Opinion
Christophe Karaba / EPA

The case for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel

The BDS movement’s success so far demonstrates that the tactic works

August 4, 2014 6:00AM ET

The massacre that is taking place right now in Gaza must be stopped. But when it ends, Palestinians cannot accept a return to mere normality. For decades, the status quo for them has been intolerable. What is the point of returning to another seven years of siege, to wait for the next massacre? Twenty years after the signing of the Oslo Accord between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government, Israel has only tightened its grip on the occupied territories. The result has been more settlements, more land confiscation and the normalization of an apartheid regime.

There is another way forward. In 2005, 170 Palestinian civil society organizations — including all the major unions, grass-roots networks and parties — put forward an alternative vision for achieving freedom and justice, based on reasserting the rights of the entirety of the Palestinian people. Recognizing the importance of uniting the Palestinian people, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement demands pressure on Israel not only until it ends its occupation but also until it implements equality for Palestinians in Israel and the right of refugees to return to their homes.

The BDS call asks for the solidarity of people around the world to bring real, direct pressure on Israel until it complies with all relevant international laws and to take action to end companies’ and governments’ complicity in Israel’s human rights violations. BDS draws on the example of the international struggle against apartheid in South Africa and on the history of Palestinian resistance, rooted in the local traditions of self-reliance, popular mutual support and anti-normalization.

What most people don’t realize is that with the support of trade unions, faith groups, nongovernmental organizations and grass-roots movements around the world, BDS campaigning is widespread and has achieved significant success in recent years. 

Big names

Big-name musical acts willing to perform in Israel are dwindling. Gill Scott Heron, Elvis Costello, Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Massive Attack and hundreds of other artists have chosen to support the cultural boycott of Israel by refusing to play shows there. World-renowned physicist Steven Hawking canceled a scheduled appearance at an Israeli government conference after appeals from Palestinian academics.

Israeli-based company SodaStream has lost nearly 50 percent of its share value in 10 months as investment experts warned that the international campaign against the soda machine manufacturer made it a risky investment. Retailers across Europe have reacted to pickets of their stores by Palestine solidarity groups by dropping products from Israeli settlements and in some cases cutting ties with Israeli exporters altogether.

Israeli leaders have described BDS as a strategic threat, passed a law that allows Israeli businesses to sue Israeli boycott advocates and hired staff in its ministries and embassies to counter the BDS movement.

British security contractor G4S indicated it will end its role in Israeli prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are held without trial and subjected to torture. International campaigning had made its support for Israeli apartheid too costly: Unions and public bodies across Europe canceled contracts, and mainstream investors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the largest mainline Protestant church in U.S. divested from the company in response to campaigning.

French multinational company Veolia this month announced that it is selling most aspects of its business in Israel after grass-roots campaigning in opposition to its provision of infrastructure services persuaded municipalities across Europe to boycott the company, costing it billions of euros. Veolia still helps operate the Jerusalem Light Rail, which links settlements to West Jerusalem, although continued pressure is likely to force the company to leave Israel altogether.

BDS is also being taken up as a key tactic of solidarity by people of faith, pushing major Western churches into action. In June the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA voted to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions because of their provision of equipment and services to Israel’s occupation. And student groups have persuaded student unions in the U.S. and Canada to endorse BDS, capturing the attention of national media in the process, and many European student unions and some universities have implemented boycotts of Israeli products and canceled contracts with the likes of G4S. 

‘Strategic threat’

This grass-roots effort is creating an environment in which major investors and institutions feel compelled to act. In the last 12 months, a groundswell of European investors, including Dutch pension giants PGGM and ABP; Danske Bank, Denmark’s biggest bank; Norwegian bank Nordea; and state pension funds in Norway and Luxembourg have all divested from Israeli military companies, banks or companies involved in settlement construction. Even the EU and its member states have taken measures to limit government and private-sector relations with Israeli settlements.

While each of these individual successes could be described as modest on their own, taken together, they represent a significant erosion of the international support upon which continued Israeli impunity depends. They could even become the springboard to a decisive international isolation of Israel, as the South African BDS movement was in the 1980s.

Only too aware of this fact, Israeli leaders have described BDS as a strategic threat, passed a law that allows Israeli businesses to sue Israeli boycott advocates and hired staff in its ministries and embassies to counter the BDS movement. Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid has warned that “The status quo will hit each of us in the pocket.” The White House has warned of the “potential for Israeli isolation.” The BDS movement is showing a potential for upsetting the existing balance of forces in a way that no other strategy has been able to do since Oslo.

As international solidarity gears up its campaigns, Palestinian diplomacy should align with the same strategic principles. After the failure of the Oslo peace process logic to deliver anything to Palestinians, resistance and anti-normalization must become again the touchstone of all interactions with Israel. Corporations profiting from Israel’s crimes, such as Veolia and G4S, must see their contracts annulled everywhere in the Middle East. In the absence of political solutions, the only force that can push things forward in Gaza is the power of people building grass-roots power.

The latest attacks on Gaza take place with the full complicity of Western governments, which for decades have refused to penalize Israel for its blatant disregard of international law. Even in full view of the slaughter, the only Western response is empty rhetoric. This underlines the urgent need to rethink Palestinian and pro-Palestinian strategies in a way that is more constructive than the repeat scenarios of the past few decades. Unlike the endless rounds of negotiations, BDS does not rely on the delusional belief in the goodwill of Western governments and the neutrality of international institutions. As Israel’s actions continue unabated, the task of building a capacity for pressure is more urgent than ever.

Rafeef Ziadah is a human rights activist with the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee and Senior Campaigns Officer at the British charity War on Want.

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

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