War on Want special report: Bringing the Occupation home


The last year has seen a huge shift in popular support for the global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel. Yasmin Khan from War on Want explores what this campaign means and why it could be the most powerful strategy yet to bring peace and justice to the Middle East.


The Wall - Gaza Side

On 26 June 1959 a group of South African exiles and their British supporters met at Holborn House in London to discuss the launch of a consumer boycott campaign against South African goods. This meeting was the start of a dynamic, effective and hugely popular campaign, which eventually became known as the Anti-Apartheid movement. At its height in the mid 1980's the movement attracted the support of millions of people committed to taking action to pressure the government of South Africa to end its discriminatory practices. The movement is widely credited with forcing governments around the world to end their support for the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

This September, just over 50 years after that historic meeting at Holborn House, the British trade union movement passed a landmark motion at their annual congress  supporting Palestinian civil society's call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law. The BDS call first came from Palestinian civil society in 2005, when it was launched with the support of over 170 Palestinian organisations. It has become increasingly common for Palestinian activists to refer to Israel as an apartheid state, deliberately invoking the former South African regime and the revulsion that people around the world felt towards it. There are certainly some striking parallels, including settler-only roads. Ronnie Kasrils, a prominent ANC member, has described the situation in Gaza and the West Bank as infinitely worse than apartheid.




The turning point in global public support for the boycott movement came earlier this year after the Israeli assault on Gaza. Citizens around the world watched their TV screens night after night witnessing horrific destruction and bloodshed while world leaders did nothing.

The attack on Gaza left over 1,400 people dead, at least one third of whom were children under the age of 15. During the attack weapons such as white phosphorous were used against civilians, the remnants of which have left a legacy of unusable buildings and land. Ambulances were targeted and health workers killed; vital infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and UN buildings were deliberately bombed. The recent UN Human Rights Council investigation into the attack, chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone, a prominent South African judge, found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Yet this is nothing new. Over the last 60 years Israel has continuously acted in defiance of UN resolutions, international law and global outrage. The continuing occupation, along with the illegal Separation Wall, has destroyed any semblance of a Palestinian economy. Today 70% of Palestinians live in crushing poverty and more than half rely on food aid to survive. For over two years Israel has imposed an illegal state of siege on Gaza, creating a devastating humanitarian crisis for the 1.5 million people trapped there. The blockade of Gaza has turned the world's most densely populated area of land into the world's most densely populated prison. John Dugard, the former UN special reporter for human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, described the situation in Gaza before the attack as the collective strangulation of a people.

Yet despite all of this, the international community has largely ignored international law with respect to Israel's crimes. Instead the British government amongst others has rewarded Israeli aggression with financial, military and diplomatic support.

The separation Wall from Israeli side

A strategic citizen response

The failure of government to act on Israel's war crimes has prompted people to embrace the call to support BDS. Part of what turned the world against South Africa so decisively was the boycott campaign, which targeted everyday activities, like shopping at supermarkets. As Naomi Klein argued in an article in The Nation, "The relevance of the South African model is that it proves that BDS tactics can be effective when weaker measures (protests, petitions, back-room lobbying) have failed."

Boycotts can be consumer, sporting, cultural and academic. In the case of Britain, the primary target of the boycott has been consumer goods produced in Israel, with a particular focus on fresh produce grown in Israel's illegal West Bank settlements. British supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's continue to sell settlement produce, despite doubts over the legal status of these products.

Divestment means targeting corporations which are complicit in the occupation and ensuring universities, pensions and other public funds are not invested in such companies. Targets have included Caterpillar, whose bulldozers have been involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes, and Veolia, which has many waste contracts with local councils and universities in the UK and is also involved in building a tramway linking Jerusalem to illegal Israeli settlements.

Sanctions are also an essential part of demonstrating disapproval for a country's actions. War on Want is running a campaign to get the UK government to impose a two-way arms embargo with Israel and suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which gives Israel preferential trade access to European markets.

The motion that was passed by the British TUC, which represents 6.5 million workers, comes in a year when many groups from all over the world have signed up to the campaign. In the UK local councils such as Birmingham and Oxford passed boycott motions and many of the 28 UK university occupations that took place earlier this year had BDS calls in their demands.  The Church of England divested £2.2 million from Caterpillar in February. That same month Hampshire College in Massachusetts became the first American university to implement a divestment policy, which has excluded from its investment portfolio over 200 companies investing in Israel. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which has 600,000 members, is in the process of organising a boycott of Israeli goods. In Norway, the government's pension fund divested from Israel arms company Elbit and in South African dockworkers affiliated with SATAWU and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) refused to unload a ship containing Israeli goods. This was particularly symbolic given that the first significant action of the Anti-Apartheid movement was taken by Danish dock workers, who in 1963 refused to offload ships carrying South African products.

Bringing the occupation home

Anyone concerned with poverty, human rights, injustice, racism or the arms trade needs to be concerned about justice for Palestinians. BDS offers strategic and effective mechanisms for individuals and groups to take action against the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Most significantly, BDS is already working. In March, the Israeli Manufacturers Association reported that of the 90 Israeli exporters it had interviewed 21% experienced a drop in demand due to boycotts, mostly from the UK and Scandinavian countries. On a recent trip to Israel, I heard from Israeli BDS supporters that Israeli businesses were now worried about the impact of the boycott on their profits and were raising their concerns with the Israeli government.

The Anti-Apartheid movement against South Africa stands as a clear example of how people in the global North can act in solidarity with people facing oppression and injustice in the global South. Palestinians have suffered under the Israeli repression for 61 years, during which time governments all over the world have allowed Israel to act with impunity. It is time for this to change. The BDS movement could be just the thing to finally bring justice to Palestine.

Yasmin Khan is the Senior Justice Campaigner at War on Want a UK-based charity that fights global poverty and promotes human rights.

War on Want's Palestine campaign www.waronwant.org/palestine
Global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign www.bdsmovement.net

Leave a Comment