By Asa Winstanley
The global boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s apartheid system in Palestine has achieved many victories since it was launched by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society in 2005. BDS victories seem to have flowed thick and fast in recent times, particularly since Israel’s vicious 2008-2009 assault on the civilian population of Gaza. A small sample: in September 2009 Norway’s pension fund divested from Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms systems company. In May of this year, hip-hop pioneer Gil Scott-Heron cancelled a prospective Tel Aviv gig after pressure to boycott from fans in London who also happened to be pro-Palestine BDS activists.
In what may yet turn out to be the biggest long-term BDS victory in Britain, the TUC voted in September to pass a motion calling for a boycott of goods from Israeli colonies in the West Bank. Although the initial motion put forward by the Fire Brigades Union called for a general boycott of Israeli goods, a General Council statement also passed at the September congress altered this to restrict the TUC campaign to settlement goods.
Despite this dilution, the motion was a clear sign of historical sea change in the British trade union movement – large parts of which tended to support Israel before 1967 because of their illusions about Zionist “socialism” (a “socialism” that happened to exclude Arabs). By now it is clear that the union grassroots overwhelmingly supports the BDS movement.
Since then, the TUC’s implementation of the motion has been limited to a press release and two new leaflets issued in April with the slogan “Don’t buy settlement goods”. This may well represent little more than a bone thrown from the TUC bureaucracy and leadership to the grassroots. However, it does mean that BDS activists can now draw on the mainstream credibility of the TUC.
BDS activists in the UK are fast gaining a global reputation for effective organising. In January of last year, students at dozens of university campuses occupied classrooms and lecture theatres in solidarity with the Palestinian people. The movement started at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and spread across the whole country. The demands varied, but often included aspects of BDS, especially calls for universities to divest from arms companies doing business with Israel. Most of the occupations managed to achieve at least some of their aims. In Cardiff, among the results was divestment from BAe Systems and the arms division of General Electric.
But possibly the biggest achievements of this movement were long-term educational ones. Many of the students involved in the 2009 wave of occupations have subsequently thrown themselves into BDS activism. London students have been at the forefront of such campaigns as the fortnightly Covent Garden pickets of Ahava, an Israeli cosmetics company based in the West Bank colony of Mitzpe Shalem.
SOAS has a reputation as a world centre of pro-Palestine activism. A conference organised by its Palestine Society in February was a veritable Who’s Who of the anti-Zionist left. Renowned historian Ilan Pappe prefaced his talk with a light-hearted remark about the average ages of attendees at the conference: “I feared I was going to an old people’s home to drink tea with the veterans of the communist revolution… [but it] looks a very even distribution of ages. [This is] a very good sign for the future”.
Also in February, an Israeli think tank called the Reut Institute issued a series of publications targeted at the BDS movement. Reut dubbed the movement “the delegitmisation network”, and describes it at one of the two primary forces behind the “increasingly harsh criticism around the world” that “Israel has been subjected to” for the past few years – the second being what they call “the Resistance Network” of Hizballah, Hamas and Iran.
Putting aside the childish inference that the BDS movement is part of some dastardly terrorist plot, the Reut Insitute’s analysis was quite realistic (although of course limited to option of how best to defend Israel’s actions with no suggestion that the actions themselves could ever be immoral). Reut identified London as one of the global “hubs of delegitimisation” against Israel. This is a good sign that BDS activists in the UK are doing something right—as is the almost constant hysteria in the Israeli press over even the most mild BDS achievement.
Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS campaign, said in a Democracy Now! debate in March that “BDS is not a one size that fits all. It’s context-sensitive. In every situation, we target companies that are complicit in Israel’s apartheid and occupation that we can win our battle against.” This is probably the key to the movement’s successes so far: the BDS movement is a broad church, with room for different focuses and tactics. Those uncomfortable with the idea of boycotting “Israel proper” (aka pre-1967 Israel), such as Israeli group Gush Shalom, are free to focus on the boycott of settlement goods instead.
Diverse politics within broad movements are to be expected. The BNC platform itself is broad, and does not take any position on specific political plans to resolve the conflict (rendering the one-state vs. two-state debate irrelevant in this context). Considering the current internal division in the Palestinian body politic, such a broad coalition of civil society could not have otherwise reached the consensus on BDS that it has. Instead, the BNC’s 2005 United Call document took a rights-based approach, agreeing on: an end to the occupation, full rights for Palestinian citizens of Israeli, and protecting the refugees’ right to return as per UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
Britain is gaining a global reputation for BDS action, perhaps because of the more high-profile protests, such as the recent one in Manchester against a speech by the Israeli deputy ambassador (there is an excellent video online of the disruptions of her speech, edited in with students explaining their protest).
Only one of many such disruptions on campuses around the world, the Manchester University protest seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Hebrew tabloid Maariv recently reported that the Israeli foreign ministry is considering scrapping such talks because they are becoming “ineffective in terms of PR” as the headlines are always about the protesters “and not the message that the lecturer wanted to convey”.
Despite such headlines, the BDS campaign is still very much in it’s early stages. In another reminder that European governments are still largely sympathetic to Israel, the country was last week admitted to the OECD, despite the objections of the BDS National Committee (BNC—the umbrella group of civil society organizations in Palestine that initiated the BDS movement in 2005). Many activists are now speculating that some of the victories won in Britain—such as Defra advice on correctly labeling settlement goods—are now in danger of being reversed by the new Tory-led government.
Policy makers in Europe will not take even minimal action against Israeli apartheid unless pressured to do so by organized popular opinion. The BDS movement has many challenges ahead of it, but there are also many victories to be proud of. These will continue as long as activists stay in it for the long haul.
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist who has lived in and reported from occupied Ramallah, working for the Palestine Times and the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre. His website is www.winstanleys.org.