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BDS takes Arab and Western worlds by storm

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been scoring new successes lately, on and off campus

Nadeen Shaker , Sunday 28 Apr 2013
A Belgian demonstrator displays a sign reading "Boycott Israel, racist state" (Photo: Reuters)

Scoring one victory after another since 2005, the global campaign of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement continues to play a vital role in exposing Israeli human rights abuses and campaigning for the rights of Palestinians.

Rising up from the grassroots, the BDS movement is led by the largest coalition of Palestinian rights and civil society groups worldwide.

Often compared with South Africa’s campaign against apartheid, the movement appeals to “people of conscience” to call for an end to Israel’s multi-tiered system of “ethnic cleansing, colonisation, racial discrimination, and military occupation,” the BDS website states. Supporters of BDS worldwide have persuaded millions to join their boycott of Israel academically, culturally, and economically, causing companies to lose some of their biggest contracts and for some countries to impose sanctions.

In recent weeks, the BDS movement has moved to challenge Israel once again, pressuring large corporations to end their complicity with its crimes and leading academic groups and institutions to endorse the movement.

G4S and Israeli prisons

A flare-up of protest broke out worldwide over a multinational security firm’s complicity in human rights abuses in Israeli settlements, prisons and checkpoints.

Group4Security (G4S), a private British-Danish conglomerate that operates in 125 countries, is the largest private security service provider in the world. It operates in Israel through its largest subsidiary, G4S Israel or Hashmira.

In July 2007, G4S signed a contract with the Israel Prisoner Authority (IPA) to equip and provide security systems to its major facilities, including the Ofer facility in the occupied West Bank, and others such as Ketziot, Megiddo and Damon prisons as well as for the Kishon (“Jalameh”) and Jerusalem (“Russian Compound”) detention and interrogation centres.

G4S services these facilities through providing security equipment such as touch-screen control rooms, CCTV camera monitoring and recording equipment, and fiber-optic communication lines. G4S also lends its services to businesses, shops, and supermarkets in illegal Israeli settlements — also assisting with security equipment at checkpoints.

The company is held complicit for doing business with these sites where torture and unlawful detentions are rampant.

According to a Who Profits report, G4S has the Ofer Prison fitted with a central control room from which the entire prison is monitored. It also installed a defence system on its walls.

The prison is notoriously known for its human rights abuse record, where prisoner and hunger striker Samer Issawi conducted a hunger strike for over 210 days.

In February this year, Arafat Jaradat died after several days of interrogation at Megiddo Prison. Autopsy reports showed that he was tortured to death. Jaradat was first arrested on suspicion of stone-throwing.

These prisons are primarily in contravention of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, for transferring Palestinian prisoners and holding them on Israeli territory. There are up to 4,600 Palestinians held in prisons in Israel.

What also implicates G4S is its involvement in the detention, brutal interrogation and torture of Palestinian children in these centres. In testimony provided to Ahram Online by Defence for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI-Palestine), a teenage boy from Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, whose identity remains confidential, was held at Meggido Prison after spending three days with a broken nose and right thumb and enduring brutal interrogations that included an attack using dogs.

In another incident, Muhannad Alami, 14, spent over six months in Ofer Prison in 2012.

DCI-Palestine lawyers represent Palestinian children in such cases. According to the organisation, as of 21 March, there are 238 Palestinian children under 18 in Israeli custody. Among these, 39 range between the ages of 12 and 15.

Arab responses to G4S

A number of rights organisations in Egypt, Jordon, Lebanon and Palestine issued a statement 16 April, calling on Arab governments to divest from G4S, and for the European Union (EU) to discontinue using G4S facilities and renewing contracts with the company. The EU already lost a lucrative contract with the company after a group of 28 members of the European Parliament lobbied intensely against it last year.

Suzan Zarour, programmes manager for the Centre for the Defence of Liberties and Civil Rights, "Hurryyat,” told Ahram Online that the centre signed the statement as member of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations Network (PNGO), because it “supports any activity that contributes to reducing torture that the Israeli government practices against humans, and the violations of human rights that the whole world is witnessing and is speechless about.”

In Jordon, the Daem Observatory for Consultation and Training endorsed the statement where the “ongoing plight of Palestinians is a destabilisation factor for Jordan,” according to Linda Al-Kalash, founder and director of Tamkeen, one of its programmes.

A group of active civil society organisations in Egypt and Lebanon also signed the statement.

With the company’s complicity with gross violations out in the public eye, it has thought of an exit strategy. The Financial Times reported that the company will end contracts covering Ofer Prison, barrier checkpoints and West Bank police headquarters when they terminate in 2015.

“This is not new information and we've seen companies before use this tactic to push back criticism, and not to comply with our demands,” Al-Kalash said.

In March 2011, the company made a public announcement stating it would pull out of its controversial operations.

But Al-Kalash holds out little hope that the company will bow to international pressure. She says: “They announced withdrawing only from the [occupied Palestinian territories] whereas Israeli crimes, racial segregation and G4S complicity extends to detention centres outside those territories.”

The BDS movement, however, has hailed the company’s announcement as a victory.

New faces in the academic boycott

The academic boycott of Israel — arguably the most difficult forms of boycott to implement — has been gaining momentum in student councils around the world, as well as in a diverse number of academic institutions.

Sydney University’s student council passed a motion a few weeks ago calling for a comprehensive academic boycott of Israel, including Israel’s Technion University, which is involved in manufacturing remotely piloted aerial vehicles and the building of the illegal separation wall in the West Bank.

According to Omar Barghouti, Palestinian human rights activist and founding member of the BDS movement, adopting BDS resolutions outside the UK, South Africa, and North America makes the university’s statement unprecedented.

“We have had a spate of BDS motions passed recently by student councils at major US universities, such as the University of California campuses in Irvine, San Diego and Berkeley. All of them called, in one form or another, for divestment from companies supporting Israel's occupation and violations of international law,” Barghouti said. “For a student council to adopt an academic boycott of Israel, however, is unprecedented in the West. In that sense, the University of Sydney's motion breaks new ground.”

In another unprecedented move, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) in Seattle announced its boycott of all Israeli academic institutions, becoming the first professional academic association outside the Arab and Muslim worlds and in the US to do so.

The association trumpeted rights to academic freedom and free speech in its statement, two values that were severely threatened recently in Brooklyn College.

Barghouti was directly involved in the incident, which he recounted to Ahram Online. Students for Justice in Palestine at Brooklyn College, in coordination with the Political Science Department, had organised a BDS discussion where US philosopher Judith Butler and Barghouti were scheduled to speak.

Barghouti believes that Israeli academic institutions promote a "false image of democracy," and that boycotting them is a very effective way of holding them accountable.

Israeli and other lobby groups in New York tried to scuttle the event, lobbying officials and Congress members to threaten to withdraw funding from the college should it go ahead with the event.

“This overt attempt to suppress free speech went beyond most previous displays of the Israel lobby's new McCarthyism,” Barghouti said. ”All the Zionist attacks on the BDS event led to a media frenzy and helped to raise awareness about BDS more than a thousand demonstrations, despite the expected censorship in the media of Palestinian voices in this controversy.”

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