Isolate Israel: a campaign whose time has come

By Kathy Newnam

The true face of Israel was exposed to millions of people throughout the world by the beginning of the Israeli attack on Gaza 0n December 27. The decades-long solidarity movement with Palestine mushroomed overnight, and throughout the three weeks of bombardment of Gaza, the world witnessed some of the largest demonstrations ever in support of Palestine. Through this outpouring of support for Palestine, the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign has given political focus to the movement and begun to galvanise people into ongoing action.

On December 27, the Palestinian BDS national committee released a statement calling on the movement internationally to “join and intensify the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel to end its impunity and to hold it accountable for its persistent violation of international law and Palestinian rights. Without sustained, effective pressure by people of conscience the world over, Israel will continue with its gradual, rolling acts of genocide against the Palestinians, burying any prospects for a just peace under the blood and rubble of Gaza, Nablus and Jerusalem.”

The BDS campaign was launched in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian organisations. It draws on the experience of the movement against South African apartheid, which brought about the international isolation of the apartheid regime and forced Western governments to apply sanctions on South Africa. This campaign provided tremendous material and moral support to the resistance movement, contributing to the eventual downfall of apartheid. The call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions on South Africa was initiated in 1958 and gathered momentum after the 1960 massacre in Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, where apartheid police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration, killing 69 people and injuring hundreds more in two days of attacks.

In an article for the Electronic Intifada on January 22, political commentator and activist Haidar Eid, a teacher of English literature in Gaza, wrote: “Gaza 2009, like Sharpeville 1960, cannot be ignored: it demands a response from all who believe in a common humanity. Now is the time to boycott the apartheid Israeli state, to divest and to impose sanctions against it. This is the only way to ensure the creation of a secular, democratic state for all in historic Palestine.”

Just days after the bombing campaign began, the British telecommunications company FreedomCall cancelled its contract with Israel’s MobileMax with an email stating, “As a result of the Israeli government action in the last few days we will no longer be in a position to consider doing business with yourself or any other Israeli company”. The CEO of FreedomCall told the Nation magazine that the decision was purely commercial because it could not afford to lose any customers.

In Sweden on January 21, Veolia, which is building an Israeli settler-only railway line in the occupied West Bank, lost a 3.5 billion euro contract for the Stockholm subway. It has held the contract for 10 years and had been the focus of protest and media attention.

The campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel has also gathered momentum, including in the US, where the campaign was launched on January 22, the campaign call receiving more than 70 endorsements within two days. The call argues that in the face of Israel’s continuing atrocities, “Israeli academic institutions and most Israeli academics have by their silence been complicit with these attacks”.

There have been student occupations across Britain, beginning at the School of Oriental and African Studies on January 14. A number of the occupations have had partial victories, universities agreeing to demands such as offering scholarships to Palestinian students and fundraising for Gaza relief.

The BDS campaign has also received support from the trade union movement. On January 14, the NZ Council of Trade Unions endorsed the BDS campaign and called for the NZ government to take action including:

  • Revoking the credentials of the Israeli ambassador to New Zealand.
  • Cutting contacts with Israeli military and intelligence officials outside of UN-sponsored peacekeeping or observer liaison.
  • Ensuring that New Zealand does not import goods manufactured, in whole or in part, in the Occupied Territories.
  • Ensuring that the New Zealand government does not make use of Israeli products or services.
  • Taking steps to ensure that New Zealand-sourced goods or services are not used by Israel to further its occupation of Palestinian lands.
  • Ending the working holiday scheme for young Israelis.
  • Attending meetings specific to the rights of the Palestinian people, and advocate for those rights within international organisations.

In Norway, six of the largest national trade unions have endorsed a call for the withdrawal of all state investment in Israel. This includes the Union of Trade and Office Workers, the largest union in Norway, which has called on its members to campaign to have Israeli products removed from stores. On January 8, the Norwegian Locomotive Union and the Oslo Tram Workers Union coordinated a two-minute stoppage of trains across Norway and trams in the capital in protest against the invasion of Gaza.

In Australia, the WA branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) adopted a resolution on January 27 to participate in the BDS campaign and called on the ACTU and Unions WA to support the campaign. The resolution also called on the upcoming WA conference of the MUA to “adopt a position of boycotting of all Israeli-registered vessels, and all vessels known to be carrying either goods destined for Israel or goods sourced from Israel”.

Palestine solidarity groups around the country have begun making plans for the BDS campaign. Possible targets under discussion include Veolia (which operates transport systems under the name of Connex in Victoria, NSW and WA); Starbucks, whose CEO, Howard Schultz, is a long-time supporter of Zionist Israel; and other corporations that profit from the occupation.

The Rudd government’s steadfast support of Israel, which has been visible throughout the attack on Gaza, will also be a target of this campaign. According to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) figures, imports from Israel in the 2007-08 financial year totalled $685 million (pearls and gems, fertilisers, telecommunication equipment and refined petroleum) and exports to Israel totalled $254 million (coal, live animals, pearls and gems, flat-rolled alloy steel). DFAT notes that this figure for total exports includes $60 million of “confidential items”. According to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce website, 15 of the top 25 companies in Australia are currently among its members or sponsors.

Educating, organising and mobilising broad support for Palestine through the BDS campaign can make dealing with Israel a liability, not only for corporations but for the government. Building a movement that can force the government to impose sanctions on Israel and break off all political, economic, cultural, academic, diplomatic and military ties is what the campaign must be politically focused on. While it will take much hard work to build a movement with the strength to achieve this goal, the campaign is not starting from scratch; it has many years of education and experience to draw upon.

It is not enough to respond to each new atrocity — and as long as the Zionist state exists, there will be atrocities. We have to build a long-term campaign that can involve all those who have had their eyes opened to Israel’s brutality by the Gaza massacre.

French novelist Victor Hugo wrote, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come”, and at 11:30 a.m. on December 27, 2008, when the world witnessed Israel bombing Gaza as children walked home from school, the BDS was an idea whose time had well and truly come.