Growing campaign for boycott of Israel

By Kim Bullimore
Ramallah, occupied Palestine

In April, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers became the latest union internationally to support Palestinians’ call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The resolution passed by the CUPW, which represents 50,000 workers, states that the union will seek to work “with Palestinian solidarity and human rights organisations to develop an educational campaign about the apartheid nature of the Israeli state and the political and economic support of Canada for these practices”. The union would “call on other Canadian unions to join us in lobbying against the apartheid-like practices of the Israeli state and call for immediate dismantling” of the Zionist apartheid wall.

Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian political analyst and one of the founders of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), pointed out that the CUPW was “the first union in North America to execute a boycott against South African apartheid ... They stopped processing mail to and from South Africa.”

100 years of resistance

Asked about the genesis of the Palestinian BDS campaign, Barghouti told Direct Action that it builds on and is inspired by more than 100 years of Palestinian resistance to “the Zionist conquest”. While the idea for a sustained and institutionalised boycott campaign was first raised in 2001 at the UN conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, it wasn’t until 2002 that the first appeals were issued “with the reinvasion of Palestinian cities and the massacre at the Jenin refugee camp, which prompted Palestinian intellectuals and academics to seriously discuss boycott and, eventually, to issue personal appeals, ad hoc appeals calling for boycott”.

In April 2004, PACBI issued the first institutional call for BDS. “The appeal became internationally famous because AUT, the Association of University Teachers in Britain, picked it up and decided soon after to adopt the boycott against two Israeli universities and distribute the PACBI appeal to all AUT chapters in Britain”, he told DA. Barghouti noted that the AUT came under considerable pressure and, 34 days later, the decision was reversed. However, other trade unions began to adopt the PACBI call.

A year later, on July 9, 2005, the first anniversary of the International Court of Justice ruling that Israel’s construction of the wall and its settler-colonies were illegal, a united Palestinian call for boycott, sanctions and divestment was issued with the support of more than 170 major Palestinian unions and other organisations. According to Barghouti, this was “the first appeal in modern Palestinian history to win the support of the three main Palestinian communities — Palestinians under occupation, Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinian exile or refugee community — as well as the support of every major political party in Palestine”.

In June 2006, the 18,000-member Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the 7-mllion-member Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (United Centre of Workers) in Brazil came out in support of BDS. Shortly after, the Irish Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, which represents some 200,000 workers, called for sanctions against Israel, while the sacked Merseyside dockworkers in the UK issued a statement calling on trade unions to support the campaign. By the end of 2006, both the Norwegian Electrician and IT Workers Union, with 37,000 members, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, representing 1.8 million workers, had also come out strongly in support of BDS against Israel.

In 2007, the UK National Union of Journalists voted to support the campaign; however, under Zionist pressure, its national executive council rescinded the decision. But this did not stop the newly formed 37,000-member University and College Union at its inaugural conference in May 2007 from voting to support BDS. Barghouti notes that the UCU resolution “doesn’t use the word boycott, but is a very pro-boycott decision that was restated and confirmed in the UCU’s 2008 congress”. Soon after, in June 2007, Unison, then the largest union in Britain with 1.3 million members, voted to boycott Israeli goods and sporting contacts. In July, the British Transport and General Workers Union and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions also came out in support of BDS.

Trade unions aren’t the only supporters of the BDS campaign. In 2006, the Church of England General Synod voted to divest its shares in Caterpillar, the company that supplies the Israeli military with armoured bulldozers used to raze Palestinian houses. In February 2007, the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church decided to advise its congregations of more than 8 million members to divest their holdings from a variety of US corporations that support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Official efforts failed

According to Barghouti, the BDS campaign began because “the international official efforts of bringing peace with any measure of justice to Palestine had miserably failed. The occupation has been entrenched, colonies have grown, Israeli oppression of Palestinian citizens has grown, institutional racism within Israel continues unabated, and the denial of refugee rights is even intensifying ... in blatant defiance of international law.

“Israel has been acting with total disregard to international law and with unprecedented impunity in the last few years. That called upon Palestinian civil society to issue an appeal to international civil society to act, since governments are hopeless. That was the main motive, that the three forms of injustice had intensified not just continued — the denial of refugee rights, the occupation and colonisation in the ’67 territories and the system of racial discrimination within Israel proper. They were the motivation for the BDS campaign.”

Barghouti noted that Israel is very worried about the success of the campaign. “Compared with the South African anti-apartheid campaign, we are going much faster, achieving far larger and far more significant victories in a much shorter time.” The African National Congress issued its boycott call in the 1950s but the world did not start to react until the 1970s and ’80s. By contrast, only three or four years after the Palestinian BDS call, “we are seeing an enormous reaction around the world ... Israeli apartheid and boycott have been put solidly on the agenda”.


Despite the success of the campaign, not all supporters of the Palestinian struggle have supported it. According to critics, the BDS campaign won’t aid the Palestinian struggle because it will alienate individual Israelis and isolate supporters of the Palestinian struggle within Israel. In response to these arguments, Barghouti was very blunt.

“Palestine solidarity groups, in particular, who now, after four years, say that we are not sure how useful BDS is, or equivocate about BDS, do not deserve the name. I am very clear about this: do not deserve the name, ‘Palestine solidarity group’.” He added: “When Palestinian civil society, with all its forces, unites behind the BDS call and any group claiming solidarity with Palestinians refuses to heed this call, even in any context-sensitive campaign ... then they are not really solidarity groups.” Barghouti pointed out, however: “We are not asking every solidarity group to do everything in the BDS call, just any act of effective solidarity which supports boycott of Israel or divestment from Israel.

“There are three options for the Palestinian people: we surrender, resist violently or resist non-violently. Surrender is out of the question. Palestinians will not surrender. For 60 years, we have proven that despite all massacres and acts of ethnic cleansing, and acts of genocide like what is being committed in Gaza right now, we have not given up our resistance to colonial oppression, to Zionism. So that’s out of the question.

“So we are left with two choices, not necessarily mutually exclusive: violent or non-violent resistance. So those who say that civil resistance such as in BDS doesn’t work, are they supporting armed resistance instead? If so, they ought to come forth and say so — that they support the Qassam [Brigades] and other forms of armed Palestinian resistance as the way that Palestinians should go, in their opinion. If not, and they don’t support the civil resistance either, then they are telling us to surrender, which puts them in the camp of the enemy, not friends, unfortunately.”

The campaign for BDS against Israel, Barghouti said, needs to be seen both as part of progressive social movement across the world, and as part of the struggle by indigenous peoples for freedom and justice. “Indigenous activists should be our closest allies everywhere. As an indigenous population who suffered ethnic cleansings, we do see them as our natural allies, but also every progressive social movement should see the BDS movement as part of their agenda. We are part of the social movement across the world struggling for peace, democracy, justice, human rights and equality for all humans.”

[For more information on the global BDS movement visit its new website,]