Boycott apartheid Israel: national campaign launched

More than 150 Palestine solidarity activists and supporters of human rights from around Australia gathered in Melbourne October 29-31 for Australia’s first national boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) conference in support of Palestine.

The conference represented a watershed moment in Australian Palestine solidarity work. It was organised in support of the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for the boycott of Israel. The 2005 call, issued by 171 Palestinian civil society organisations, appealed for a comprehensive boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against apartheid Israel as a focal point of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid, the Palestinian-initiated BDS campaign is conducted in the framework of international solidarity and resistance to injustice and oppression and calls for non-violent punitive measures to be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognise the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law. The BDS campaign calls for an end to the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and the dismantling of the apartheid wall; equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and upholding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

International law

In August, Julia Terreu, one of the organisers of the Australian BDS conference, told Direct Action that the conference is an important initiative because Israel flagrantly flouts international law. “Israel continues to carry out its siege and occupation of Gaza and illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and more recently we saw the illegal attack on the humanitarian flotilla on its way to Gaza and the murder of nine human rights activists by Israeli commandos.” Terreu went on to say: “As the BDS campaign continues to grow in leaps and bounds internationally, it is time for supporters of human rights and justice in Australia to come together and develop a national campaign in support of BDS and the Palestinian people”.

International guest speaker Rafeef Ziadah, speaking on behalf of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, told delegates at the October 29 launch of the conference: “Australian activists were key in shutting down South African apartheid. It is time to make history again by shutting down Israeli apartheid, and this weekend we are going to start doing that together.”

Speaking with Direct Action, Rafeef Ziadah, who is also a member of the steering committee of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said the conference was “an important step in coordinating a national BDS campaign across Australia to put pressure on Israel to simply abide by international law”.

Also speaking at the launch of the conference, which was chaired by well-known Australian media personality and political commentator Bryan Dawe, were Palestinian academic and radio presenter Yousef Alreemawi, Jerusalem-based Israeli activist Ofer Neiman from “BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS call from within” and the secretary of Unions ACT in Canberra, Kim Sattler.

On October 30, visiting American Jewish activist and author Anna Baltzer also addressed the conference. Baltzer, a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine and author of A Witness in Palestine, spoke on BDS and the popular struggle in Palestine. Baltzer was joined by Alex Whisson from Australians for Palestine, who discussed the history of BDS and civil disobedience. In the session on “Struggle and Solidarity”, Rafeef Ziadah was joined by Palestinian-Australian poet and writer Samah Sabawi and the secretary of the Victorian Maritime Union of Australia and president of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Kevin Bracken, to discuss the international solidarity campaign.

Sabawi noted: “Israeli propagandists attacking the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement often claim that pro-Palestinian activists hide behind words like international humanitarian law to promote a hidden agenda aimed at demonising and delegitimising Israel ... But there is no hidden agenda. We are explicit and clear in what we say and what we call for. We don’t hide behind international humanitarian law; we stand by it. This is precisely why Israeli propagandists have good reason to worry. Israel knows that its fight to legitimise its behaviour cannot be won for as long as the BDS movement continues to expose its violations.” Sabawi also noted that Israel in its effort to “exonerate itself of accountability” was seeking to “redefine the rules of international humanitarian law and undermine international bodies and institutions”. She noted: “If Israel succeeds, Palestinians will not be the only ones to suffer. The implications of legitimising Israel’s behaviour will have far-reaching effects on all citizens of this globe.”

Union solidarity

In the same session, Kevin Bracken discussed the importance of worker and union solidarity with the Palestinian people. In the last year the BDS campaign has begun to draw support from a number of Australian trade unions and labour councils. One of the aims of the conference was to extend that support among trade unions, as well as the wider Australian community. The conference was successful in bringing together members of more than 20 different unions across Australia. In addition, five Australian trade unions sent official delegations to the conference to participate in the discussion around the practical implementation of the BDS campaign and resolutions.

On the final day of the conference, long-time unionists Kevin Davis and Ginny Adams discussed apartheid in relation to international law, how it applied to South Africa and in what ways could it apply to Israel, while Sabawi and Kim Bullimore from the International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine, tackled the issue of countering Israeli efforts to delegitimise the BDS campaign.

The final session of the conference unanimously adopted a calendar of BDS actions and activities to be carried out nationally over the next 12 months. Conference organisers urged all attendees “to build on the momentum of the conference and work together to build the strongest possible grassroots campaign to hold Israel accountable for its actions”.

One of the conference highlights was the “Concert for Palestine”, which formally launched Australian Artists Against Apartheid. Performers at the concert included Fear of A Brown Planet, the Conch, the Phil Monsour Band, Jafra and Rafeef Ziadah. Phil Monsour, one of the organisers of the conference and concert, told Direct Action in September: “The nature of the apartheid system in Israel is slowly seeping into the consciousness of people outside the Middle East and will hopefully lead to artists of conscience not only supporting the boycott but also using music to help expose the nature of the apartheid system in Israel to a mass audience”.

With the conclusion of the conference, participants have begun plans for a range of BDS actions and activities around the theme “Don’t buy Israeli apartheid for Christmas”.

To find out more about the Australian BDS campaign visit the Australian Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign for Palestine website or email ausbds@gmail.com

[Kim Bullimore is the convener of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Melbourne and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Australia. She is one of the organisers of the Australian BDS Conference. Sahal Al-Ruwaili is a Palestine solidarity activist with Action for Palestine in Adelaide.]