There is no good reason why Israel should not be under sanctions

Sanctions are used to respond to violations of international law. Israel has violated it many times, so why is it not sanctioned yet?

Members of the South Africa Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, civil society groups and several trade unions hold an anti-Israel protest against the docking of an Israeli ship at Durban Harbour on May 21, 2021 [File: STR/AFP]

Last month a parliamentary petition was launched in the United Kingdom, calling for sanctions against the Israeli regime, blocking all trade, especially the export of arms. The petition received more than 386,000 signatures, forcing the UK parliament to debate the topic. The response from the British Government was clear: it stated it firmly opposed sanctions and boycotts against Israel, citing their “close relationship”.

In Ireland, the issue of sanctions against Israel was also brought up in an amendment to a motion condemning the “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land. While the amendment did not pass, the topic of sanctions was brought front and centre.

The momentum for both the petition and the amendment came from the sharp public reaction against the intensified violence the Israeli regime has been inflicting on Palestinians over the last few months, including the most recent Israeli regime bombardment of Gaza in which more than 256 Palestinians were killed including 66 children.

Yet, the call for sanctioning Israel has long been a focal point of the Palestinian struggle. Indeed, it is a core pillar of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement – launched in 2005 which calls on people to pressure governments into fulfilling their obligations under international law to end Israeli apartheid by imposing sanctions. These can include banning business with illegal Israeli settlements, ending free-trade agreements, curbing military trade, and suspending Israel’s membership in international forums such as United Nations agencies, sports federations, international cultural organisations, and others.

International sanctions were mandated in the League of Nations more than a century ago as a way to deter aggression and war. Since then, they have been enshrined under the international legal regime as an appropriate and effective way for third countries to punish those who violate international law.

For example, sanctions including an arms embargo were used against South Africa’s apartheid regime to help end its racist rule over the country. More recently, in 2014, the European Union adopted sanctions against Russia following its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

But sanctions have also been used as a form of collective punishment. For example, the United States imposed an embargo on all trade with Cuba in 1962, three years after the Cuban Revolution deposed a pro-US government. It has had a devastating effect on the Cuban economy and people as a whole.

Although sanctions continue to be misused, many still consider them a legitimate tool to counter violations of international law.

As Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, recently told the UN Security Council: “[Sanctions] are a key instrument at our disposal to counter breaches of international law, proliferation of weapons, staunch the flow of arms into war zones … to combat human rights abuses and target those individuals who seek to undermine peace processes … They are designed to bring about change in policy or activity.”

By Borrell’s logic, there is no reason why sanctions should not be imposed on the Israeli regime to hold it accountable for its many violations of international law. Yet the Israeli regime, which has been described as an apartheid one by human rights organisations and is currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes against the Palestinian people, has faced no such sanctions.

Indeed, it is rather remarkable that even though all Israeli governments to date have been violating Palestinian rights, Western countries which are otherwise quick to sanction those who breach international legal norms have not done so with Israel. Not only that, but the Israeli regime continues to enjoy full diplomatic and trade relations with most of the international community.

Israel continues to be part of media bodies like Eurovision and EU research projects such as Horizon 2020. It also enjoys lucrative arms deals and financial support. The US, Israel’s most generous supporter, has provided it with some $146bn in military and financial assistance to date. European countries have also supported Israel’s military, supplying some €777m ($927m) worth of arms to it between 2013 and 2017.

Clearly, the Israeli regime is not the pariah state it should be. Even the mere suggestion of sanctioning the Israeli regime evokes cries of exceptionalism and bias towards it. Yet sanctions, as outlined in international law, are a legitimate response to Israel’s continuous acts undermining international law. The failure to use them against the Israeli regime makes a mockery of the international legal order and human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.