Boycotting Israel: BDS movement reaches tipping point

Alia Soliman , Saturday 16 Aug 2014

With the reality of life for Palestinians broadcast to a global audience, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is hoping to build on the momentum to gain broader support

Anti-Israel Protest
This undated file photo shows a man in a protest calling for the boycott of Israel (Photo: AP)

As Palestinians and Israelis struggle to agree on a ceasefire in Cairo, international horror at Israel's savage military assault on the civilians of Gaza is growing.

With the reality of life for Palestinians broadcast to a global audience, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is hoping to build on the momentum to gain broader support.

BDS supporters believe that the key to ending Israel's aggression against Palestine is through boycotting Israel, to pressure the state into complying with all relevant international laws.

The movement, which draws on the example of the international struggle against apartheid in South Africa, has grown more than ever since the Israeli assault on Gaza, pressuring large corporations to end their complicity with Israel’s crimes and leading academic groups and big names such as Hollywood stars to endorse the movement.

How does BDS affect Israel?

The BDS campaign has persuaded many to boycott products and companies that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, and to boycott academic and cultural institutions that directly contribute to maintaining, defending or whitewashing the oppression of Palestinians.

Zahira Sarwar, a Canadian political activist, argues that the consumer boycott campaign within the BDS movement has had the greatest effect on Israel because it is becoming easier for the public to identify products that are made in Israel or companies that directly fund settlements in Israel through activist campaigns and smartphone apps such as “Buycott”, which allow them to make more informed consumer decisions.

Ahram Online spoke to Omar El-Barghouti, Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, who said that Israel is deceptive about all its losses due to Palestinian resistance, in all its forms, and international solidarity with Palestinian rights.

“Israel’s regime of oppression is particularly alarmed at the prospects of BDS because it involves interrelated forms of boycott that feed each other—academic, cultural, military and economic,” El-Barghouti says.

“In the last few months alone, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, one of the most important Protestant churches there, divested from three US companies involved in the Israeli occupation—Caterpillar, HP and Motorola Solutions,” El-Barghouti said.

There are signs that the efforts of the BDS movement are being felt in Israel.

In March 2014, Israel's Maariv newspaper reported that BDS has already caused 100 million shekels in financial losses to the Israeli economy in 2014.

The movement also impacts individual companies and corporations.

Veolia, a corporation complicit in Israel’s occupation, has lost or had to withdraw bids for contracts worth more than $20 billion, mainly in Sweden, the UK, Ireland and now the US.

Group4Security (G4S), a private British-Danish conglomerate that operates in 125 countries, is the largest private security service provider in the world, has also been subject to BDS targeting.

The company has been experiencing major symbolic defeats, according to BDS activists, as a result of its Israeli subsidiary’s involvement in Israeli prisons where Palestinian prisoners, including children, are tortured.

“Companies profiting from the Israeli occupation and human rights violations, like Veolia and G4S, have lost huge contracts as a result, making the impact of BDS not just moral or symbolic, but financial as well,” Barghouti says.

Adri Nieuwhof, a human rights advocate and contributor to the Electronic Intifada, agrees that the financial boycott is having an effect but tells Ahram Online that a military embargo is also necessary, especially after the assault on Palestine.

“A military embargo against Israel is urgent given the extreme violence that the country is using against the Palestinians,” Nieuwhof says.

By exporting arms to Israel and facilitating the development of Israeli military technology, foreign governments are effectively sending a clear message of approval for Israel’s military aggression, including its war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

According to the BDS website, Israel is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of militarised drones. Israel’s military technology, developed to maintain decades of oppression, is marketed as “field tested” and exported across the world.

BDS draws big names to its cause

BDS counts many well-known figures among its supporters. According to its BDS website, six Nobel peace laureates have signed a BDS letter calling for a military embargo, and other signatories include Noam Chomsky, Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, playwright Caryl Churchill, and US rapper Boots Riley.

El-Barghouti says that major filmmakers, writers, music bands and artists such as Hollywood star Danny Glover have endorsed BDS or at least heeded the boycott call and refused to participate in Israeli cultural events.

 “The big win is in my view that BDS activism has succeeded to shift the debate and to undermine the Israeli propaganda because people have learned more about the reality,” Nieuwhof asserts.

The academic and cultural boycott hurts Israeli society in particular because it "touches a nerve," she added.

The growing number of well-known figures speaking out suggests that mainstream opinion on Israel in the West may be shifting. Most recently, Oscar-winning stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem and Oscar-winning filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, publicly denounced Israel's incursion into Gaza in strong language.

Grammy-award winning musician John Legend also criticised Israel publicly, tweeting: “So sick watching our Secretary of State have to grovel so hard to tell Israel how much he loves them while Israeli cabinet shits on him."

The stars were all strongly criticised by supporters of Israel, but their public statements show that the recent violence in Gaza may be helping to bring global attention to the Palestinian cause.

What can the BDS do to combat the assault on Gaza?

The assault on Gaza, which started on 8 July and is now paused under a temporary ceasefire, led to the death of at least 1,900 Palestinians, and the injury of more than 10,000 others. A total of 64 soldiers and three civilians were also killed on the Israeli side.

The violence has brought the Palestinian situation to the attention of the world, and solidarity protests and demonstrations have erupted around the globe.

Sarwar says that the role of the BDS movement in the ongoing assault on Gaza is incredibly significant for two reasons; one is the tremendous effect on the Israeli economy, which could ultimately weaken the state and provide fewer funds for military violence.

“Secondly, the BDS movement also demonstrates one's political stance on the conflict in general. They recognise the level of injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people and do not support Israel's policies towards Palestinians,” Sarwar asserts.

Snehal Shingavi, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin, says that the BDS movement has to use this moment to expand and grow, to reach out to more organisations, unions, groups and convince greater numbers of people to become involved in the campaign for Palestinian freedom.

“Part of that means building the largest protests that we can as long as the bombings continue, but it will also mean much more educational work to bring newer activists into the fold,” he told Ahram Online.

Tom Pedroni, an associate professor of curriculum studies and political sociology at Wayne State University argues that the BDS movement is valuable for Americans because it allows them to take some personal responsibility for the tremendous sums of money that are given in their name by the US government to underwrite Israeli massacres such as the current one in Gaza.

Over the period 2009-2019 the US is set to provide military aid to Israel worth $30 billion. In recent years, European countries have exported billions of euros worth of weapons to Israel, and the EU has furnished Israeli military companies and universities with military-related research grants worth hundreds of millions, according to the BDS website.

“We need to also petition our elected representatives to end US government support for these murders, but BDS augments that effort in a way that allows us to engage in direct personal action to defend human rights and the movement for justice for Palestinians," Pedroni said.

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