” to Israel’s regime of occupation, colonisation and apartheid by deciding to assign the overall responsibility for fighting against the BDS to the ministry of strategic affairs.

This dramatic shift reflects the failure of Israel’s well-oiled “Brand Israel” campaign, run by the foreign ministry since BDS was launched in 2005, which sees culture as a propaganda tool and whose logic is to use Israeli artists and writers to show the world “Israel’s prettier face”.

The realisation by many people of conscience around the world that Israel’s impunity can be brought to an end only through popular internal resistance coupled with effective, morally-consistent and sustained international pressure and accountability, has given great impetus to BDS campaigns. Israel’s brutal and illegal blockade of Gaza; its untamed construction of illegal settlements and a separation wall in the occupied West Bank; its “strategy of Judaisation” in Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Jordan Valley and the Naqab (Negev), as a ranking UN official reports; its adoption of new racist laws; and its denial of the rights of refugees, have all alienated many of its hitherto supporters.

… A South Africa moment is being reached by the BDS movement.

BDS’ successes in the last couple of years may be the factor that has rattled the Israeli regime. The African National Congress’ endorsement of the movement in December 2012; support for BDS and the cancellation of events by world-renowned artists and music bands; the decision by the world’s leading scientist, Stephen Hawking, to respect the boycott and cancel his participation in a Hebrew University conference; and the recent spate of boycott resolutions by US academic associations, have all contributed to the analysis that a South Africa moment is being reached by the BDS movement.

But Israel’s standing in world public opinion has been eroding for quite some time now, due to two main factors: The moral power of the global BDS movement, including its crucial anti-colonial Israeli component, and Israel’s political shift to the far right. A 2013 BBC poll shows Israel competing with North Korea as the third or fourth worst-perceived country in the world in the opinion of large majorities in Europe and elsewhere.

What is BDS?

The BDS call was launched on July 9, 2005 by an alliance of more than 170 Palestinian parties, trade unions, refugee networks, NGOs and grassroots associations calling on international civil society organisations and people of conscience to “impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era”.

Specifically, BDS calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including dismantling the wall and colonies; an end to Israel’s system of racial discrimination against its Palestinian citizens; and the UN-sanctioned and inherent right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes of origin.

These three basic rights correspond to the three main components of the Palestinian people: those in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (38 percent of the Palestinian people, according to 2011 statistics), those in the 1948 territory who live under Israeli apartheid (12 percent), and those in exile (50 percent). More than two-thirds of Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced persons.

Soft power at work

Figures with the public profile and influence of Desmond Tutu, Roger Waters, Naomi Klein, Alice Walker, Judith Butler, John Berger, Ken Loach, Angela Davis, Arundhati Roy, Marcel Khalife and Aijaz Ahmed have reached the conclusion that, as in the struggle against South African apartheid, BDS is crucially needed to compel Israel to comply with its obligations under international law.

By appealing to people of conscience around the world to help end Israel’s three-tiered system of oppression, the BDS movement is not asking for anything heroic, but for fulfilling a profound moral obligation to desist from complicity in oppression. Given the billions of dollars lavished on Israel annually by Western states, particularly the US and Germany, and the lucrative military trade with Israel, taxpayers in those countries are in effect subsidising Israel’s violations of international law at a time when domestic social programmes are undergoing severe cuts, unemployment is rising, and the environment is being devastated. Ending complicity in Israeli crimes is not just good for the Palestinians, it is certainly good for the “99 percent” around the world struggling for social and economic justice and against perpetual war.

Building on its global ascendancy, the BDS movement – led by the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society, the BDS National Committee (BNC) – is spreading across the world, scoring significant victories.

Just a few days ago, the American Studies Association adopted the academic boycott of Israel with a stunning 2:1 support ratio in its general membership. In April, the Association for Asian-American Studies became the first academic body in the US to adopt the academic boycott of Israel. Around the same time, the Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students (FEF), representing 100,000 members, adopted the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and so did the Teachers Union of Ireland. In March 2011, the University of Johannesburg severed links with Ben Gurion University over human rights violations.

Student councils at several North American universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, adopted divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation.

Israel’s violent repression, ethnic cleansing and siege against the Palestinians is escalating, but the fact that the global BDS movement is winning the battle for hearts and minds across the world gives us hope that we shall overcome.

The list goes on and on 

Support for BDS came from major international trade union federations with millions of members in South Africa, Britain, Ireland, India, Brazil, Norway, Canada, Italy, France, Belgium, and Turkey, among others.

Veolia, a corporation complicit in Israel’s occupation, has lost or had to withdraw bids for contracts worth billions of dollars, mainly in Sweden, the UK, Ireland and now the US.

G4S, the largest security company in the world, is experiencing major symbolic defeats due to BDS activism in Norway, South Africa, the European Parliament, several British universities, and elsewhere as a result of its involvement in Israeli prisons, where Palestinian prisoners, including children, are tortured, and in several projects that violate international law. Admitting the damage BDS campaigns have done to its reputation, G4S is already promising to phase out its involvement in Israel’s violations of international law.

The British Co-op supermarket chain, the fifth largest in the UK, has adopted a policy of boycotting companies operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The United Methodist Church last year called for a boycott of products from Israel’s colonies, and so did the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Canada. The Mennonite Church USA went even further by deciding not to invest in any company involved in the Israeli occupation.

The Dutch government has publicly “discouraged” [Du] Dutch companies from doing business with Israeli entities in the OPT, leading the largest Dutch construction company, Royal Haskoning DHV, to withdraw from a sewage treatment project with Israeli municipality in occupied East Jerusalem. In the same context, the publicly-owned Dutch water company Vitens, has also terminated a contract with the Israeli national water company, Mekorot.

In the same vein, the British government has issued a guidance on business involvement with illegal Israeli settlements. These steps follow the publication of EU guidelines against funding Israeli projects and entities in Palestinian territories.

Deutsche Bahn, a German government-controlled rail company, pulled out of an Israeli project encroaching on occupied Palestinian land, and German foreign ministry officials informed Palestinian civil society representatives that they have advised all German academic institutions to avoid dealing with Ariel, an Israeli colony-college in the West Bank. 

Israel’s violent repression, ethnic cleansing and siege against the Palestinians is escalating, but the fact that the global BDS movement is winning the battle for hearts and minds across the world gives us hope that we shall overcome. We may well be reaching a tipping point.

Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian human rights activist and a founding member of the BDS movement. He is the author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights,” (Haymarket: 2011).